The Seasonal Shuffle

Published 6:10 am Friday, November 11, 2016

As the northern chill line draws ever nearer Austin, thoughts drift to what we’ll soon need to keep warm this winter. It’s unlikely we’ll be burning coal or wood or buffalo chips so our thoughts turn to furnaces. But, I would ask, how many of you think about windows? They are, after all, huge players in this frigid reality we call winter. Remember your old storm windows … the ones that needed switching out? Some of you may still struggle with this task. My admiration — my compassion — goes out to you.

Right now I will take the time to warn you that if you did not grow up in Minnesota, then you will have utterly no understanding of what this column is about. You might as well stop reading my words right now and be done with it.

You see, every fall and spring, many of us vividly remember the great screen/storm window exchange. In my childhood home we had a storeroom in the basement where the off season windows were stowed. They took up half of the room. The other half was filled with shelves and was designated as a sort of pantry; a place where various canned goods from our dad’s store were stacked.

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My three siblings and I took this cache seriously and dedicated ourselves to the consumption of it … when Mom wasn’t looking. Top on our list were the small cans of Hormel Vienna Sausages. We absolutely loved them! And even as young kids we could open them by ourselves because every can had its own little key. After the enlightenment of us each having our fingers sliced, we became adept at managing this procedure.

Often, however, at the height of gobbling them down, our behavior turned rascally; our party mood going too far. More accurately, our tomfoolery sometimes resulted in the stored storm windows getting cracked. Of course the resulting angst, exasperation, expense and delay of repairing them only added to my folks’ dread of the great window exchange. But, we were young kids. Unruly, yes, but we didn’t mean to break them. Honest we didn’t.

My dad was a grocer, not a handyman. Still, as the weather changed, he routinely took upon himself this most unwelcome window drudgery. We kids always knew when it was about to happen because Daddy would shock us by changing out his starched white shirt, dress pants and tie — his uniform seven days a week — for some handyman looking clothes.

We lived in a big house in northwest Austin which meant we had a lot of windows. In my mind’s eye I can still see my dad climbing up to the second story which from the ground below, looked to me like an ascent on Mount Everest. With his pockets stuffed full of cleaning cloths and a bottle of Windex, he bravely climbed upward. And to save time, he also carried a large, heavy, wooden storm window. Yikes! His uncustomary behavior looked for all the world like a ludicrous circus act with him in center ring as the stunt man. Completely out of character — and miles beyond his comfort zone — his dicey balancing act made me quake with fear.

Once the storm windows and/or screens were removed, the window panes and sills were laid bare exposing all matter of detritus that had collected over the last six months. It was a dead bug and spider web fiesta.

Meanwhile Mom would be performing her own Ringling Brothers act by hanging out over the window ledges, trying her darnedest to wash the outside of the windows from the inside of the house. It was a captivating sight — in the worst of ways. Not a scintilla of the acrobat was housed within her bones; God’s design for her body never taking into account the contortions and twists and leanings such an activity required, to say nothing of giving her arms that were too short.

By now you probably have guessed that this was never a cheerful project. To be frank, it was an endeavor which strained the bonds of even the strongest marriages. Moreover, we kids quickly learned to make our getaway during the interim knowing it was best to become … and remain … invisible.

But, now I’m getting ahead of myself because before any of the windows could be dealt with, there was the business of transporting the long rigid wooden ladder from the garage and precariously balancing it against the house. This was another recipe for disaster as it sometimes missed its mark, crashing into the windows and scattering glass in a wide arch onto the area below. The truth was you couldn’t win anyway you went about it … even though you may have been the most devout Presbyterian in Austin! This simply was not a task that came with the Lord’s blessing, but rather a cross … er, ladder … to bear.

Some years later the maneuvering of the ladder became marginally easier when an aluminum extension ladder was purchased from Axe Johnson’s Hardware. I think it gave Daddy a special macho standing in the neighborhood, if you know what I mean. But even this did not alter the near disaster of each climb. From behind the bushes, our small hands went into ferocious handwringing mode. It must be said that with each perilous ascent and descent, Daddy could almost be heard murmuring an silent prayer of thanks that he was a grocer and not a construction worker, house painter, roofer or even cat burglar!

So, twice a year another perfectly good weekend was consumed by this highly dangerous and irritating undertaking. But that was not all for before anything could be done there was also the vexing maintenance of the screens and storm windows. Caulking invariably cracked and had to be gouged out and replaced while the paint on the frames refused to stay put no matter the promises of Sherwin Williams.

Then there were the two little flat hooks on the top of the window frame from which the windows hung. If the hooks broke, the whole exercise was doomed. But if your luck held and the hooks remained faithful, the windows were hung, then pressed into the window frames and held in place by small twisty hardware that I don’t know the name of. They always reminded me of the whirligig seeds that blew off maple trees. These tiny devices were held in place by a center screw, and when turned were the only things that braced the windows’ weight against the house. As luck would have it, it was not uncommon for them to swivel completely off the wood and fall to their just rewards on the ground below. I tell you, no part of the great window exchange was for the faint of heart, the mollycoddled or those without an extensive four-letter word vocabulary.

Once all the storm windows were in place, our family was hermetically sealed for the next six months as tight as King Tut in his tomb, minus the eyeliner and fancy headdress.

Now if it were the screen windows that were being replaced, believe me every little kid knew that in no uncertain terms he could be sent to his room for the rest of his natural life if he leaned too often against the screening, stretching and bowing it towards the outside, its anti-mosquito function and stylish appearance ruined forever.

I don’t recall anyone in the neighborhood ever hiring someone to do the window shuffle if a man lived in the house. A real man, for it was every male homeowner’s responsibility to do this job himself. And we kids were no help for none of us ever grew old or strong enough to assist Dad in this endeavor for just as we were approaching the age of our window changing apprenticeships, the aluminum all-weather windows hit the market.

Talk about miracles! It was like the second coming. Even as kind and polite as Minnesotans are, they must have shoved each other out of line in their eagerness to be the first to slap down their money. Once installed, life thereafter was a breeze. And as for us, our basement storage room was at once emptied of the windows, and soon refilled, (to our hearts’ delight), with more shelves of Vienna sausages.

I’m thinking that the Austin city dump was deluged with window cast offs. I’m also thinking that in some future millennium when space aliens dig up the outskirts of our city, they will stand in awe and perplexity over what that carnage was all about. Had an asteroid hit the town precisely destroying only wooden windows? The mystery of it will forevermore remain buried with them.

Peggy Keener of Austin is the author of two books: “Potato In A Rice Bowl” and “Wondahful Mammaries.” Peggy Keener invites readers to share their memories with her by emailing Memories shared with Keener may be shared or referenced in subsequent editions of “Full Circle.”