As soon as the weather gets nice I get the urge to put up the porch swing. It is one of those low-effort, high-appreciation tasks that I seek out on Saturday mornings. For some folks, all putting up the porch swing requires is a step ladder and a little graphite on the hinges to guard against squeaks.
But I have a problem. I have a fat swing and a skinny porch. The swing, from Bethesda, is big, rugged and made of redwood. The porch is vintage Baltimore rowhouse -- narrow. It is not wide enough to accommodate my fat swing.
The porch is on the back of my house. I've heard older residents of the neighborhood refer to such structures as a "sleeping porch." They remember the time before air conditioning, air pollution and night stalkers, when sleeping outside was considered good for your health.
While several slumberers could probably fit lengthwise on my porch, getting my big swing in there would, as one my kid's books puts it, "be a squash."
The fat porch swing is a leftover from a previous house in Bethesda. That suburban Washington house didn't have a very big porch, either. But out in the back yard under a stand of soaring tulip poplar trees, there was the frame of a children's swing set.
At that point in our lives, my wife and I had no children and lots of free time. On Saturday mornings we would wander around stores and buy things. Things like pansies, attachments for the garden hose, and a porch swing.
Within hours after I bought the swing, I had it assembled and attached to the swing set frame in the back yard. Soon I was gliding in a sylvan glade. At least until the mosquitoes arrived.
I was so fond of that swing that I carried it with me, along with some sacks of fertilizer and hose attachments, to our Baltimore rowhouse. After walking "the grounds" of our new home -- a task that took me about 40 paces -- I decided that the only spot I could put the fat swing was on the skinny back porch.
Since both the swing and porch were about 6 feet wide, I had to violate porch swing tradition. A traditional porch swing -- the kind grew up with -- should be arranged so the person sitting on it looks out on the length of the porch. This usually gives the swing driver enough room to "let'er fly." Moreover, such an arrangement allows the swing sitter the choice of either acknowledging or ignoring someone walking by the porch.
Since I couldn't set up the swing in the lengthwise position, I turned it so that its riders would be looking out, into the back yard.
Even so it was a tight fit. The arch that the swing moved in, between a storm window and end of the porch, was so small that I didn't really "swing," I swayed.
So it was a summer of subdued swinging. Nonetheless I liked it. Moving through humid air on a porch swing felt familiar. That is how I used to spend my summers in a porch swing culture.
During the day, we kids rode the porch swing, endlessly. When my dad painted the porch, he would have to apply extra coats of paint to the spot underneath the swing where we had dragged our shoes.
For kids, the swing was the place to sit while you waited to go to your swimming lesson or your baseball game. Or it was just a place to wait until something interesting happened in the neighborhood. Unlike porch chairs that were cold, uncomfortable and unmoving, the porch swing seemed to be attuned to your mood. It too liked constant motion.
In the evening, the adults would claim the swing, either by direct order or, as my dad was wont to do, by lighting up a cigar.
One porch swing moment I recall occurred in June 1960 shortly after Floyd Patterson regained his heavyweight title, by decking Swedish heavyweight Ingemar Johansson. The fight was being re-enacted on my cousin's front porch when somehow one of my brothers, who was playing the role of Johansson, went tumbling down the porch steps. To this day accounts differ on what delivered the knockout blow. My brother claims he slipped. My cousin, who played Patterson, claims it was his left hook. I seem to remember the porch swing did it.
Which is one of the many reasons why, now that I have 11- and 7-year-old kids, I fight the urge to put my fat swing on my skinny porch.
All it would take is one big blow and the storm window behind the swing would go down faster than Johansson.