Saturday, July 02, 2005

Big Help

My old man and I never did get along and we rarely agreed on anything and if we did, we'd probably disagree just to preserve the continuity of not getting along.

There are a thousand stories about me and my old man. Some deserve to be told, others do not.

Here's one that does. Dad was an electrical guy. I never figured out what kind although I asked. He was more than an electrician, less than an electrical engineer. Sort of like electric purgatory or high voltage limbo. Not enough to dissect a circuit, more than enough not to get blown across the room in some fantastic white blue arc that, while it would kill you instantly and bring grief and tragedy to your family, would certainly first be spectacular enough to make your first born go "cool!" if it ever happened.

It did not.

The story goes that I had bought my first house. A big old Dutch Colonial built in 1929 and not really seriously touched since. A couple of cosmetics but no significant surgery, and that included the electrics. The house still had knob and tube wiring, some of which had been disconnected, some of which was quite live. Knob and tube was named for the porcelain knobs the wires were suspended on and porcelain tubes wires were conducted through walls in. The insulation on the copper wire was usually woven cotton. You know, the kind that burns when temperatures soar oh, into the eighties? Haven't you seen post swim beach parties where all the women show up in delightful cotton sun frocks? Take a closer look. Note all the handy buckets of water and fire fighting sand discretely placed behind the chardonnay. Heat and cotton; nothing you want to mess with.

So wires used to be covered in cotton. Enough to keep current from contacting the human hand that touched the insulated wire, not enough to keep wires from touching and short circuiting if the cotton cover ever frayed (who would think it would do that, getting dragged around a construction site?) and the wires did their best impersonation of Mindy Ballou at the pool party in that blue sun dress number.

The solution that knob and tube came up with was to keep the wires as far apart from each other as possible to keep them from interacting in a destructive manner. Think of it, a simple technological solution that predated Ben Affleck and J-Lo by decades.

As such, wires were strung from knobs on opposite wall studs. The positive, or hot wire from one stud, the negative, or equally hot wire if you touch it wrong, from a stud some twenty four inches away. If wires were that far apart, cotton covering could fray 'till the cows came home. The wires could and would never touch and bad things could never happen. A simple, elegant solution for the shortcomings of raw materials of the day. Virtually idiot proof but, hey, here's where the old man comes in.

Dad was a fanatic for the modern. He hated anything that was more than a year old and despised the term "old fashioned." It probably frosted him that I had bought an old house but, what did I tell you about getting along? We didn't and we were both kind of ok about it. I was pretty much there for him to do the heavy lifting and move large piles of gravel around seasonally-"this winter, I think the gravel will look better, there" and he was there for me to fix things I got in over my head with. Like the basement electrics.

I was designing and building furniture then and was looking to set my workshop up in a full basement where I, unlike the old rental I had just left, would not have to lean back over a laundry sink to rip a board longer than five and a half feet. I needed a more efficient workshop and part of that was an electrical hookup independent from the overhead lighting. You don't want the table saw blowing out the lights while still spinning on a regular basis. Just take my word on this.

So it was asked of Dad to run a twenty amp circuit into the workshop, hook up a couple of outlets and, for once, make boy happy. Not hard? Right?

We did a simple overview of the project and Dad understood in principle what had to happen but latched onto the knob and tube wiring. "Look at this ridiculous stuff, what is this junk?"

"Just some old wiring Dad, the home inspector said it was no big deal."

"You should rip this old junk out."

"The inspector said just to leave it alone. Some of it is live, most has been disconnected. It's ugly, but this is the basement."

"You should rip this old junk out."

"You said that, just forget about it, ok?" Dad had a propensity to not listen. "OK?"


"So just one circuit, right here, couple of outlets."


"Just a couple of outlets."


I knew then and there I should have gone in for a more full buy in from the old man. Or at least get a more solid sense of commitment. But as it was, I also knew that if I got too insistent, he would get pissed off and the project would be over with. That was the way it was with him, a razor's edge you had to walk. Lean too far one way and you don't capture enough interest, too far the other way and he perceives your obsession and drops it because you're starting to whine about this too much.

I gave him the house keys, asked if he could do the work the next Tuesday -yes- and left it at that.

We had a long driveway. Long enough that if you hit the garage door remote just pulling off the street, the door would be fully open by the time you got to the garage.

Tuesday I pulled in, saw the old man's car, was quietly astonished that he actually showed up on the agreed upon day, and hit the garage remote.

Nothing happened.

"Aha," says I to myself, "Dad's shut off the electric so he can safely work on the new circuit."

It's amazing the lies we tell ourselves. This is the same man who rewired Christmas lights while lit (the lights, not him) and on the tree. I'll never forget that seven inch blue flame that seemed to want to bring New Year's in even before the 25th had gotten here.

In other words, Dad would no more have shut of the power for safety's sake than I would have put on fishnet panty hose and walked down 42nd street in stilettos.

That's another one you're going to have to take my word on.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just as good as the stories at the lunchtable, Mark!

7:11 PM  

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