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Shooting The Breeze In The Screenhouse

There are few problems a good screenhouse can’t solve.

Illustration by Ryan Snook

our older son, then 18, built a screenhouse in our yard. We’ve enjoyed it so much that I recently decided to build one at our Southern Indiana farm. With my customary knack for timing, I undertook this mission when lumber prices were at an all-time high. So I had the brilliant idea to purchase raw boards from a nearby sawmill, stack them in our barn for three months to dry, and commence building in November, when Indiana screenhouse season is all but over.

I don’t want to leave you with the impression that I did the work. Instead, I hired my friend and whiz carpenter, Ross Hutcheson, to build it for us. Ross and his crew arrived on a Monday morning, sunk six wooden posts four feet in the ground, set them straight, poured concrete to hold them fast, then left for three months while the sawmill lumber dried in the barn. The wood is poplar, which a man told me would rot within a few years. He said this while standing next to my 100-year-old barn made of poplar. But I didn’t correct him because people are moody these days, and I didn’t want to get shot before enjoying my new screenhouse.

Like everything else, screenhouses have doubled in cost in recent years. For the same amount of money, my wife and I could have toured Europe for two weeks, but then we’d be back home with nothing to show for it except a few crumpled euros and jet lag, while a screenhouse will last until we die and then some.

Lest you get the idea I sat idly by while others worked, I stacked the lumber to dry, painted the screenhouse, and spread river rock underneath it to kill back the weeds. As burdensome as that was, the harder task was convincing my wife, who wanted to spend our money on bills and retirement, that building a screenhouse made more sense. She still sighs whenever I mention it, and mumbles something about a certain someone “devoting more time to napping than working,” but I say nothing, knowing the key to a good marriage is selective hearing.

It’s important to have a goal in retirement, and mine is to relax. A lot of my retired friends say they’re busier now than when they worked, and I’m determined that won’t happen to me. My wife intends to volunteer for a variety of noble causes, and I say more power to her, so long as she doesn’t expect me to join her. I’ve dedicated my adult life to noble causes and want to do something ignoble for a change. Not that there’s anything wrong with sitting around. America would be a lot better off if people learned how to sit quietly with themselves and others. Our screenhouse is my way of addressing this harmonic imbalance. Back when every house came with a front porch, we spent evenings visiting with our neighbors. Then the porches went, and with them the parents sitting in the porch swing watching their children play until it was time for bed. People are so desperate to sit outside, they’ll put one lonely chair, usually made of plastic, on their doorstep, cocked at an angle so it will fit. In the autumn, they set a pumpkin on it, then string lights around it at Christmastime. Nothing is more forlorn than one plastic chair on a cement slab.

On rainy days, the neighborhood kids play in our screenhouse. They never ask, they just show up, as if by some mystical arrangement, like flocks of birds simultaneously dipping and weaving across the sky. Though it sits on our yard, the screenhouse is community property and may be enjoyed by all who wish to use it. At various times, it has been an army post, a Barbie doll resort, a tea house, and for my older son, a place to nap on the rare summer day when the hay has been baled and the cattle fed.

Our farm screenhouse won’t likely see as much action, since we only have two neighbors there, one of whom tore down a farmhouse with a porch to build a ranch house without one. Our other neighbor is his grandson, who built a house with a big, broad porch, where he and his wife sit each evening, watching their two boys. It’s easy to be pessimistic in today’s world, but as long as young folks are correcting the errors of their elders, all is not lost.

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. "Back Home Again" chronicles his views on life in Indiana.

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