An ode to humidity . . . and country girls
An “ode” is usually a heart-felt, inspired piece written about something that almost can’t be expressed in words. With the return of hot, sticky Missouri River weather, humidity is probably the last thing I’d “ode” about. But the interesting thing about writing is, with a little trickery, you can “ode” on just about anything—as long as the reader thinks you have something good to say about it. Having lived and worked for many years in the South, I know humidity, and interestingly enough, it seems there were always southern country girls connected with those steamy recollections. I can’t really ode about humidity, but I can praise country girls in the process by linking the two.
After all, sultry Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” opened with the line, “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty (read “hot”)Delta day.” She ode’d Billy Joe, but she blamed his antics on the summer heat, while he was putting that frog down her back at the Carroll County picture show. I’m just doing it in reverse without naming names. Humidity makes us all a little crazy, but thus far, I haven’t wanted to jump off the Tallahatchee or the Kit Bond Bridge.
I was a very early September baby. My mother tells me my dad was filling the silo with corn silage and it was 95 degrees. She’d only just come home from the hospital and even though there was always a breeze at the farm, it was a hot breeze in the age before air conditioning. Have you ever seen a newborn with those tiny red bumps on their face, the skin looking a little flushed? I’ve always heard it called infant acne. I’m not sure I ever had it, but I have a theory this is brought on by inescapable humidity. For those of us born in the heat, our little undeveloped eyeballs were trying to focus on something, anything, trying to make sense of this horrible new sensation, but being a little blind and unable to speak about Missouri’s version of Hades, we quite possibly developed symptoms like baby acne from environmental stress. That’s not a scientific fact, but it sounds reasonable doesn’t it?
My earliest vivid memory of Missouri humidity is checking salt blocks and replenishing cattle back-rubbers with a diesel fuel and insecticide mixture, with my father. The cattle were tail-swatting flies under the shade trees and dropping manure piles in the dust. The flies don’t like high humidity either and they take it out on anything that moves. The early summer grass was taller than my head, the fresh manure smell challenging, the biting flies maddening and the humidity was soaking my little cotton shirt. I needed some relief and I found it making trouble. I started chasing my older sister around with some of that fresh manure on a stick. She said I was making her get all sweaty. I retorted, “I thought boys sweated and girls perspired (something I’d heard my mom say).”
“Yeah, well we do that too,” she said, with the threat to tell mom about the incident.
My father was frowning, but it was probably over a calf that was developing pink eye. I think I was catching that too, such was the miserable experience. Little did I know, that as I grew older, I would start to associate the season less with heat-related afflictions and more with affairs of the heart—though that is an affliction in its own right.
A back seat hygrometer
My senior year in high school, a family moved to Mexico (Mo.) from Knoxville, Tenn. They had four daughters and I wound up dating one of them because she had a southern accent that I found irresistible. Normally, she had long straight hair, but in humid weather it really frizzed out in ways I had never seen on the opposite sex. We gigged frogs and she helped me run my trapline in winter. At that time, small-town kids had road parties or “throw downs” on weekends. A little beer drinking and a little harmless smootching in the back seat of a car rounded out the evening. But on a hot July evening, you could never really aspire to anything beyond the imagination, because the heat, humidity and occasional mosquito drove you to seek relief outside the car. By this time, my girlfriend looked like someone totally different by the end of the night. It was only later that I learned human hair strands were used to measure barometric pressure in instruments called hygrometers. I wondered about meteorological money-making opportunities with my southern friend.
Gulf Coast meltdown
My junior year at Mizzou found me headed South one night after playing with my band, on a long road trip to Pensacola, FL. I was riding shotgun in a friend’s souped up yellow Ford Mustang as we passed shiny-eyed creatures on the road and the loblolly pines whizzed by. It was like the Dukes of Hazzard. We were dating Stephens College girls and he was traveling on to Tallahassee where his girlfriend lived, after he dropped me off.
My girlfriend’s family came from money and we had never seen glass-sided modern houses on the bay that you might see in Architectural Digest magazine. He left me standing in the driveway, laughing and throttling his fuel injectors as he peeled out. Standing alone, in beautiful, but strange surroundings, my jeans clung to my thighs, soaked from Gulf Coast humidity. I clutched my guitar and a damp suitcase. My cowboy boots wanted to revert back into raw cowhide and sweat was starting to run down the back of my shirt.
I met her parents, who were remarkably down-to-earth and they led me into the cool enclave of their home, only to enter back out to a large patio overlooking Pensacola Bay. I was really tired and though a sun umbrella helped, I fairly melted into a chair. Her brother popped the top on a cold beer and her mom handed me a large peeled Gulf shrimp. “Welcome to the South!” she said with a big smile. Humidity? What humidity? It was only years later that a friend of mine from Alabama described coastal summer heat as “hotter than a June bride in a feather bed.”
About eleven years later, I wound up in Athens, Ga. where the University of Georgia is located. Unfortunately, now divorced, I put together a new band and once we became semi-successful, moved to Atlanta. But it was the Athens house parties I remember. Those were hot affairs because the older southern homes rented to students only had the occasional window unit. I was dating a Georgia Tech student from Ecuador (Guayaquil). She ate boiled peanuts and liked Hank Williams’ music. Though a city girl, that’s country enough in my book. While I fairly melted when June rolled around, the South’s humidity didn’t bother her—after all, she was from just below the equator and she wore a summer dress well. She graduated and moved on, and I was touring with the band. Though “Hot ‘Lanta” refers to the night life, the humidity was stifling, but not like I remembered on the Gulf. Our band played Club La Vela, in Panama City, FL., the largest outdoor club in the East. The humidity killed my bass strings, because we were playing outside and the monitor mix sounded like soup. Though we were well-received, I was glad when that gig was over. The humidity followed us north, but it was good to be back in air conditioned clubs where the girls were all fixin’ to go shoppin’ with their mammas.
At this point in life, you take the summer it as it comes. At my age, the world is no longer my oyster, though there are still adventures for the taking. I see a trip to South Carolina sometime in the future, as in the Sea Island area. I know the territory well, but in the meantime, I’ll have to take in this Missouri River humidity. It reminds me of cumulonimbus clouds and cows on the farm, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you like the cattle business, as I do. Relative humidity on any particular day is . . . well, relative. If I can stand here in oppressive humidity and wilt with dignity, if there is such a thing, it’s because I have lots of good memories associated with it. I hope you do too.