By Annette Hinkle
The TSA baggage scanner dude glanced up suspiciously from his screen as my husband, daughter and I made our way through security at JFK. Our bags were on the conveyor belt, and he obviously didn’t like what he saw.
When it came out the other side, the agent asked if this was my suitcase.
“Yes indeedy,” I confirmed, smiling a little too sweetly as if that would absolve me of any guilt. Why is it that even if you’ve done nothing wrong, you can’t help but think you have when a person of authority talks to you this way?
Personally, I blame Catholic school.
Then, with military-like precision, zippers were yanked, the suitcase flipped open and the TSA officer began poking around through some unmentionables in search of the offending objects.
I knew exactly what he was going for. A couple evil looking devices comprised of a series of blades, cross-bars and nearby, two packs of a dozen D-batteries each.
Of course, he quickly found them — though made of plastic, they had not eluded his eagle eyes.
“Oh, those are our fans,” I said breezily, hoping they wouldn’t be seized.
Yes, as weird as it might sound, we travel with our own box fans. They are light-weight, relatively packable and I sure as hell was not going anywhere without them — certainly not un-air conditioned Europe in August where testing ones survival instincts in hermetically sealed rooms is an endurance sport.
We had enough experience with that already, which is what led us to purchase the fans in the first place. Fortunately, after deeming our cool machines no threat to the other passengers, Mr. TSA let us go on our way, fans intact.
This was a few years ago, and our travel fans have visited several locales since where they have served us well. We have three of them — one for each member of the family — and they operate on electricity or batteries. Not only do they provide something resembling a breeze, they also discourage mosquitos while creating a bit of white noise to help us sleep through the night.
But the biggest benefit is their cooling effect, especially for me.
That’s because I’m a sweater, and I don’t mean the furry thing that you wear in winter to keep you warm. I mean that I’m the person you see dripping perspiration on the coldest day in January even when I’m not wearing a coat.
For better and mostly for worst, I run hot and always have. I recall one early March day when a kindly older gentleman on a city bus in Manhattan took one look at me and handed me a tissue.
“You get it from your mother,” he said.
I wasn’t sure whether I should thank him or punch him.
That was years ago, and between you and me, these days I’m running hotter than ever, and we’ll just leave it at that if you don’t mind.
Over the course of my life, when it comes to keeping cool (or not) I’ve come to realize that people tend to fall into one of two categories. The first type grew up sweltering through the summers without electrified air movement of any kind. The second type came of age in homes with major AC units where inside summer temperatures were never permitted to go above 68 degrees.
I grew up in the former, my husband in the latter.
For most of my youth, home was a big colonial house with large windows that were open all summer long. The only electrical cooling device was a box fan placed in the dining room window facing outward (the logic being it would draw out the hot air, though I still question that scientific premise). I remember getting a kick out of standing in front of that thing on hot summer days and talking into it, while my friends would be outside on the driveway where they would hear my voice cut up into staccato sounds by the whirling of the blades. This was Ohio and back then, that’s the sort of thing that passed for amusement.
Then, when I was 12, my parents and I moved to a brand new ranch house in a brand new subdivision in a brand new suburb. Though I was less than thrilled to leave the big old house behind, I was excited that at least now we had central AC. Until I realized my parents wouldn’t turn it on until it was hot enough to fry an egg on the street out front, or the meat thermometer in the drawer hit 160 — whichever came first. They were Depression-era children and were not keen to spend a dime on creature comforts if they didn’t have to.
So needless to say, the AC stayed off as I continued to sweat it out through puberty and on into my teenage years.
At the same time, some 620 miles away, Adam, my future husband, was busy growing up in northern New Jersey in a household that was continually chilled to morgue temperatures. Whereas our windows were rarely closed, his were rarely opened and, I suspect, they were hermetically sealed.
One January back in the early 1990s while visiting Adam’s mother in sunny, southern Florida (where she had moved after leaving Jersey), I slid open the window of our 2nd floor bedroom to enjoy the cool breezes and the sound of the crickets that were stirring outside.
That’s when the security system indicated an intruder had entered the building.
“Who opened a window?” his mother yelled up the stairs. “Close it! The air conditioner is on.”
Of course it is, I thought, leaning my head out the window to sniff the cool night air. It’s 60 degrees and beautiful out. We spent the rest of our visit going from air conditioned house to air conditioned car to air conditioned restaurants, malls and movies.
“The weather’s beautiful down here, isn’t it?” asked my mother-in-law as she gave us a driving tour of her new neighborhood, which had, until recently, been home to several hundred alligators.
“Who would know?” I thought, using my palm to clear the condensation from the car window so I could catch a glimpse of the coconut trees and Costcos as we crisscrossed Broward County in search of the latest and greatest early-bird special.
Now that my husband and I are well into adulthood, I have to admit, his family philosophy has won out and the AC situation in our own home leans heavily toward the morgue model. After years of random window units, we broke down a few years back and installed central AC (partially to eliminate the summer dampness that caused fuzzy green mold to grow on all our shoes). I hate to admit it, but I now appreciate a well-cooled home and these days, fall asleep not only with the thermostat set to 68 degrees, but also with a roaring fan that sounds like a 747 taking off which provides deafening white noise year around.
And that takes us back to the airport.
Just this past week, the Washington Post ran a story about several passengers who fell ill in 2013 after sitting on a stifling plane in Las Vegas as they waited to take off in blazing desert heat. Apparently, to save fuel, pilots sometimes turn off the air conditioning before the plane takes off. The story also noted that in June, a four-month-old baby boy on a United flight from Denver to El Paso over-heated and went limp while waiting in a hot cabin. He was evacuated by ambulance after the plane had sat for more than an hour on the tarmac.
His mother described the plane as an “oven with wings.”
It turns out that for years, the Association of Flight Attendants has been lobbying Congress to set a maximum cabin temperature of 80 degrees.
Frankly, that’s still too damn hot for me — which is why you can be sure TSA agents everywhere will continue to look at me with suspicion whenever I fly.