I joined the influx of immigrants to Houston about a decade after our friend, Richard Dixon. We didn’t know each other back then, but comparing notes now makes us laugh. The heat of that first summer we spent in our respective corners of the Bayou City was not for the fainthearted.
Richard’s Houston summer initiation
Richard went to sea at the age of 17 in 1949, serving as a midshipman on the MV Eumaeus, a former liberty ship built by the U.S. in World War II. For one year, it traveled at about 11 mph (10 knots) from Glasgow to Malaya, Hong Kong, Philippines, Indonesia, Borneo, Australia and Italy and then back to the United Kingdom.
“So starting with that trip, I had visited ports of call in hot climates over the years,” Richard says.
On Richard’s first visit to Houston, he was aboard a ship.
“We tied up in the turning basin in the Port of Houston on a Friday in August to find longshore/stevedore labor was not expected until Monday. The ship, which had no air conditioning, resembled a glorified tin box painted a glistening white. Before long, it turned blue/gray from exposure to the ship channel chemical plants,” he recalls.
“We couldn’t wait to sail away from Houston and get a fresh sea breeze.”
Welcome to Houston
Richard immigrated to Houston in June 1968 to take a job in the shipping industry. Although he was accustomed to hot weather, his wife and two sons, who were four and six at the time, were used to the much more moderate English climate.
They followed Richard to Houston three months later in mid-September. Since fall already had begun by then in England, Ann had overcoats tailored for the boys to wear to “America.”
“My family had flown from the United Kingdom to Houston Hobby Airport via Chicago, arriving very tired and stressed, as you can well imagine. Hobby had not yet built covered walkways, so wearing their new overcoats they walked from the plane across the hot tarmac under a blazing sun to the reception area,” Richard remembers.
“They were burning up, poor things. Two days earlier a hurricane had hit Corpus Christi, so you can imagine the heat and humidity in Houston.”
Richard loaded up his family and drove down Telephone Road on the way to their new home. When they saw a sign that said “Dunkin’ Donuts,” Ann did a double take at the spelling.
“What kind of a city had I chosen to live and work in? I think she nearly went back to the airport with the boys, overcoats and all!”
The following August, Richard’s sister, Lizanne, and her husband, Peter Bond, who were schoolteachers, came from the U.K. to visit the Dixons. Upon their arrival, Richard showed them to their upstairs bedroom. Later, he graciously returned to see if they were comfortable or needed anything.
Quick, open a window!
“It being very warm upstairs, Lizanne followed the hot weather procedure for England. She threw open all the windows. When I saw that, I told her in no uncertain terms that it was costing me an arm and a leg to keep the damn house as cool as it was!” Richard says in mock horror.
Later the visitors, who quickly came to appreciate the necessity for air conditioning in Houston, and their relatives in Texas, had a good laugh.
Elaine’s first Houston summer
Several decades ago now, I mentioned to the distinguished oilman seated next to me at a Calgary industry luncheon that I would soon leave my native land. I was moving to Houston. He grinned. His smile broadened when I admitted I’d never visited that Texas city in the summer.
“I’ve lived there, so let me explain,” he told me. “Winter in Calgary must be endured. Some years, it seems like it will never end, but eventually it does. Summer in Houston is going to be every bit as disagreeable.”
Truer words were never spoken
The oilman, indeed, had pegged Houston’s weather correctly. During my first summer, temperatures and humidity eclipsed the century mark week after distressing week. I was grateful for air-conditioning at my condo in the Galleria area, the office and every store I visited.
However, five days a week I faced an afternoon heat and humidity steam bath on the way home from downtown.
You see, I rode the bus to my job well before Houston reinvented its transit system. Today it is truly admirable I understand, but it wasn’t back then. I was among the throngs that depended on a fleet of largely old, grimy, belching diesel buses.
On the hottest afternoons, either they didn’t show up or the air conditioning didn’t work adequately and the windows didn’t open.
Boarding my bus before it was full would have helped. However, the office building where I worked was located near the edge of downtown. Generally, all seats were taken when I got on and it was not customary for men to stand and give their seats to women.
So with my purse slung over my shoulder and my folded suit jacket quickly picking up creases in the damp crook of my arm, I steadied myself. The bus would lumber through Houston’s legendary rush hour traffic. Stopping virtually every block or two, it was at best a 20 to 30 minute trip home.
I had never considered myself claustrophobic until big, burly construction workers got on. With heavy tool belts swinging from their hips and carrying giant lunch pails, the men apologetically crammed the rest of us closer together. We were like sardines in a can.
Did I mention that many of these good men towered over me by at least a foot? Most weighed at least twice as much as I did.
Grabbing the handrail near the roof, they’d chat, trading loud, friendly insults with one other. Their muscle shirts showed off so much manly hair under their arms that it could have been braided. Drenched from head to toe from working outdoors in the heat all day, they had developed a considerable body odor.
Dress for success perils
To be fair to the construction guys, I didn’t smell like a rose either. Back in those days, female office workers were expected to dress for success in cute little dresses or skirt suits with long-sleeve jackets. Our blouses, buttoned to the throat, often featured floppy bowties. We wore closed-toe heels in sedate corporate colors of black, brown or navy.
Casual Friday attire had not yet been introduced and the synthetic fabrics of my clothing refused to breathe. I hadn’t yet learned how precious natural fabrics were. Slacks, unless they were part of a suit, were frowned upon for female employees.
Wearing pantyhose in that heat was like being stuffed into sausage casing.
Many days when I got home, I’d unlock the door and stagger straight to the couch convinced that I had succumbed to heat exhaustion. Of course I hadn’t, but it would take me a while to revive from my commute.
Labor Day longings
I hung on desperately waiting for September and Labor Day because in Alberta it signaled the unofficial start of cooler weather. So on that three-day weekend during my first summer in Houston, I began reverently unpacking my considerable wardrobe of sturdy and familiar Canadian winter clothes.
When I hung them piece by piece at the front of the closet, I felt a tinge of homesickness. However, I consoled myself that cooler weather was imminent.
Imagine the depth of my disappointment when the long-range forecast predicted another three or four weeks of summer in Houston. Maybe then the thermometer would budge.
As the oilman had foretold, the heat did let up eventually, but not before my boss extended an invitation. Dave announced with great fanfare that he had tickets for a nearby Saturday afternoon outdoor rodeo as a staff team-building experience.
Department outing dilemma
Bleachers on a Saturday afternoon.
I knew I had to fess up and admit that I’d never make it. Before doing so, I recognized that my corporate job in Houston might end before my probationary period did.
I slunk into Dave’s corner office and asked if I might have a word with him.
“What’s up?” he said, studying the anxiety written all over my face.
“It’s about the team-building trip for our department,” I replied, heart pounding. “I’m just not accustomed to Houston’s climate yet. I don’t think I can handle an outdoor rodeo in the heat of the day.”
Dave shrugged his shoulders and looked down at the papers in front of him. It was as if I wasn’t there.
“Ah, don’t worry about it,” he mumbled. “You’re not the first one who has told me that. I might have a mutiny on my hands if I go through with it. I’m thinking of returning the tickets.”
I was very, very grateful to get that news.
I survived that first summer in Houston and have never again stepped foot on a city bus.
In the following years, I carpooled with a group of friendly characters from my neighborhood. Eventually I could afford a parking space to call my own. For a very short time before a corporate merger, I even drove a company car.
I have weathered many Texas summers following that first one, but it will never be my favorite season. However, I’ve found ways to cope.
As for Houston, I’ll always have a soft spot for the Bayou City and all the friends I made there.
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Now it’s your turn to weigh in on the weather. Are you a fan of summer heat or do you look forward to another season?