By Maria Saporta
When the temperature in Atlanta hit 106 degrees on June 30— an all-time record high, it brought me back in time to one of the hottest weekends of my life.
It was the weekend of July 13, 1980 in Macon, Ga. I was starting out my reporting career at the Macon Telegraph (which now pretentiously calls itself “The Telegraph”) and living on Orange Street in a beautiful historic three-story apartment building — with no air conditioning.
Plus, the old Datsun that I drove in those days (I called it Dash to give it more flare than it deserved) was the bare bones model — also with no air-conditioning.
Yes, Atlanta does get hot. But Macon — which sits right on the fall line — gets even hotter.
In fact, it got so hot during that heat wave — temperatures had reached a record 108 degrees — that eight people died during that sweltering weekend in 1980. Most of the people who died were people living in public housing — also with no air-conditioning.
But unlike my situation, those tenants had locked their windows shut to keep out intruders — turning their units into ovens.
Having grown up in Atlanta, I’m no stranger to hot summers. But the summer of 1980 was so hot that it even caught me by surprise.
A friend of mine was visiting from out of town, and we spent the weekend going from the Waffle House to the Krystal to any other air-conditioned restaurant, ordering something to drink or a snack just so we could enjoy the cool air.
Finally, we went back to the apartment, and my friend started feeling really sick. I took him to the Medical Center of Central Georgia, where we found out he had suffered a heat stroke. Fortunately, the hospital was air-conditioned, and we made sure to stay fully hydrated for the rest of the weekend.
As fate would have it, I returned to Macon this past Sunday. My son had to move out of his apartment in Milledgeville to come back to Atlanta.
We had rented a U-Haul truck in Milledgeville (and since there’s no inter-city bus service to Milledgeville — much to my surprise), I took Greyhound down to Macon where David came to pick me up. Stepping outside of the Greyhound bus station, I saw the same Waffle House and Krystal where I had found respite from the heat 32 years ago.
For the record, Macon’s high this past weekend was 108 — matching the record set in 1980.
The passage of time does place bookends on our lives. For me, the bookends brought up several different emotions.
First, thank God for air-conditioning. We really do take this invention of the modern age for granted in the South — not giving it the kind of credit it deserves for the economic transformation of our region.
But it also is not lost on me that this wonderful cool air is being powered largely by coal plants that emit greenhouse gases that most scientists agree contribute to global warming. The hotter it gets outside, the more air-conditioning we use; and the more air-conditioning we use, the more we contribute to global warming.
It does seem as though we are in a downward spiral that will only change once we commit to cleaner modes of generating electricity and more environmentally friendly ways of moving people, goods and services.
Here we are in the richest country on earth, but without a car, there was no way for me to get from Atlanta to Milledgeville on public transportation. We’ve built a society where we’ve become dependent on the most wasteful modes of travel — cars (most of them occupied by just a driver) and fuel-inefficient trucks.
Where are our commuter trains, our inter-city rail or bus systems? Why haven’t we developed more options for people to move around on public modes of transportation so we can have a more sustainable environment that doesn’t contribute to global warming and climate change?
So that brings me back to this past weekend when Atlanta had hit its all-time record high of 106. I attended a birthday party for my friend, Kay Beynart, at a restaurant in Buckhead. Although the restaurant had air-conditioning, it was having a hard time keeping us cool with the oppressive heat outdoors and the number of people inside.
At the party, a dear friend of mine — who always has a way with words — said he had figured out what was happening — the world is going through “men-o-cause.” (He told me I could spread the word).
At what point in our evolution will we — men and women — decide that it is time for us to cause constructive changes in our world rather than destructive ones?
The entire human species — whether they are living in Hot-lanta or baking Macon or at any of the other points on earth — will depend on us being able to figure it out.