As a city boy, just saying the words themselves conjures up memories that make me think of long hot summer days when the best thing to do was nothing and you could almost see the heat as it rose up in shimmering waves from the streets and the sidewalks. Then there were those sweltering evenings where you’re bathed in sweat and the thought of any type of physical activity became a nightmare unto itself. Just trying to find the cool side of the pillow seemed to be impossible enough and when you finally did it only lasted for a minute or two before you’d start flipping and flopping in bed wondering if you’d ever get to sleep.
Of course, that was before I had air conditioning and when I was a kid the only remedy seemed to be donning your bathing suit, sneaking out of the house and heading to a fire hydrant that was a respectable distance from home. With a wrench in hand, you and your buddies would open it up and let the water do the rest. Usually that would only offer a brief respite until the local authorities got wind of what we were doing and would come shut us down. Discouraged but not dismayed, we’d then try and confiscate some neighbor’s garden hose but it just wasn’t the same. The stream of cool water from the hose just didn’t seem the same as the gush from the hydrant. Besides, some less than forgiving neighbors would threaten you with life and limb if you dare trampled on their precious begonia’s and the eventual call to your parents house would probably result in an ass kicking or some other form of retribution.
These days, as a massive heat wave seems to have engulfed the entire United States and people are looking for just about anyway to escape the oppressive heat and humidity, it got me to wondering just exactly what the origin of the phrase was. After all, with the heat index clocking in at over 100 degrees in such places as Minneapolis, Minnesota (not exactly known for its warm weather) and temperatures in other major American cities doing pretty much the same, the dog days of summer are indeed upon us. What might come as a surprise and global warming notwithstanding, it seems that they have been for an awfully long time.
It seems that back in the days of old, before television and air conditioning became modern days conveniences and the skies were not illuminated by artificial light or clogged by smog, people were always on the lookout for ways to entertain themselves. One of the most popular activities of the time seemed to be gazing up at the stars and playing a crude game of connect the dots out of the patterns that they saw. Each culture saw different shapes depending upon their location. For instance, the ancient Egyptians might gaze up into the nighttime sky and see something totally different than from people from other places around the globe. The images that they saw were later drawn and recorded but it wasn’t until later that they were formally called constellations and were given names based upon the shapes that they took.
Without going into too much detail, one of the constellations that goes by the name of Canis Major (Latin for Greater Dog) has in its makeup the star that is known as Sirius. Legend has it that the Egyptians called it the “Dog Star” because it was placed there by the gods as a reward to a dog that had out run a fox in a race. Now, besides Sirius being the brightest star we can see with our naked eyes it also holds the distinction that during late July and early August, it rises and sets in conjunction with the sun for a period of about twenty days. The ancients believed that the heat that emanated from Sirius combined with the heat of the sun itself and served to further warm the planet. Thus, the term “the dog days of summer” was born.
I can still recall me and my friends running away from the cops, dodging through backyards and alleyways and all the while laughing our asses off. They’d recap the hydrant and tell us to “get back here you little pricks” or “you fuckin’ bastards”. Truth be told, at the time we thought we were getting away with something.
Now as I look back, I doubt they even bothered to chase us. The dog days of summer had them in their grip too.