WHEN THE SCREEN door goes in, outdoor living begins. At our house, that happened last weekend. This was a little later in the year than usual. But with this spring's mean-spirited weather -- too much rain followed by too little -- I was reluctant to start the screen-door season.
I kept waiting for a sign that nature had calmed down, that it was safe to take down some of the barriers, to invite the breeze into our home. Three days of relative calm convinced me that the time had come to remove the panel of thick, protective glass from the back door and replace it with a panel of airy, welcoming screen.
Not so long ago the switch over from storms to screens was a big deal in many households. In the house where I grew up, for instance, the switch involved not just doors but also windows. Sometime around Memorial Day, big, heavy exterior wooden storm windows were replaced with unwieldly but lighter wooden screens.
This was a two-man job. One man worked inside the house, the other man worked outside the house, usually on a ladder. The outside man had to be strong and sure-handed. If he wasn't, he could fall off the ladder, or worse, break the storm windows.
I remember feeling a flicker of pride one Saturday morning when my dad -- over my mother's objections -- announced that I was trustworthy enough to be the outside man as we worked on the kitchen windows.
The advent of central air-conditioning and modern, year-round windows has diminished the scope of what once was a major household event. Now many modern windows either remain sealed for all seasons or, if they do open, have screens that simply slide into place for warm-weather ventilation. There is not much drama involved in sliding a screen into place.
No ladder and not much drama was involved when I put the screen in the back door. Still it was a ritual I welcomed.
I pulled the screen from its winter lair, the basement, and looked it over. I looked good. Usually the screen has so many holes in it -- battle scars from the previous outdoor season -- that I end up replacing the old screen with a new one. I enjoy this task.
I don't claim that replacing a screen is fun. But it can give a guy a few small pleasures. One comes when you manage to remove the molding -- the thin strips of wood nailed down around the edge of a wooden screen -- without breaking it. This feat can be accomplished by using a mixture of strength, patience, a putty knife and some needle-nose pliers.
Your strength and your putty knife come into play when you pry the nailed-down molding loose from the frame. Once the molding has been lifted from the frame, your patience and needle-nose pliers move in. You use the pliers to grab the head of the nails and, ever so patiently, you wiggle the nails until they pull free. If you hurry, you snap the molding.
If the molding does break, you can buy new strips at the hardware store and cut them to fit. I have done that, but every time I have to buy new parts to fix the old screen door, I regard it as a small defeat. I prefer to recycle, to use the same molding and even the same nails each time I replace the screen. It gives me a sense of triumph, of man over molding.
And it reminds me of a real craftsman, my Great-Uncle Arthur, who one summer when he painted and repaired my parents' house ended each working day by straighting out old nails for reuse.
While I try to be chintzy with the molding and the nails, I am a big spender on screens. When I repair a screen door, I roll out the replacement screen until I get overlap at each edge of the frame.
I have learned that if I try to take the cheap way out, and use only enough screen to exactly fit the frame, I come up short. Soon there are gaps at the edges of the frame. Not only do these gaps look unsightly -- like having one pant leg shorter than another -- they also let bugs in the house. Years of insect warfare have
taught me that if you have a hole in your screen, the bugs will find it.
While excess screen is hanging over the edge of the frame, I hammer the molding down. I can't always use the old nails. But I almost always use the old nail holes. It keeps up tradition and makes for easy hammering.
Finally, using a sturdy pair of scissors, I trim the excess screen.
After some study, I have come to prefer screens made of metal to those made of fiberglass. This is a reversal of policy for me.
I once favored fiberglass because it is easy to handle and because it billows in the breeze. But it also tears easily. You poke a fiberglass screen with a baseball bat, or jab it with a broom handle, or catch it with an elbow, and before you know it, you have a hole.
Metal screens, on the other hand, tend to take these shots and stay in business.
On a philosophical level, this switch from fiberglass to metal could mean that I now value rigidity over flexibility. But down at the back door, it means I prefer using a metal screen because it is so tough.
Th metal one I put in the back door last year reported for duty this year with no holes or gaps. It was good to go. So I washed it with soap, hosed it off and put it in the back door. Then I sat in the kitchen, near the door, listening to the fresh sounds of the season.
I heard neighbors enjoying a backyard meal. I heard a motorcycle rumble down the street. I heard the latest neighborhood nuisance makers -- a couple of crows with attitudes -- squawking. Looking through the screen, I saw one of our kids bouncing a tennis ball off our backyard wall, and into a neighbor's yard. I hollered at the kid to stop. It was the first through-the-screen-door holler of the season.
More, no doubt, will follow.
Pub Date: 5/30/98