I inherited the awning job from my older brother when he left home to join the Navy. It became a familiar routine: Put them up in the spring, take them down in the fall. Those red-and-green awnings shaded the windows to keep the blazing heat of the Nebraska prairie summers out of my folks' old home.
My dad showed me the ropes. For some reason, chores like this always seemed like a lark when I was working with Dad.
In late spring we hauled the awnings out of the attic, dusted them off, and hung them on the windows. This was my introduction to working with ropes and pulleys.
It was a lot like rigging on a ship. The only way to untangle the lines was to understand how each line passed through the various eyelets and pulleys that would give a mechanical advantage in lifting the heavy iron framework of the awning.
I learned to handle a ladder and discovered the thrill of high places and dangerous work.
During the summer, a prairie thunderstorm could rip the awnings to shreds. With thunder booming like canons, I would dash around the house, walk on beds (not otherwise allowed), and leap in and out of windows to furl up and secure the awnings. A heroic effort could save the day, and an afternoon of canvas repairs later on.
Early in the fall I hauled down the awnings, made repairs, and stowed them away. Dad taught me how to stitch loose seams and ripped canvas. I still have the sailmaker's kit he put together for me: leather palm thimble, hook knife, awl, bone burnisher, marlin pin, needles, spool of Irish linen cord, and a ball of beeswax.
A few years ago, I was back home visiting my folks and helping my dad take down the awnings. The steady prairie "breeze" had been picking up all morning, and the canvas would catch the wind just like a sail. But somehow the struggle was fun as I worked with my dad.
From the height of the second-story windows, we spotted a neighbor's pickup turning down our lane. We headed down the ladders with our arms full of awnings.
When the neighbor stopped by, he said, "Say, why don't you get rid of those old awnings now that you've got air conditioning? I'm headed for the dump, you could toss 'em right in the back."
He did not know that Mom once calculated the awnings saved at least $18 in electricity every summer.
Dad just stood there and looked at him. At first it seemed as if he was carefully considering the offer. Then he glanced at me, and I could see by the twinkle in his eye the awnings were here to stay.
"What, and take away all our fun?" Dad quipped.
The neighbor grinned, waved, and pulled back onto the road.
We stood there and watched the truck speed away and sink below the horizon.
The wind freshened a bit, shifted to the north, and pushed the flat- bottomed clouds across the prairie landscape like a fleet of sailing ships.
My dad wheeled around and shouted: "All hands on deck! Up the mizzen with ya! Strike the sails and haul down that canvas!"
In a flash, I recalled all the imagined and amazing voyages Dad and I had made while working together on the awnings when I was a child.
There we were once again, a couple of yeomen, furling the sails into neat pleats under the yardarm just off the coast of Zanzibar, then whiling away a long, hot afternoon on deck repairing the sails as we drifted through the doldrums on the Sargasso Sea.
Quite a passage for a couple of landlocked Nebraskans.