Musings in the heat

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Even the shadows look hot and evil.

The heat is oppressive, especially for Wisconsin. When you think of Wisconsin, you’re probably thinking of a great white blanket, of cross-country skiing and mittens. If you’re lucky and you’ve been to northern Wisconsin in a regular summer, you’re thinking of lake cabins and canoeing and blackberries for miles.

None of that is true this year. This summer, the heat is oppressive. It’s thick and syrupy and we are all beaten down by it, stuck under the big cracked blue-white bowl of the sky. It rains, it pours, it’s supposed to break, but each time we think we’re getting a few days of relief we barely catch a breath before we’re thrown back into the swamp.

I’ve heard a lot of things from people, and said some too: “If I’d have wanted to live in Florida, I’d have moved there,” “I guess Canada really does look better every day.” “Hell has nothing on Wisconsin.”

OK, maybe not that last one.

If the rain is unreasonable, at least it really is raining. Seven years ago, the year the newspaper says was last this hot, it also didn’t rain for over forty days. Asphalt melted. Guard rails melted. Squirrels dug holes and lay in holes panting and crawled along the ground like twitchy horror-house dolls. You didn’t have to swim in soup, but you couldn’t breathe for dryness.

Wisconsin has a terrifying history with hot, dry weather. In October, 1871, the same day as Mrs. O’Leary’s cow did or did not start the great Chicago fire, the Green Bay area went up in flames. It’s called the Peshtigo fire.

I’ve read a lot of stories and articles about it, because I love a good disaster, especially ones where I was not involved. The gist of the story is that some railroad workers accidentally started a fire (unless it was a spooky comet! Or Aliens!) that combined with a prolonged drought and 50mph winds to burn hundreds of acres of northeastern Wisconsin. And the town of Peshtigo, which had 100 mph winds that whipped up a 3-mile-wide swirling firestorm 1000 feet high, like a stationary fire tornado that ate the town. Most people who survived did it by standing in the Peshtigo river that runs through town, but a lot of the people who went in the river died of hypothermia. 1500 people died. The town has never completely recovered: It was once in the top 10 most populous cities in Wisconsin, and now the entirety of Marinette county has fewer than 42,000 people.

That summer, seven years ago, that was hotter than Mercury and drier than lint, we read a lot about the Peshtigo fire in my house. We went over 40 days without rain in July and August, like some kind of backward Noah’s flood. We watered the garden by the house morning and evening; we gave up on the community garden plots entirely, plowed them under and planted buckwheat and watched it fail to sprout. Walking outside was like stepping into the oven; we lived in an upstairs apartment without air conditioning at the beginning of that summer, and being in there was worse, breathtakingly hot and stuffy. I worked at least one extra shift at my terribly insurance claims call center job just because I was hot. I sent my son to stay with family in the country.

We bought a house with central air by the end of the summer. We moved in that heat. We danced in our postage-stamp yard in torrential rains when the weather finally broke, and we were grateful there were no fires.

So I’ll take it, the steaming hot weather and the rain. I don’t have to like it, but I’ll take it all the same.

I still write sometimes, and I have a buttload of already-written stuff. So there you go.

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