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.
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this story, would you please share it with your friends on social media or forward the email link? This will help to grow my readership. Thanks again.
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?
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This is SOOO realistic, I felt I had time-traveled back to the hot, clammy city where I spent 24 10-month-long summers! Though I miss La Grange, I am delighted to be back in Arkansas in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains where we have four distinct seasons. BTW, Elaine, we have a cold front coming in on Labor Day and the low Monday night will be 60 and 78 for a high on Tuesday. Come visit me!!!
Brenda, if you need to borrow a sweater on Monday night just let me know! Those temperatures sound inviting, but we are supposed to get a cool front next week. Perhaps you are sending it down? I hope so! And aren’t the days getting shorter? Oh my, that’s another sign that fall is just around the corner. Thank you for writing!
Hi Elaine! I so remember our after work dinners and trips to the Alley theater. We were always trying to stay cool before the theater opened. I also remember moving from Denver to Houston in December of 1973. What a shock! Even for a kid! When does it cool down? Never, I would find out!
Yes, I remember us trying to figure out how to stay cool. I can still see you sitting at the first desk when I first walked in the advertising department. I knew I was going to like you because when you smiled you meant it. You still do! Thanks for sharing your Denver to Houston memory.
Riding the bus with the construction workers paints quite a picture, Elaine! So glad that didn’t chase you away! As a native Houstonian I have always accepted the fact that I would probably be wearing shorts on Christmas Day. On the other hand, you see what babies we are when it snows here. You no doubt have had some good laughs during those times! Have a great weekend and congrats on being named best author in Fayette County!
Thanks, Theresa. I appreciate your kind words. Nah, the heat didn’t chase me away and I have to say I had never seen rain fall at the rate it can when it gets serious in Texas. To tell you the truth, I shake like a leaf in cold Canadian temps now. I think my blood must have thinned!
Loved reading your story about hot H town. I think my Sugar Land family members would enjoy reading it. Summer is not my fav season. What I enjoy the best in summer is swimming. Hopefully I have another month before the water’s too cold for wimpy me. Thankful for the 80’s this week!
I had to smile at your comment that you get wimpy when the water gets cold, Rhonda. That’s a true Texan talking! The cooler temps next week are going to be quite a shock! I’ll be grateful, too!
I was born in Texas, before air-conditioning was invented, I believe! So, being a farm girl, I picked cotton from my daddy’s crop every summer along with my 5 brothers. We really enjoyed the rare,soft breezes out in the field when a fluffy white cloud drifted overhead and shaded us temporarily! We would pull that heavy cotton sack filled with cotton by noon to the end of the cotton row to weigh our bounty, then walk slowly home to eat a big meal with a cold glass of fresh milk, then rest a while before the afternoon cotton picking in the sun. We did wear our straw hats and long sleeve shirts with our faded blue jeans and old tennis shoes to keep us from getting blistered in the Texas summers. Actually we were totally conditioned to the heat by the time September came around when school started, always the Tuesday after Labor Day.
Barbara, thank you for sharing your memories of picking cotton when you were a farm girl. Your description is so vivid, I can see you and your brothers in my mind’s eye. I bet you were mighty grateful for the odd fluffy white cloud!
I forgot to say that our farm was about 14 miles out of Ganado, which was about 90 miles south of Houston, and not far from the coast, so the heat was very humid and the air was very thick!! Yuck!!
Barbara, I can only imagine how hot that must have been because the humidity doesn’t always dissipate at night. Having grown up without it, I bet you still take special pleasure in it today! Wouldn’t it be awful to live without it now?
Right, Elaine! Summer nights could be awful in July and August. We slept with windows open to catch a breeze. No fans, we just said it was hot and that’s that! In later years, one of my brothers bought mom and dad an air conditioning unit to put in the old farm house, but dad only turned it on when we came to visit!! After dad quit farming, they moved to the city (Ganado) and bought an old two-story house and put AC units upstairs and downstairs.(No cross-breezes in town.) No, they couldn’t live without air-conditioning and neither would I !!
I really enjoyed this memory, Barbara, especially of your Mom and Dad not bothering with the AC unit until ‘the kids’ came to visit. How nice that they had it when they moved to town! Thank you for sharing it. As I wrote in my blog, Labor Day is the unofficial beginning of fall in Alberta and when I spoke to my brother this morning, he said they’d had a skiff of snow over night and expect a hard freeze tonight or tomorrow night. Talk about a short summer!
Elaine, I can relate to Barbara being in the cotton field. How we stood that summer heat is beyond me! My brother and I were glad for any clouds but the ones we liked best were the ones that had rain showers in them so we could quit. Loved your story Elaine. I did the same thing as well riding the bus to work down town Houston till I got smart and got a car.
Junette, thanks so much for your comments. I can see you two looking at the clouds hoping for an afternoon rain shower. Did you go to the house? Did the cotton have to be dry to pick? I’m glad you could relate to riding the bus in Houston. Just think how much we appreciated our cars when we finally didn’t have to rely on a bus to get to and from work. That was a big deal!
Yes we were able to go to the house. Cotton had to be dry to pick because of weight and moisture. I guess since we didn’t have air conditioning, we could tolerate the heat outside. We are spoiled now.
Yes we appreciate being spoiled! It’s the same thing when the electricity goes off. Whatever did we do without it?
Elaine, as ever your recollections about Houston were spot on. I can identify with your disappointment upon learning that seasons don’t necessarily read the calendar in Texas!
However, I learned early in life that there are worse places in the summer. The year that Royce and I moved from Central Texas to Kansas City proved one of those worse experiences. When we learned that we were to spend Royce’s medical school years in K.C. immediately produced a sense of relief (at first). My reasoning was that we were going to the center of the country with no ocean or large body of water in the general vicinity. The river surely couldn’t count as a source of humidity, could it?
We set out confidently on a late-August afternoon, pulling our little U-Haul which contained a large portion of our worldly possessions. Inasmuch as we had been living in Texas for our entire lives (early 20s, as that point), we set out in shorts and cotton shirts. When we arrived at the Oklahoma border with Kansas and saw the signs designating the road as the KANSAS TURNPIKE, we both were duly impressed. How could anything go wrong with such a modern, up-to-date ribbon of asphalt guiding us to our destination?
Not having expected a change of any sort, we were somewhat shocked when a significant wind began to rock our vehicle and trailer. When the need for fuel forced us to stop and vacate (no pay-at-the-pump in those days), that wind nearly forced us back into the vehicle again! We quickly learned that we had just experienced the origin of our well-known Texas Northers, with temperatures plummeting into the low 50s rather than the high 80s that we had just left behind us.
And in our certainty that we would need nothing until we reached our destination, we had not packed wisely; it was impossible to access more clothing to cover our goose-bumped, shivering bodies–all such items were in the front on the trailer behind the few very large pieces of furniture that we owned, earlier packed by helpful friends who simply focused on getting everything loaded and the doors barred shut in hopes that nothing would fall out on the trip.
The heater in our marginal low-cost car did not work well, we we had nothing to do but press on and hope that the miles would fly by (they didn’t). Finally we arrived on one of the main streets of outlying Kansas City, with rows and rows of dismal red brick tenement buildings, in a soaking rain, accompanied by soaking tears, searching for an affordable (read: CHEAP) place to spend the remainder of the night, never having given a thought to researching overnight accommodations ahead of time. Such newbies….
The next day the sun came out and we headed to the medical school central office. We were promptly “adopted” by upper classman Texans, found an affordable apartment. And we were able to dig deep enough to find decent clothing. Life was looking up. UNTIL–the sun really came out and the thermometer rose quickly, taking the humidity with it. I could not imagine where in the world all that humidity could come from! After all, we were in the center of the continent with only a modest-sized river and precious few small recreational lakes. One of our first purchases, which we decided fell in the “necessary” column instead of the “nice to have” side of our acquisitions document. Quite a disappointment, after all, among others–I should have reviewed my geography facts before taking off for a new life!
Thus began our few years in Kansas City. We had some great experiences and some not-so-great ones, but I did learn promptly that no experience is ever totally wasted. Thanks for the opportunity for wool-gathering.
Oh, Elva, what a lovely, lively description of a not-so-lovely memory! Thank you so much for sharing it and making me and other readers smile. I think we’ve all done that at some point in our lives — march merrily down a path and then question ourselves about what we didn’t know then that we do now! Calgary has a dry cold and when it’s chilly in Texas and the humidity is high, I do find it cold. Like you say, no experience is ever totally wasted.
Had to laugh at your story. It was What we went through in Montreal before home air conditioning. The temperature and the humidity would be in the high 90’s in the summer, and going to work would be a half hour bus trip plus a 20 minute subway ride and several blocks to the office. As you mentioned, the bus ride was terrible. Then…the subway! It was so, so damp that people were literally sticking to each other. Then we had the return trip. And of course, we didn’t sleep at night because of the heat.
I was so excited when I visited Calgary and found the lovely dry air that after my vacation I went home and planned my move.
Even though I have returned to Montreal occasionally and visited you in Texas I have to say it’s hard to return to.that kind of climate. I guess I’m home for good in Alberta.
Isn’t it a blessing to feel like you are in the right place in your life? A lot of people never have that satisfaction. They always yearn for what they don’t have. Having put up with a more humid, sticky climate makes you truly appreciate Alberta and the foothills. My favorite season in Texas is fall just as it was when I lived in Alberta. I do miss the leaves turning, though! Thanks for sharing your memories.
Thank you for sharing your story, Elaine. I am not a fan of heat, nor humidity. I will take -30C and bright blue skies over +30C any day of the week. 🙂
Spoken like a true Canadian, Anne! I recall those -30C days with a little bit of a shudder, but also remember scenes of the snow and sunshine that looked like Christmas cards. To this day, I prefer winter clothes over summer cloths. You can take the girl out of Canada, but you can’t take Canada out of the girl… Thanks for writing!
I lived in Borneo and the Philippines between 1964 and 1970. I’ve also lived in Washington, D. C., during always-sweltering Augusts. Having grown up in South Texas, I knew heat and humidity. I also knew that large corporations often lowered their thermostats during the summer to compensate for the outside heat. My wife is a Michigander and was unused to heat of The Houston kind. On her first trip to Texas, she fainted to the hot sidewalk as we exited Ben Love’s very cool Texas Commerce Bank into the mid-July blowtorch of downtown Houston. Looking back on it, how could I have been so oblivious to what would surely happen to her? It taught me a lesson.
Gus, thanks for sharing your wife’s memorable experience in the heat of summer in downtown Houston. I bet you are correct that those big buildings were/are extra cool. It’s no surprise the heat hit Mary like a load of bricks that day. That sharp contrast in temps probably contributed to my own discomfort years ago. Several readers have commented that they, like you, grew up without AC and thought nothing of it. Personally, I like being spoiled and having AC everywhere we go! I appreciate you writing.
Elaine, Thanks for your story about Houston and its heat. Also, your story about Richard Dixon. I was born and raised in Rosenberg, Texas which is about 20 to 30 miles from Houston. For years the road to Houston was a two lane highway. Can you imagine? This was way before A/C..my brother and I would sleep on a double bed, ..no cover..just “sweat it out”. Later we got an attic fan (all house fan)……Open the windows turn on the fan and the air would be drawn thru the windows and up into the attic and then vented out of the attic. We thought we were in Hog’s Heaven. Of course with the air drawn in came all the smells and dust, etc. But, it was good. This was during grades 1 thru 12.
While in dental school we (my wife and I) lived on South Shepherd for about 2 years, then moved to Bellaire where we lived for four plus years. Had two children born during the Bellaire years. Thankfully we had a/c during those years.
Anyhow, thanks for the article.
Dr. Ebel, thanks for sharing memories of ‘sweating it out’ as a youngster in Rosenberg, Texas. I bet it was hot and how exciting it must have been to get that attic fan. That was a big improvement and when you finally lived with AC, an even bigger improvement. I think you probably still appreciate it more than folks who have never lived without it. Here’s to fall and some cooler temperatures. I’ll be taking a sneak peak at my sweaters just in case I need one soon! It was very good to hear from you!
Hostyn refugee here. La Grange HS grad. Love your writing!! Have been in Houston (mostly) since 1972. You have captured the heat perfectly 🙂 I was in banking in DT Houston during the period you describe and can easily recall your “uniform”, especially the floppy bow ties!!
Fred, good to know you could picture my description of ladies’ floppy bow ties for office wear! At one point, the ties were like strips of ribbon, but still tied in bows. I kept one from the era that has a matching cummerbund. Sounds like Halloween party attire now, doesn’t it? Thanks for writing!
I am so enjoying all the stories of Hot Houston, etc. We all enjoyed the cooler weather since the rain showers we have had and are looking forward to the “cold” front coming in this week. We realize that weather plays a big part in our lives and that we have no control over the weather, but can be comfortable now that air-conditioning and central heating are almost a “must have” in our homes and businesses. I am just reflecting back on days gone by and how happy we should be in a great country like America, especially in La Grange, Texas. God has blessed us! Yet there are those who do not have air conditioned and central heated homes in the changing seasons.
You’re so right. There are people without AC in our part of the world, as well as heated homes. We should never take for granted just how fortunate we are. I’m so glad you are enjoying the memories that other readers are sharing. We certainly find yours interesting! Thanks so much for writing.
Elaine, I love your stories. And I agree the Texas heat can be stifling! I tell friends NYC can be as miserable, but it lasts about two weeks. In Texas it lasts about four months!
Martha, thanks for your kind words and thank you for writing. Every summer we know what we’re in for and come winter, we can just sit back and enjoy. No shoveling snow, rarely icy roads, no block heaters for our cars or days that turn into weeks with frigid temps. And, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to wear all of my sweaters at least once!
Love your stories! I was born and raised here in Weimar Texas. In my youth we lived at the public swimming pool, arriving at 2 when it opened and leaving at 6 or 8 when it closed. I don’t remember ever having sunscreen.
You described the bus rides so well,I could picture myself there. Had to laugh out loud about the construction worker’s underarm hair!
Thanks, Rabbit! I’m glad I have brought back some fun memories from your childhood and made you laugh at my experience riding Houston buses all those years ago. Those construction workers were amiable guys, just glad to have gotten through another day working outdoors in construction in that terrible heat!
I loved this story.
I have never had the great fortune to visit the city of Houston, but it is on my bucket list.
Growing up in the Canadian Rockies I was never partial to one season or another.
I am not sure how I would cope with the inferno like heat of Houston, but I would like to experience it one day as I think that it would be another experience that I would never forget.
I thoroughly enjoyed this article.
It captured my imagination, brought me back to memories of the good old days.
Glad you enjoyed the post about Houston’s summer heat! While all of Texas is hot in the summer, the first year I lived in Houston stands out in my mind because no matter how prepared for it I thought I was — I wasn’t prepared for it. But those memories make a good story! I appreciate you writing JP. Thank you.