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POOR PIONEERS NEVER HAD TO SHIVER DURING HEAT WAVE OR LISTEN TO RADIO

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All week the color weather map in the newspaper was a sea of scarlet. The big red swath of temperatures in the 90s stretched like a Jurassic lower lip from the Northeast, over the South, across the Midwest and, sneering out West, didn't stop until it teased the Pacific.

The expansiveness of the heat and its inevitability were something of a consolation as I flew on assignment from Washington to Atlanta.Everyone expects to swelter in Dixie in July, but for once Mother Nature was spreading the misery. As if those ominous patches of brown on the map signifying the 100s weren't enough, there were devastating floods in the Midwest.

Sure, it was in the 90s in Atlanta, as in Washington, but it was also in the 90s in Boston. If there was to be no escape, then so be it. Think of the pioneers, on horseback and in wagons. With no showers. And no ice. We moderns should be embarrassed even to notice the heat.

In Atlanta, I rented a car with air conditioning so aggressive it was like having a terrible nag in the car - reminding me, constantly, loudly, that it was working every minute to blow comfort into the auto capsule.

Despite the sweltering heat outside, most buildings in Atlanta felt like February in New Hampshire. Maybe someday a great psychologist or sociologist will unravel the mystery of what made people living in Southern cities in the last years of the 20th century insist on freezing in the middle of a heat wave.

In a restaurant where I was greeted by a man named Blaine who said, "I'll be doing the waiter thing tonight," the temperature had to be in the 30s. I found myself looking longingly at the soups on the menu. When I sneezed, the man doing the waiter thing was solicitous but dubious. "Too cold?" He promised to shut off the wintry wind from overhead.

The mind-numbing heat was waiting when I left Atlanta. Heading north on the interstate, I decided to check out the AM radio.

"That Clinton crowd!" someone whispers darkly and intensely. Bill and Hillary! Radical Gays and Lesbians! Their Agenda! Things the Liberal Media Don't Want You to Know!

Through the magic of radio, I could see the capital letters, the exclamation points, the pointy horns rising from the devils' heads.

Station-surfing, I hear someone shouting about "Satanism!" In a rapid spiel he plugs his novel which, he says, blows the lid off metal music. Some young men who sound like they're no more than 16 call in to confirm that there are horrible satanist rituals going on everywhere.

Not far behind, of course, is the pitch. This one can only be described as frenzied. We're 11 minutes into the program and all our lines are open.

I hit the "seek" button. Another modulated but urgent voice (the same as earlier?) is selling videotapes that explain why true Christian women do not participate in the feminist movement, among other things. And all for $52.

I thought again about the pioneers, traveling on horseback and in wagons, without air conditioning, ice, showers.

Or radio.