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David Spates
"Therefore I Am"

Published July 22, 2003

You don't know what you've got until it's gone

Willis Carrier should be canonized. Get Vatican City on the line. We need to get going on the paperwork.

Well, OK. Perhaps St. Carrier would be going overboard -- a tad. At the very least, a university somewhere, perhaps in the Northeast, should name a football stadium after him, perhaps an indoor stadium. He deserves it. His contribution to humanity's betterment is immense, and his contribution to my sanity is immeasurable.

You see, Willis invented air conditioning in 1902, and the world hasn't been the same since. Its first use was in a printing plant, where fluctuations in heat and humidity caused the printing paper to expand and contract, which in turn caused the colors to be misaligned.

Fast-forward 100 years and you'd be hard-pressed to find a building in this country that doesn't have this chilling godsend.

Actually, I can name at least one building that doesn't (or at least didn't for a while) have air conditioning -- my house. My cars invariably break down on long interstate trips, my tie gets dipped in blue cheese dressing at wedding receptions, and my air conditioning conks out in the middle of July. That's life; that's what all the people say.

To use the Tennessee vernacular, "it up and died" last week. It's fixed now, but that was a long, long two days. Outside, the temperature was hovering around the 94-degree mark, with the humidity kicking the heat index to a robust 97 or thereabouts. With nary a breeze or even a slight zephyr to blow through our open windows, the indoor temperatures were inching past 85 during the day and dipping down to a downright frosty 79 in the middle of the night. Add a couple of sweaty, cranky, diaper-wearing children to the equation, and you've got the makings for a truly memorable experience.

My favorite part was trying to bottle-feed my 6-month-old son to sleep. He and I settled into the rocking chair the Chronicle folks gave us and made our attempt at a crib landing.

Drip ...

Drip ...

Drip ...

Drip ...

It's darn near impossible to fall asleep when someone's sweat is dripping on you. If you don't believe me, ask my son. He can't speak, but he knows. Even with the ceiling fan going so fast that we needed a tail rotor to help control it, I was perspiring so profusely that beads of sweat were literally rolling off my nose and chin and splashing down on my son's forehead as he took his bottle.

That was a trying night. He finally fell asleep from sheer exhaustion, despite the sweat - his and mine.

Last night, with the newly installed air conditioning components running at peak efficiency, getting him down for the night was a piece of cake. Make that ice cream cake.

Thank you, Willis. I owe you large.

I can't imagine life in pre-Willis Carrier days. I grew up in a time when almost everywhere I went had air conditioning. It was as common a building feature as doors and windows. I didn't even think about it.

Even if the temperature was 105 outside, I expected I'd still be comfortable that day. That constant contentment has spoiled us Americans, though. We walk from our air-conditioned homes to our air-conditioned cars and drive to other air-conditioned dwellings.

Then, when the technology fails us, we've nothing to do but scramble to cope with our environment.

What was once a "luxury" has turned into a "necessity." It's interesting how that happens. When the least little bit of sweat collects on our brow, we rush to the thermostat to crank up the kilowatt hours. But who can blame us? No one likes being dripped on while he's eating.

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David Spates is a Knoxville resident and Crossville Chronicle contributor whose column is published each Tuesday. He can be reached at

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