Three Box Fans

On the first warm day of the year my mother became a mastermind.

We lived, the five of us, in a peach* house that knelt into the apex of a gentle hill. I use the word hill in the relative sense, though. A hill in eastern Michigan is very different from, say, a Hill in Colorado. When you walked in our front door, you were greeted with a good-sized living room protruding to your left. The kitchen table lay straight ahead twenty paces and a picture window hung just behind it, framing a large backyard stippled with freestanding bird feeders.

There was only one way into the other side of the house. If you turned right when you were halfway to the kitchen, you’d be confronted by a hallway that grew darker before taking a sharp turn into light once more. Doors to a bathroom and two bedrooms stood sentry in the darkness. The light at the end of the hall was from my bedroom— the door was left ajar because I couldn’t reach the doorknob then.

Because of the bottleneck of the hallway, heat would build up in the closed-off bedrooms during the day. It was because of this build-up of hot air that, every few hours, my mother would stop what she was doing in the kitchen to reposition one (or all) of the three box fans in the house. It began as a way to get her family to sleep through those sticky August nights. It turned into her responsibility. A responsibility that eventually glommed onto me when I grew older.

Every night, before us three sons would go to bed, she’d open the front door wide and pry open the stubborn panes in the picture window. She’d put the strongest fan right at the beginning of the hallway so it would blow down the corridor and fill each of our bedrooms, as if they were balloons. The other two fans she’d place in bedroom windows blowing outward. I’ve since named it ‘the flow technique’—sucking the hot air out and replacing it with the fresh air from the main part of the house.

Dad didn’t see much sense in facing fans out windows. He tried more than once to convince her that aiming all the fans inward would cool the house down just as fast and give each of us a breeze. But Mom insisted on flow. This was years before the idea of feng shui was common knowledge. Mom was certainly ahead of her time!

After the first week, Dad no longer argued with her. The bedrooms cooled down in record time. We started sleeping with sheets over us again. That was the best part for me— the youngest—because with sheets covering me I didn’t have to worry so much about midnight monster attacks.

I don’t remember the exact words Mom and Dad used to state their cases, but I’m sure they were very similar to the cases my partner and I have made to one another on these unbearably hot nights recently. He’s learned to just let me keep repositioning the fans. Thankfully, we’ve added an AC window unit to the mix.


*Note: my parents still live in the peach house I describe here, although I don’t think it’s peach anymore. I only used the past tense here because I haven’t lived there in over 20 years. Mom doesn’t practice the fine art of fan positioning anymore. They installed central air about a decade ago. I remember when they first got it, Mom said to me, “I just don’t know how we lived without AC for so long.”

7 Replies to “Three Box Fans”

  1. Loved reading this. The only air conditioning in our house was in my father’s room, so fans were a precious thing. My husband thinks I’m crazy when I do the air flow thing but I do believe it works. When I was in my 30s and lived in apartment houses without AC, I would work in the middle of the night and sleep all day to avoid the heat. Thanks for sharing memories, Nate.

  2. I live with no air conditioning because I live near the beach and we don’t need it. Of course until we do. I finally convinced my husband to get an a/c for the bedroom, but it took years. But I grew up with no a/c and when the heat got in the high 80’s and 90’s it was the dance of the fans at our house, too. As I sit here, typing this, I have two fans in my living room at 8:15 in the evening because it’s still pretty warm. Viva la fan!

    1. I actually don’t like AC air much. Makes my throat sore if I’m in it too long. So I get you, Laura. We live about 4 blocks off lake Michigan and it helps a lot! Thanks for commenting.

  3. Love this vignette from your childhood. I could picture it perfectly and it brought back similar memories of my own childhood years. We grew up with out A/C too and used fans. However, we just set them up so they would blow directly on us. Your mom’s way sounds like it worked a lot better! 🙂 Awesome post!

  4. I remember people in Florida talking about their hills and my response was “What hills”? My adult years have all been in Seattle, plus one year in San Francisco/Oakland, so my concept of hills was drastically different than theirs.

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