Monday, July 04, 2005

Electric Kool Aid Acid Testing

So what if the garage door didn't open? I'll just park the car outside, next to Dad's (he still drives?) and ignore the fact that there is one garage door that runs solely on electricity and one side door to the garage that opens with a key surely lost at a picnic in 1949.

I enter the house, call out, Dad answers, everything is OK.

I'm still in deep denial.

"Shut the power off, did you?"


There are times you think things through very carefully. You consider all reasonable options, examine the character and motivations of all the players and make some assumptions and decisions about what's really going on. You generally are right about most of the things you've decided on, if not all. It's the result of the careful thinking we just don't have the time to do. You make calls on the spur of the moment in the heat of battle and hope you are right. Sometimes you are, other times you are not.

It didn't matter if you had put a gun to my head and given me three seconds: Whatever calls I made about my old man would have been as right as the one I made in the time it took to walk down the basement stairs.

That's not to say I headed right downstairs. I went upstairs to take my coat and tie off, noting that about half the house was pitched into darkness and lights were burning in the other half.

All the lights were on in the basement and Dad had basically plugged an extension cord into an existing wall outlet, nailed the cord to one of the rafters and plugged some power tools in. I hope you got a refund on tech school tuition.

He 'fessed up right away though. I thought for a moment that this was some new incarnation of Dad. Show some vulnerabilities and shortcomings, find out we still love and respect you? Nope.

"Just got started on the power source. Spent most of the afternoon ripping out all that old junk." He smiled and pointed to a trash barrel full of...yes, you guessed it: knob and tube wiring.

"The stuff I asked you to leave alone."

"Damn old-fashioned junk. Ought to be outlawed." He then turned and walked upstairs to return to his first love in life: picking individual fallen leaves up off the ground. There's a post there in and of itself and I'll explain more fully. For now though, comfort yourselves with the image of my old man walking around the yard in random patterns, bending over every now and again to pick up a fallen leaf or other piece of organic detrius.

Dad was many things and one of them was an adult-onset diabetic. Thankfully my mom was paying attention to his conditions and began to worry on days where he would get very pale, start sweating and become disoriented and confused. Mom had had her run ins with diabetes earlier in life and understood the symptoms. She would sit him down, make him rest, give him several glasses of fresh orange juice (nothing with added sugar) and made him see a doctor pronto.

He was on insulin which was to say twice a day Mom had to remind him to take the stuff. Since he was at my place and she was home, she was not around to remind him and as a result he blissfully ignored his symptoms. Being my old man, I was surprised he hadn't ransacked the house for leftover Halloween candy. Responsibility wasn't his strong suit either.

I was staring at stumps of wires still stuck in the rafters of my half dark house. Then I stared at the remnants of a perfectly workable electrical system in a trash barrel. Then I looked outside to try and figure out two things: One; when was the sun going to set and two; how do I manage to explain this one to my wife?

The answer to one was three hours which answered two. If I managed to get everything hooked back up to satisfy one, two would never have to be explained.

"Dad, get down here and start telling me what you fucking cut off of where!"


"Dad, what did you cut first?"


"The wires Dad, the freaking wires. You fucking cut off power to half the house!" The old man hated my using strong language but at this point in time, I was holding on to a utility knife and a big bad pair of pliers. I felt pretty secure.

"I don't remember."

"When did you last eat?"


"Have you had anything to drink? Orange juice?"

"Don't know where it is."

"Yes, we tend to veer far from the norm of keeping orange juice in the fridge. Here, I'll push the cat litter aside to reveal it's secret hiding place." The old man needed help. He needed to stabilize his out of control blood sugar level and needed insulin fast. I got him upstairs, got him something to drink and called my mother, telling her to bring his meds.

We got him medicated and settled down.

"Do you remember what wires you cut?"

"Not really."

That was it. Relying on his memory or rewiring by trial and error, it was pretty much the same crap shoot.

If you ever need to wire something up yourself or if you ever need to trace circuits while alone, here's a helpful tip: Get a vacuum cleaner. Plug it into the outlet you want to find the source wire of and start hooking things up. The moment you hear the vacuum cleaner fire up, you're onto something. Beats a light you plug in and race up and down stairs and beats "Honey, now?" as a system.

The amazing thing about knob and tube in my house was that it did exactly what it was designed to do seventy years ago. Namely, stop a short circuit by having the positive wire physically isolated from the negative wire. If Dad had cut through more modern wiring that relied on better insulation and stranded the hot and neutral wires together he would have blown himself across the room.

Maybe there's something to this history thing. Dad didn't think so but I've got a house strung together with more code violations than most depression-era shanty towns to show for it.


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