Mark Simpson’s love-affair with American engineering – & engineered Americans
My first trip to the US, as a spotty provincial English teenager, was teeth-chatteringly exciting. Not least because it was also my first experience of space travel.
My mum and dad took me and my younger brother on one those new budget fly-drive packages to Florida in the late 1970s that was used to fill off-season Florida with pasty Brits. Unaccountably, most Americans avoid Miami in August, with average daily highs of 91 degrees and 85% humidity. Wimps.
Eleven hours on a McDonald Douglas DC-10 was thrilling for me, as I’d never been on a wide-bodied, long-haul flight before – In-flight movies! Space-age meals! Free ‘earphones’ that were just plastic tubes that connected to a speaker in the armrest of your chair!
(Full disclosure: I was a total geek who had a subscription to Flight International magazine – so had already masturbated nightly over cross-section illustrations of the DC-10 for months before our departure).
But I hadn’t realised that I was going to be arriving not just in another country, but in a completely different world. A New World. A much better-designed and engineered world, with many, many more ice cubes than 1970s Britain. Big beakers full of ice, placed on your table at the coffee shop before you ordered, and filled with water from a jug – also full of ice!
Miami International airport wasn’t just way bigger and more spacious than Manchester airport, where we flew from. It was modern and inspiring, properly laid out and planned. Intended for its actual purpose. In comparison, Manchester airport looked like a neglected light industrial estate with check-in. Which it was.
It was also cooler, temperature wise. Manchester airport had been warm and sweaty when we left. Miami International was almost chilly.
Until we walked out the sliding doors marked ‘Exit’. It was night-time, but the Floridian darkness was solid and liquid at the same time. It reached out and smacked you and hugged you, like a huge, steamy, slightly fragranced hand. A city-sized, hotter version of the heated face towels they had given us on the plane to ‘freshen up’ before landing.
You need to understand that in the UK we talk about the weather constantly because we have no weather. We live on a tiny, temperate island cossetted by the Gulf Stream, so our winters are never terribly cold, and our summers are never terribly hot – except for a few days every few years, the shock of which brings the whole country to a shuddering halt.
Hence the naked, feral humidity of Miami – in the middle of the night – was entirely alien and exotic.
It was of course the air conditioning at the airport that made our meeting with the true atmosphere of Planet Miami so dramatic. Air conditioning in 1970s UK was almost unheard of, even in cinemas and stores. Come to think of it, deodorant was rather rare too.
Florida by contrast is built on aircon. Without it, everyone except the mosquitos would leave in summer. Or die. Of all America’s consumer engineering triumphs, air conditioning is the greatest. America’s resourceful triumph over Nature – in its most elemental form. (In the early 1970s, President Nixon liked to turn the aircon down as low as it would go, and then warm himself in front of a roaring log fire – which is the most American thing I’ve ever heard of.)
So, you can imagine my elation when the rental car we hired turned out to have aircon. It wasn’t terribly effective, and it dripped water on my legs in the passenger seat (I always had to sit up front so I could annoy my dad by fiddling with the knobs and switches). But it was aircon! It turned our rental car into a spaceship! For it to work at all you must seal up the car and maintain your own atmosphere. As you swoop up onto the huge, wide, elevated freeway, just like The Jetsons. But with The Simpsons.
It got even better. My motel room also turned out to have aircon: a wall-mounted unit that growled rattled like through the night like a metallic banshee. But to me this was the music of the spheres: it turned my motel room into crew quarters on board the USS Enterprise. Even the humming ice machine in the hallway excited me. In the UK, hotels did not have ice machines. Bars did not have ice machines. Or if they did, they only produced about three half-melted cubes an hour.
How cool is America?
We did all the touristy things, including visiting NASA’s Cape Canaveral, where I gawped at the huge Saturn V rocket reclining on its side, like a discarded giant’s toy, and the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building (which also had aircon). And a spacesuit exhibit, which turned out to have an actor hidden inside, who suddenly moved, making my mum scream so loudly that everyone in the hall turned and stared. But all this served only to remind me that space travel is all about life support systems.
We also visited Disneyland in Orlando, built by that great believer in The Future, Walt Disney, the anti-Commie techno-utopian. But frankly, for me, Tomorrowland was a bit of a poor, toytown imitation of the science fiction extravaganza that was America itself.
Especially after the sight I saw, by the pool in our Miami hotel, which hit me even harder and hotter than the humidity on exiting Miami airport.
A young, bronzed, buffed, smooth, impossibly beautiful bodybuilder, glistening in his powder blue Speedos (these had not yet been outlawed in the US) and sunglasses on a sun lounger completely took my breath away. I had never seen such a creature before – except painted green and roaring in ripped denim shorts in the TV version of The Hulk.
And bodybuilding is of course another form of space travel, or at least space occupation. One which requires a muscular life support system: a high-tech infrastructure of good gyms and tanning beds, along with plentiful supplies of protein, ‘vitamins’, wax, and shamelessness. All of these were heavily taxed in 1970s Britain.
I had to admit to myself that the bodybuilder, with his ecstatically engineered physique, excited me even more than air-conditioning. As chance would have it, we had been studying The Tempest at school that year, and suddenly I totally understood Miranda:
“Oh, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in ‘t!”
Still somewhat repressed – another feature of 1970s Britain – I thought this tremendous excitement at the goodly creatures of the brave New World meant that my future was in America. But it turned out to mean my future was in bodybuilders.
My parents also half-entertained a fantasy of moving to the US. We viewed a new-build family show-home near Canaveral. It was vast, by British standards but probably typically suburban by American. The car port was bigger than many British houses, with a large, automatic door which I found totally Mission Impossible.
But best of all it had built-in aircon – ‘centrally-distributed climate-controlled air’. Though I was slightly disappointed that the air ducts were not big enough to crawl through, the way you always saw people doing on US TV shows like… Mission Impossible.
As you’ve guessed, we didn’t end up having a Flipper meets Lost in Space move to Florida – with me in the role of Will Robinson and Zachary Smith. But many, many years later I did somehow manage to persuade The Times Magazine to send me to Palm Springs in the height of summer to attend a convention of air conditioning engineers, for a feature about those noisy boxes and what they’ve done to us and the world.
At the convention, chatting to the mostly young, eager, well-scrubbed – many of them worked-out – chaps for purely professional reasons, I found myself identifying totally with (late-period, very messy) Truman Capote who, when living in Palm Springs, fell in love with the man who came to fix his air conditioning.
Twenty years on, air-conditioning has finally made its way to the UK: commonly available in shops, restaurants offices and cars. You can even get unmelted ice in your drink. Though everything still comes to a shuddering halt when we have a few days of hot weather, which is strangely reassuring.
And, more importantly, the pectacular science-fiction sport of bodybuilding is now even more common here than air-conditioning. The UK has finally built the muscular life-support system of gyms, protein, tanning salons, and lycra-rich sportswear that means I no longer have to travel to America to come over all Miranda.