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Sunday, April 18, 2021

In Market: The long, hot summer of 1980

Remember when it was so hot two trees were fighting over a dog?

For those of us of a certain age, the summer of 1980 will be hard to beat, though the summer of 2011 eclipsed it when the temperature reached 100 degrees at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport for the 70th time that year, beating the 1980 record of 69 days.

Maybe it’s “back in the day” syndrome, but 1980 – when the catfish were already fried when you caught them – felt hotter for several reasons.

One is that, quite simply, air conditioning improved considerably in the 30-plus years from 1980 to 2011. My parent’s home still had window units in 1980 and those loud, often unreliable devices struggled to beat back the searing, relentless heat. The A/C units in automobiles were less efficient then, too. Compare the cooling power of the A/C in a 1980 Datsun 510 Sedan with the quiet comfort of today’s Toyota Corolla. Advantage 2018. It’s a vast – and far more comfortable – difference.

The heat wave of 1980 wasn’t limited to North Texas. It killed more than 1,250 people across the country, including at least 60 in Texas, according to the National Weather Service. Heat is not to be trifled with.

Heat also depends on what you’re doing. Now, I commute between my air-conditioned home in my air-conditioned car to my air-conditioned office. On June 25, I went to cover the “topping out” ceremony at the Dickies Arena – and, no, the air conditioning units weren’t yet installed. It was hot. Several men – me included – began the ceremony wearing sport coats or suit jackets, standard business attire. That didn’t last long for most of us. But barring other job-related issues, I’m inside unless I’m taking an early morning or late evening walk with the dog.

In 1980? I was busy trying to earn enough money to afford my plans for an education at the University of Maryland in College Park. As a result, I had two jobs and several on the side. All involved something outdoors.

TCU hired me to clean out several of their dormitories, carrying out trash and old mattresses. It was hot, grimy work in those days before some genius invented bottled water. Fortunately, my partner in this sweat-soaked venture was a coach during the school year, so he kept us hydrated. Part of my pay for this work was a place to live on campus, but – while it had lights and electricity – there was no air conditioning. Normally that might not be a problem, but in the summer of 1980, even the low temperatures were high.

Sleep was a problem, too. My other job was as a lifeguard at a water park. This was long before massive corporate entities like Wet ‘n’ Wild. This was a small family owned water park with two twisting water slides and a small pool for the young’uns. It was located at Loop 820 and Hemphill Street. As hot as it was, we were busy, busy, busy.

I worked there in the evenings and a few nights a week I was the night watchman, too. My idea was to catch a few Zs during my night watchman duty, go home about 5 a.m., snag a few hours at my un-air conditioned dorm room and then start tossing out old mattresses.

Unfortunately, it was so hot, sleeping anywhere was near impossible. While I never ran into any danger as a night watchman, hanging out from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. anywhere can be a bit creepy. Things happen at night. I would sit at this picnic table near the waterslides watching and listening as the minutes crawled by on those hot summer nights.

One night I heard noises from the dumpster. I assumed it was a rat, but the sound got pretty loud. A raccoon? It got even louder. What the hell? Are there bears in Fort Worth? I finally got up the nerve to approach the dumpster. Just as I got near the sound stopped. Maybe I’d scared “it” away. As I turned back to return to my picnic table office, I heard someone yelling, “Hey there!” There was a man in the dumpster picking up aluminum cans. He was about to have to pick me up off the ground. He had a big toothless smile and was as friendly as a long lost friend. He came by about once a week and always asked how I was doing. Much better, now that I knew what was banging around in the dumpster.

It would get so hot at night that I would get one of the rubber mattresses and get in the pool, float around, stare up at the stars and eventually fall sleep. That was as cool as it got, though rolling over in your sleep was quite a surprise.

This summer? So far I haven’t seen two trees fighting over a dog – yet.

Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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