It's all relative: When this electronic sign at the Viscount hotel stated that it was 102 degrees at 1 p.m. June 30, 1999, signs around town varied from 111 to 88 degrees and the national weather service reported the temperature as 101 degrees. The perceptions of Tucsonans and visitors probably varied as widely.

James S. Wood/Arizona Daily Star file photo

Back in the late 1950s, I was driving a canvas-topped, open-sided Jeep from Southern California to Tucson. It was about half-past June, and I was taking the southern route through Yuma. The temperature was somewhere over 105, and I made a lot of stops for cold drinks.

All through the Imperial Valley of California, people were moaning and complaining about the heat. I finally crossed the Colorado, and stopped at a filling station on the outskirts of Yuma. It hadn’t cooled off any.

“Seems to be warming up,” I remarked to the station attendant when he came out to pour my gas. (Remember, this was in the 1950s, when that sort of thing happened.) “Yep,” he replied, “ if it keeps up like this, the snow will start melting on the north sides of the saguaros any day now.” All of a sudden I knew I was home!

I’ve not heard that particular way of expressing the summer heat before or since (except when I’ve used it myself!), but the humorous exaggeration it employs is certainly traditional in our region. In Tucson for years, the coded description of the first day of over 100 degrees was “when the ice breaks on the Santa Cruz.” (Not “melts”, mind you, but “breaks.”) One or another of the dailies would usually rise to the occasion with a fine, detailed story.

The last few times such a story ran, I seem to remember letters to the editor chiding the editorial staff for childish frivolity. Another local tradition gone west. But the practice carries on in the spoken word.

My friend Joe Harris fondly remembers driving by the old Shamrock Dairy farm in June, and seeing the cows lying on their backs, giving themselves milk baths.

But my favorite story involves the late Julian Hayden, dear friend and quintessential Desert Rat. During World War II, Julian was working in Yuma. One summer day he was at the air base where bomber pilots were being trained. It was graduation day, and he chanced to walk by a young man wearing a new uniform.

“How do you locals stand this heat?” asked the soldier. “Oh,” replied Julian, “it’s not really hot. When it’s really hot you can drop a raw egg and it will be hard-boiled before it hits the ground.”

A couple of hours later, Julian saw the same young man. His trousers were splattered with raw egg, and he was furious. “You lied to me!” he said. “Look at the mess you had me make!”

Julian replied with his sweetest, most innocent smile. “But I told you it wasn’t really hot.”