Why We Love the Gulf

The Art of Screened-Porch Sitting

The Alabama coast has changed, but the simple pleasure of the evening breeze remains

Photo: Amy Dickerson

Among my earliest and fondest memories is lying on a large couch on my grandparents’ screened porch on the Dog River after dinner, in the dark of the evening and the heat of the summer, watching fireflies glow and hearing crickets chirp. (There don’t seem to be any fireflies around anymore. We called them lightning bugs and used to catch them by the jarful and turn ’em loose during the Saturday cowboy movies at Mobile’s Saenger Theatre.)

My grandmother would rub my back with witch hazel while my grandfather tuned his brand-new FM radio, one of the first in town, to the broadcast of the local baseball team, the Mobile Bears, which had recently produced the great George Shuba, a star player for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Flashes of heat lightning often flared in the distance beyond the river. There might be a shivering waft of wind to blur the humid air, and my grandmother would always remark, “Ah, there’s a little breeze.”

Had we not been on a screened porch but, say, an open veranda, we’d have been plagued not only by clouds of mosquitoes, but also by every other damned thing that flies, creeps, or crawls at night—gnats, moths, roaches, no-see-ums, frogs, lizards, flying beetles, and skinks. That’s not to mention bats, owls, mice, snakes, possums, squirrels, and raccoons—and everybody would have spent their evenings stomping, kicking, swatting, scratching, cursing, or shrieking, or gone back inside to the heat.

Wire mesh for screens dates back to the 1820s, but it wasn’t patented in America until 1900. Before that, folks kept a broom and a flyswatter handy, and maybe a hoe for the snakes. But there’s more to screened porches than just protection against critters.

When I was growing up in Mobile, summer vacationers fell into three basic categories: river people, bay people, and Gulf people. But all of us were screened-porch people, even after air-conditioning, because that’s where you could catch the evening breeze and smell the water—salt or fresh—and socialize.

Michael Gelen

I was both a river person and, later, a bay person, when in the 1950s my family bought a small house south of the Point. Point Clear became a popular resort for Mobilians with the arrival of steamboats in the 1830s, and many of the homes date back to the nineteenth century. In the old days people would sit on their screened porches at night basking in the prevailing southwest breeze. After supper some residents would promenade along the boardwalk that ran from the Grand Hotel down in front of the historic bay-facing homes. I am told that in another era, homeowners would, despite its usual connotation, light a red lamp by the door if they wished to entertain company.

The Gulf was another place too, then. Today the shore is lined with tall condominiums and expensive houses, all of which are in some measure prone to hurricanes. Way back before the condos arrived at “the beach,” though, men would just drive eight or ten telephone poles into the ground, and about fifteen feet up (depending on their level of confidence), nail a bunch of plywood sheets to form a floor, and frame a house with a bedroom, a sleeping porch, a kitchen, and a large screened porch facing the Gulf. That way, when the hurricane blew your house to matchsticks, you were out only about twenty-five hundred bucks, and you’d go back the next year and build it again.

But my favorite screened porch—which itself has been swept away a time or two—is of the bay variety and happens to be owned by my wife, Susan. The house belonged to her great-grandmother. The porch is very large and comfortable, with eighteen-foot ceilings and ceiling fans and ferns and wicker furniture and good company. We’ve spent many an evening in the rocking chairs, with suitable libation at our sides, watching people stroll by on the boardwalk or boats go past on the bay, and occasionally people will stop in without the inducement of a red light by the door. Even in August down here it’s pretty cool—cool enough that three Augusts ago, Susan and I were married on that porch, with all our families there, and no storm can ever blow that lovely memory away.

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