Down in these parts of Georgia we have gone from preheat to broil. This is the kind of heat that kills air conditioning units. It kills car batteries. It over-heats truck radiators. It’ll soak your drawers by 10 o’clock in the morning without batting an eye.
In fact, the other morning at work the conversation turned to wet drawers. We’re all standing around the back of one of our trucks. Elbows up on the edge of the bed. One guy with his left foot propped up on the bumper. Another one standing back a little with his feet spread and arms crossed. It was 7am and you could feel the air crawling below your beltline.
“Boy, yesterday it was hot,” one guy says. “I couldn’t keep my drawers from twisting up amongst my more delicate areas.” He chose a more colorful way to say it, but that’s what he meant.
“I know what you mean,” another fella chimes in. “Darn near drove me crazy.”
“Yep. When I got home, I took mine off and wrung out enough water to float a duck.”
Somebody compared the uncomfortable nature of our mutual experience to that of wearing a thong that doesn’t fit right.
I said, “I wouldn’t know about that.”
The comedian in the group said, “Don’t mess with the old man. Old guys might not be wearing any drawers at all in this heat.”
Which is not true. I swear.
Anyway, we’ve not had this kind of heat in June for so long I can’t remember the last time. It might have been the summer of 1977. I was living in Athens and working at the local chicken plant. One of the men in the church where I was doing some part-time youth ministry that summer got me the job.
“It’s not pleasant work,” he said, “but you’ll make some money for school in the fall.” Which was exactly what I needed.
A tour of the plant was part of the orientation. They wanted every employee to have some idea of the whole process, from live chicken to boxed chicken parts headed to the Piccadilly Cafeteria. We saw women who were very talented with knives slitting throats and cutting off heads. We stood and watched chicken guts being vacuumed out and sent through clear plastic tubes to the gut truck. These slop-filled trucks, we were told, were bound for other processing plants where dog, and cat, and fish foods were made.
By far the worst job we saw that day was the one done by the guys in what was called the hanging shed. It was hotter than blue blazes out there. You’ve seen a truck load of chicken crates, right? These trucks pull into the holding yard under a covered roof with huge fans blowing air through the crates to keep the chickens from suffocating in the stale hot air. When a truck pulls down to the hanging shed, the crates are unloaded, and the guys pull chickens from each crate by hand.
This is not exactly like working at Baskin Robins. These guys are dressed in thick leather aprons with arm-length leather gloves. They wear leather face masks with goggles. They take live chickens and hang them upside down by the ankle on hooks moved by conveyer into the plant. They are pecked at. They get clawed. They get dowsed with large amounts of chicken excrements. And they do this in conditions hotter than the hinges on the gates of Hell itself.
Which brings me back to how hot it is. There was one day when one of the supervisors came through the plant and told us we were shutting down. I think it was just after lunch. I was working at the end of the line boxing cut up chicken parts. Fresh thighs, legs and breasts. From my station I could see one department at a time closing down. Workers taking off their gloves. Putting away their earplugs. Headed for the time clock.
The reason? It was 104° outside. We had several days in a row of temperatures in the neighborhood of what it takes to fry an egg on the hood of a Buick. The chickens were dying in the holding shed. The fans couldn’t keep them alive in this heat. Most of that week we worked until noon and had to shut down.
This heat wave we’re having now reminds me of that summer.
I checked my records at the farm from last year this time. In all of June we had two days that hit 90, maybe 91. Most days were in the mid-eighties. A few in the 70s. A number of mornings were in the upper 50s and lower 60s. Nothing even close to the last ten days and the next ten days ahead of us.
I noticed the triple digits have been removed from the forecast now. We were supposed to hit 101° this week for a couple days. Now, it’s only going to be 98°. The only thing saving us from sitting naked out in the yard under the sprinkler is that the humidity has fallen off a bit. That and the fear of embarrassment as the neighbors come walking by in the evening.
This heat also reminds me of what it was like baling hay as a young teenager. Dad and my cousin Billy would cut hay on both farms and work together getting hay to the barns. There were two men who always came and helped us. Orange Brooks and Tootie. I never knew Tootie’s last name. They worked with Dad at the foundry, and on Saturdays in the summer would come help us get up hay.
My job was to drive the truck through the field. We had a 1958 International. The light blue paint was chalky and faded. The steering wheel seemed to me to be as big as the helm on a schooner. I’d keep the truck moving at a slow pace down the rows of bales. Orange and Tootie would fill the bed of the truck. At the end, I would get up on top and help stack the last few bales, well above the cab of the truck.
What I remember most is that Orange and Tootie both wore long-sleeved thermal undershirts and long-sleeved cotton shirts over the top. I learned pretty young about wearing long sleeves when we were putting up hay. A lot less scratches and a lot less itching going on latter that night. But I just couldn’t believe the thermal shirts.
Tootie told me, “Keeps a man cool in this kind-a-heat. You sweat it up good, and just a little bit of breeze is all it takes to keep it so a man can work and not fall out.” His straw hat with the wide brim was tilted back on his head. “You don’t want to see old Tootie fall out does ya?”
I did send one of my guys home from the tree farm last week at around 11 in the morning. He got lightheaded in this heat.
Y’all be careful out there. I don’t want to see one of you fall out.