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Latham: Texas summers back in the good old days

A remembrance of summers long past while pondering the botanical mystery of why grass, with all the fertile ground in the world, instead sends runners over barren concrete …

If there’s ever been anything but a hot summer in Texas I haven’t experienced it, which doesn’t mean we aren’t all surprised each year when the temperatures climb near 100 degrees.

For the record, the temperature shown by the thermometer doesn’t matter. If the calculated “heat index” says it feels like 115, then that’s what it is.

In days of yore, there was no such thing as air conditioning, at least not for my family or anyone we knew. The best we had were evaporative coolers, known as swamp coolers because the air they blew smelled something like primordial ooze.

The coolers did not help much more than a fan and they smelled, but almost everyone had one and you felt bad for those who had to do without. As the youngest kid, it fell to me to pour Pine Sol into the cooler’s water tank. This had to happen about once an hour to keep the smell at bay. Sort of.

Did I mention that the swamp coolers attracted wasps looking for a drink? Spiders, too, and other odd creatures. Each trip to the cooler was something like walking through the Amazon rain forest.

During the day, every kid in our neighborhood spent just about every waking hour outside because it was cooler than the house. Well, we were also outside because that’s where our parents demanded that we go.

My father didn’t exactly order me not to wear a shirt or shoes, but if he saw me in either he would ask me why I was wearing them. Almost all of my days were spent outside dressed in only a pair of shorts, probably purchased at Robert Hall or Spartan-Atlantic.

Along with the other neighborhood kids — who mostly wore shirts and shoes — we went everywhere our bicycles would take us. If we had found an old deck of cards with missing hearts or clubs, we would affix the cards on our bicycle spokes with clothespins. The sound was loud enough to annoy everyone on the block.

We could spend hours in the local five-and-dime, or the drugstore next door looking at the latest Superman comic books.

Over the years there has been an explosion in superheroes. We had the old guys — Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Captain America and a few others. We almost never bought anything, because we didn’t have money unless we had picked up some soda bottles to turn in for deposit money.

Fortunately, it didn’t take much money to buy a lot. A quarter could buy you enough candy to last all day long.

On Saturdays, our parents would sometimes give us a little money to go to the Gateway Theater in Fort Worth. I don’t remember how much it cost for a ticket, but that was always at least two movies plus cartoons. If you were lucky you might catch both a John Wayne and Tarzan movie in the same day.

That was some kind of action.

Our neighborhood was on a gravel road, which I hated because, as I said, I was never wearing shoes. The sharp rocks would dig into my feet. We all cheered when the city sent out notices that they were paving the street.

The happiness quickly went away when we found out that the hot summers caused tar bubbles in the street, which burned like fire when you stepped on them. This did not prevent us from intentionally stepping on the bubbles to pop them. The bottoms of our feet were covered in the stuff.

Then there was that time one of the guys said that we could chew that hot tar just like gum. None of us had gum but, heck, the tar was free.

I never tried the stuff but a friend did — once — for about 30 seconds. It was even worse than when we decided to try the tiny bit of beer left in a bottle someone had thrown out on the road.

Ah, those were the good old days.

— Phil Latham is editor emeritus of the News-Journal. His column appears Wednesday. Email

Today's Bible verse

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God”

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