The past week the big news stories have centred on Karl Rove, Harry Potter, John Roberts, and Lance Armstrong, but it seems to me that this weekend the biggest news story here may have been the heat wave that is just now hitting the eastern part of the United States. In much of the West, including my home state of Missouri, it has already been with us for a week (farther west it has been around a lot longer). Now it always gets fairly hot in Missouri during July. Temperatures above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32.2 degrees Celsius) are not unusual here this time of year. But the past week we have seen temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.7 degrees Celsius).
Of course, anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I do not like hot weather, and summer is my least favourite time of year. And in this case I definitely believe that I have a right to complain. At 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with the usual high humidity of Missouri summers, the heat becomes more than uncomfortable, it becomes deadly. I have already heard about two deaths in Missouri from the extreme heat--one being a 77 year old Bonner Springs woman, the other an 83 year old St. Louis woman. I am surprised that I have not read of more deaths. In the heat wave of 1980, in Kansas City alone, 108 people died.
As intense as heat waves can be, it surprises me that they do not play a larger role in pop culture, especially where North America is concerned. It seems to me that when heat does play a role in a novel or movie, it is usually set in the South. I guess it is not surprising, then, that heat figures prominently in the plays of Tennessee Williams, as the vast majority of them are set in the South (A Streetcar Named Desire in New Orleans, Summer and Smoke and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in Mississipi, and so on). Heat also figures prominently in William Faulkner's works, much of which are also set in the Deep South. Indeed, when The Hamlet was adapted as a motion picture, it was retitled The Long, Hot Summer.
Perhaps the worst period of extreme heat in North America began in 1933, when seven years of drought struck the states of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. These were the years of the Dust Bowl, a term referring not only to those parts of the U. S. where soil erosion and drought reduced them to aridity, but to the time for which it lasted as well. In fact, record high temperatures from 1934 still stand. The Dust Bowl does figure in several books and movies, the most significant perhaps being John Steinbeck's novel the Grapes of Wrath and John ford's classic movie adaptation of the novel. Several other movies have been set in the Dust Bowl, among them Bound for Glory (based on folk singer Woody Guthrie's biograhy) and The Stars Fell on Henrietta.
I can't think of too many novels or motion pictures which portray heat waves set in the North, perhaps because they don't take place there as often. The first novel in Ed McBain's 87th Precinct, Cop Hater, is set during a heat wave, as is the 1958 movie based on the novel. One movie set in the North during a heat wave which does come to my mind is Do the Right Thing. It is set in Brooklyn and accurately shows the discomfort and even the irritability (to put it mildly) which can arise from extreme temperatures.
As to songs, I can only think of two which invovle the phrase "heat wave" off the top of my head. One is Irving Berlin's "Heat Wave." The other is "(Love is Like a) Heat Wave" by The Supremes. Both are happy songs, even though heat waves are anything but happy. The song "Summer in the City" by the Lovin' Spoonfull does not mention the phrase "heat wave," although it does describe summer heat perfectly. In that song the sidewalk is "hotter than a match head."
Anyhow, perhaps the reason that there aren't that many movies or books set in heat waves is that they are just too unpleasant for people to think about. It is one thing for it simply to be hot and uncomfortable. It is another thing for it to be hot, oppressing, and downright deadly. Fortunately, the heat wave is supposed to break here in Missouri tomorrow. It will drop down to 91 degrees Fahrenheit. The next few days after that will be absolutely cold--the highs are only going to be in the Eighties! Quite frankly, it can happen soon enough as far as I am concerned.