A while back I wrote about front porches and how they used to be such an important feature of the house. I pointed out that the front porch has given way to the back deck and so, with summer coming on and all its attendant cookouts and parties I thought it time to address one of the favorite hangouts at the house, second probably only to the kitchen. The back deck is a feature that many houses have and they serve the house in a variety of ways.

At my home

My back deck is half screened-in and half open to the sky. The screened-in part is to get away from those pesky mosquitos that seek me out like vampires seek out village maidens. Its screen allows us to keep the view of the trees in the back and the bird feeders out there, that would more accurately be called “squirrel feeders."

We’ve got a table and some chairs so we can eat outside when the weather is nice, which down here in the South is a lot of the time, and we’ve got another little table there to set things on.

There’s a fan to generate a little breeze when there is none. There are lights back there but we rarely use them, preferring the soft light of dusk to a 100-watt bulb. Sitting in that screened-in sanctuary is quiet and relaxing, and heaven knows in this world there’s precious little of that. I guess it’s a kind of battery recharger for the spirit if you think about it. I find myself needing those batteries recharged ever more often.

My view from the screened-in part of the deck includes the woods behind the house, the backyard and looking to the right, our little garden patch we try and set out every year. This year we went with a lot of herbs, in addition to the usuals like onions, tomatoes and cucumbers. Looking at the garden from the deck, I can almost get up enough gumption to go and pick weeds out of it. Almost.

Occasionally the dog will spot, hear or smell something and take off across the yard if she’s out and about. That’s about as much action as I need or can take from a deck that’s properly doing its job.

The other section of the deck is open to the elements. That makes a nice place to sit in the fall or spring on those days when the weather is perfect and it’s too early or late for bugs.

One reason we didn’t screen in the whole back deck is so we’d have a place to cook out. A grill can send its smoke up and across to the neighbors letting them know we’ve got something good grilling.

I actually have two grills. One is a smaller gas grill for when I’m hungry and can’t wait. The only issue with it is if I wait too long in the spring to start using it the birds will have built a nest in it, using the little open holes in the bottom for air intake as their bird door. Then I have to wait until the little ones have left the nest to clean it out and fire it up. This has only happened a couple of times over the years, but give a bird a ledge anywhere and they’re liable to build a nest on it. I guess they like hanging out on a back deck too, although for them “grilling” means staying home.

The other grill I have on the back deck is this big, deluxe combination charcoal grill and smoker. I got it mainly because one of my kids is into cooking and wanted to start smoking ribs and such. It’s kind of a giant thing and takes a whole afternoon to get it going, slowly cook on it and eventually have the food ready. This is one of those grills you stand around and talk shop with your buddies when you’ve got a group over for a weekend get-together. There’s probably been more jokes and lies told around grills than anywhere else — except maybe the courthouse.

Other back decks

My neighbor down the hill just has a small back deck as his house backs up to a hill. There’s not much room there for a big deck nor is there much of an enjoyable view ... unless you enjoy viewing a rocky embankment in which case you’re in for a treat. His back deck is little more than a covered stoop, but he still gets plenty of use for it. I’ve seen him hang clothes out to dry back there and I’ve seen him set up shop on it like when he was tiling the kitchen floor. It also gives him a place to stick things so they’re not visible from the road. He’s very suspicious of thieves.

Some back decks are big and rambling and go the entire length of the house they’re attached to. I’ve always liked the idea that you could walk out of your bedroom onto a back deck in the morning with a glass of cold orange juice. And even if you’re wearing your funny gag gift pajamas you got two Christmases ago, the only way your neighbor is going to see them and laugh at you is if you’re foolish enough to go out front to get the newspaper in them. And then the front door closes behind you and locks shut.

The big rambling decks are great for big parties because they are large enough to have areas for different groups to form. You can easily breeze from one group to the other as you make your rounds. There’s the “sports” group, the “our kids are in school” group, the “solve the problems of the world” group, the “foodie” group and the “just got back from vacation” group. There’s also —and this is my favorite part — enough room for the snacks to be out there on the deck so you don’t have to go back and forth from inside to outside to keep the goodies flowing.

If I ever get to build one of those big, rambling decks I’m going to build it to overlook the swimming pool (that I currently don’t have). I would line everything up so that I could come out of the bedroom in the morning and jump off the deck into the pool. How’s that for a back deck helping to get the day started?

One of our family friends over in Brookwood built a big, back deck but it was a standalone deck on the far side of the backyard. That sounds a little inconvenient but it wasn’t. If there was a party you could just get folks to carry stuff across as they moseyed over to the deck. This deck was nestled at the edge of the woods and was built to even have some trees growing up through it. It was big enough so the dad could go out in the morning and walk laps around it for exercise. I think 40 laps was a mile, or something like that. The deck had a railing around it that was also a bench to sit on, so there was always room for everyone.

There was a whole ‘nother benefit for this deck for us kids. As it was built on a hill, we had basically a huge clubhouse under it. During the day we could congregate under there in the shade and make out plans for the day's adventures.

One summer, the youngest son of the family dragged a garden hose down there under the deck and started building a network of little canals and roads. He had little dams built here and there that would change the course of the water as he built new canals or tried to navigate a model boat down the waters. It turned into a summer-long endeavor and he had more canals under there than are on the surface of Mars. The mom said the cost of the water was worth it to see him there at home all summer engineering his little water world.

If you build a back deck, I picked up a good trick from a math teacher I know. If you knew my math grades in school you might be surprised that a math teacher would even be friends with me, but he has too ... he’s one of my brother-in-laws. Anyway, he pointed out that if you watch the guys building it, make sure they measure the foundation of the deck and the corner posts on the diagonal. That’s the only way you can be for sure that a rectangle is squared up. Of course by the time the crew has dug the post holes and mounted the sideboards, you’re probably already in for thousands of dollars in material and hours, but make sure they do it none the less. If they don’t know how to do it, try and borrow a math teacher to explain.

The back deck is an architectural feature throughout the South now and is one that sees lots of fun and activities. The front porch may not be what it was but the back deck is where the future lies.

Well, time to get the grill going. I have some folks coming over to hang out on the back deck.

Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.

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