Copyright © 2013 by Ralph F. Couey
After a long and coolish spring, summer has finally arrived here in Northern Virginia. For the next week or so, temperatures will soar into the mid- to upper-90s with humidity levels for which the word "oppressive" seems utterly inadequate. There's no real surprise here, just a grim sense that the inevitable has finally arrived.
I'm no stranger to this kind of weather. After all, I grew up in Missouri where this kind of weather is an every day occurrence between the last week in May and the second week in September. I will admit, however, that seven years spent in the mountains of western Pennsylvania (four, and only four, 90-degree days in that span) has spoiled me. And last summer around here, as it was for most of the country, was a scorcher. So while I've started to acclimate again, I still don't have to like it.
It's not so bad if you are dressed properly and you have a day when you won't have to be anyplace where a sweaty body is not completely out of place. However, if you have a job where a coat and tie is still the de rigueur uniform of the day, then weather of this type is a confounded nuisance. It's terribly difficult to project that cool professional appearance if you look (and feel) like a wet malodorous dishrag.
Humidity is a natural consequence of the season, except in the desert. Shifting weather patterns keep the cool Arctic air locked up far to the north while opening the door to the moisture-laden air mass from the Caribbean. It is helped along by the contribution of plants and trees which emit not only oxygen but large amounts of water vapor.
I've always disliked this kind of weather, but having dropped 178 pounds in the last five or so years, I can tolerate it much better than before. I do make adjustments. Instead of running five miles per day, I power walk 3 to 4 miles, while wearing a camelback reservoir and sunscreen. Why not exercise inside you ask? Because, I reply, I hate treadmills even more that humidity.
Still, there are aspects of this season to which I've come to a point of reconciliation.
Riding a motorcycle in these conditions adds to the already-abundant hazards on the road. During the day, there is the risk of becoming overheated and dehydrated. This is especially true if the rider is caught in a traffic jam where sitting in place for an extended period of time exposes one to not only the discomforts of the atmosphere, but the reflected heat from the pavement and the waves of thermal energy emanating from the cars and trucks around the bike. At night, the sun is gone, but the soupy atmosphere retains much of the heat of the day. In addition, critters are very active, so the odds of striking a deer, even in the city, are very high.
Still, I carry with me from childhood memories of summer nights as the long purple of twilight faded into the darkness of night. My friends and I were out and about playing games or just riding our bicycles until the sounds of our mothers' voices called us inside. The air was warm, yet velvety on the skin. Around the streetlights, dozens of flying insects orbited the halo of their glow, while the cicadas sang their raspy songs in the oaks. After a sweltering day, it was a period of lively fun writing the denouement of that chapter in the endless book of summer.
That feeling was always there even when we weren't at home. Sunday nights racing around the parking lot after being released from the confinement of church. Other nights at Little League games, or going into the Kansas City to sit in old Municipal Stadium watching the hapless A's lose another one. It's ironic that a season that has historically caused me so much discomfort is nevertheless the reservoir of a wealth of memories.
These days, I am occupied with a day job that, while interesting and full of challenge, is stressful. There are times when I become so submerged in those duties that I lost track of everything else. It is at the end of my watch that I finally have time to unwind and reconnect. Leaving the air conditioned building around midnight, I am struck by that familiar wall of humid air which hovers just outside those heavy glass doors. It's always a bit of a shock, and takes a few deep breaths to get comfortable. Going to my motorcycle, I pack up my gym bag and dirty dishes, then climb aboard, fire up the engine and head home. It's always a relief to be moving. The air, though warm and muggy, feels somewhat cooler in motion. Navigating the side streets on my way to the Interstate, I see that each streetlamp has a bit of a halo, a combination of insects and muggy air. In the winter, those lights are hard crystalline points of light. The streets, while never completely empty (this is the DC region after all) are far less trafficked than during the day. I sample the air, my nose picking out particular smells such as still-hot asphalt, the sour smell of a dead critter somewhere in the dense street-side foliage, and the momentary, yet delightful whiff of flowers adding their contribution to the night air. Once on the highway, those insects seek out the solitary beacon of the bike's headlamp only to smash themselves on the windscreen. As the city thins out and the forest increases, I grow more alert, scanning the roadsides for the telltale glow of deer eyeballs. At times, I find myself alone on those roads, my only companion the silvery glow of the moon above.
Arriving home, I park the bike in the garage, then stroll down to the mailbox to retrieve the fruits of the Postal Service's efforts from that day. After picking up the collection of envelopes, magazines, and catalogs, I take a moment to stop, look around, and remember.
From the depths of my recollections, arises a memory fragment, a snippet of remembrance from long ago. For a moment, I find myself on another street on another humid summer night riding my bicycle in circles, doing what young boys do best: absolutely nothing. Echoing across the years, I hear the strident voice of my mother calling me, for at least the third time, to come inside. On this night, a half-century later, that moment has become real once again. I cannot help but murmur...
"Just a couple more minutes, Mom!"