Until the invention of the cellphone, the greatest piece of modern ingenuity in my lifetime had been the oscillating fan. Yep, no doubt about it. Nothing else is even close. Not the color TV, not the computer nor the internet. Not even crunchy peanut butter.
Some of you may have no idea what an oscillating fan is. To you, I say you have been deprived of one of life’s little joys. The preciousness of that fan and the way it does its thing, proved itself yet again as my wife and I struggled to deal with a hot house, minus electricity, in the wake of Hurricane Ida.
First, let’s describe oscillating fans for the unknowing. It just means the fan, four or five blades in a round metal cage that moved slowly to the right, then to left and back to the right, sending recycled air back into the room. If you backed it up close to an open window, it could send a little cooler air toward its target.
When I was a kid growing up in our shotgun house, the oscillating fan was the centerpiece of life in the long summer months in Baton Rouge. You were drawn to its mysterious powers to make sweating temperatures outside bearable inside. It didn’t matter that the breeze it made was only a few degrees lower than outside.
During the summer, the windows on both sides of the narrow middle-room bedroom were open and the fan was on the side of the bed closest to my grandmother. The spinning blades pulled the cool night air in and blew it toward the bed.
Around 8 p.m., that soft breeze had put my grandmother somewhere between regular sleep and a coma. From pre-school to early grade school, I would lay in the bed next to her to gather as much of the wind from the fan as I could before heading to the other room.
Most summer mornings when my grandmother would come back into the house from hanging clothes, she would sit by the fan and turn the oscillating part off. She would cool down, then head into the kitchen to drink dripped coffee and chicory. It would not be long before she would invite me in for a cup, too.
While she was in the kitchen I would sit in front of the fan, turn the oscillating part back on — because I liked to see it do its thing — and gather some of the cool breeze. I also loved to get close to the fan, speak into it so that the spinning blades could distort my voice. With no TV in the house, this was great entertainment, if only for a few minutes.
Sometimes at night, I would put a wet towel on my face so that the breeze from the fan would cool the towel and my face before I headed to the next room for bed. There was no fan in there.
Years later, after my grandmother had passed, guess what I got to keep — yep, that fan. I had it at my first apartment. By that time, sadly, the oscillating feature didn’t work. And, to be honest, I just needed the straight-on air.
For four nights after Hurricane Ida, there was no electricity at my house. The hours heading toward midnight were insufferable. But luckily we had a narrow, tall fan pointed at our bed. I was able to plug it into a fancy battery-operated gizmo I had just purchased.
The three-foot-tall fan had several cycles to choose from — sleep, whisper, calm, power cool and others. But there was one cycle that made the long, slender fan move left and right and left and so on. You know, oscillate. Guess which one we used.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman, at email@example.com.