“And if that doesn’t work, get a bigger hammer.” ~ My Dad.
My sister, Pat, has long been my cheerleader. Years ago when I was first dating Karin, Pat boasted on my behalf.
“Robb can fix anything,” she said.
“Really,” Karin replied. “My pocket camera quit, and I miss it.”
Seeing an opportunity to impress, I offered my services.
“I’ll get it going again,” I said, not bothering to look at the ailing gadget first.
“Can you?” she asked. “It makes a funny sound.”
She rummaged in her purse, produced the camera, and then pressed the button to demonstrate.
“Gears are slipping,” I said confidently, but I knew I was in trouble. The camera was a small plastic box, glued shut. I was going to have to perform a magic act akin to sawing a lady in half to get inside that contraption. And putting it back together? Well, that could take some doing.
“If we can open it, we halfway home,” I said. Secretly, though, I wondered if I could buy another one just like it and substitute it when she wasn’t looking. This is my smoke-and-mirrors maintenance method. Dad calls it the “jack-up-the-radiator-cap-and-drive-a-new-car –under-it” school of auto repair. But whatever name you gave it… I had a problem. Everyone was watching especially Karin….
I grew up in a family where the men don’t do sports or hunt. Instead, our virility is proven by being “gadget guys.” We are MASTERS of all things automotive, mechanical, and electrical.
Or so we claim.
My grandfather was the original Mr. Fix It. During his childhood, he often was bored with school. He once told me about his dull days. He’d prop up his books on his desk and hide behind them to dismantle his pocket watch.
“I’d do OK,” he said, “until I got to the main spring.”
“What happened then?” I asked.
“One time, it popped me in the face.”
“Bet that hurt,” I said.
“Not half as much as the tanning I got for not paying attention.”
Yes, repairs can be painful. Take the time I was rotating tires on my Mustang. I was in the alley behind our house, and the county had just put down some fresh pavement. I didn’t think much of this when I jacked up the car, as I’d done dozens of times before. I removed the tire without bothering to “block” the wheels on the opposite side.
Why bother? I thought. It’s level.
Things were going swimmingly until I pulled the tire off. I was bear hugging the tire, my legs on either side and both hands on top. Just then, the jack sank in the soft asphalt, turned sideways and popped out. The car dropped, pinning my 10 fingers between a steel-belted radial and the fender’s ½ inch metal lip.
I screamed, but no one came. So I shouted at the top of my lungs for help, alternately praying and cursing. I sounded like a cross between a pastor and Popeye the Sailor. A “good” 15 minutes passed, my fingers turning white, before my brother wandered out of the house, jacked the car back up, and saved me.
My phalanges survived, but I couldn’t so much as open a door knob for a week.
As you may have guessed, I have no formal training in auto mechanics. Dad took years of shop class, and worked in grandpa’s garage, but mom was determined that I’d go to college and get a white-collar job. So outside of the mandatory 7th and 8th grade shop classes— required for all boys back then—I had no instruction. What I know about cars and electronics I gathered from a misspent youth, hanging around hot rods and ham radio.
In short, I’m a self-taught fix-it man.
The fancy word for this is autodidact. Which I think is Latin for smoke and mayhem. For example, at age 15, I was tinkering with a ham radio 2KW amplifier. My parents were blissfully unaware that I’d pried off the cover off and bypassed a safety device.
I was working inside a metal box that had a live circuit with 3,000 volts, enough juice to flash-fry a side of beef. But I wasn’t worried. I had mastered the lowly electron.
Unfortunately I misread the wiring schematic, and shorted the high voltage directly to ground. In an instant, the meter in my hand vaporized, exploded, and I ruined my amp. The power surge also tripped our home’s main circuit breaker. A neighbor three houses away later reported that her lights dimmed.
My mother dashed to my radio room and found me, amid acrid smoke, dazed but unharmed. I was compelled to sell the amplifer, and forbidden for a time from doing any more hands-on electronic experimentation.
So I turned my attention to cars. I proved adept at finding trouble there, too. One of my first “learning opportunities” happened one weekend when I had an ad in the paper. I was working on my Triumph Spitfire, but the phone rang continually.
Each call forced me to put down my wrenches, crawl out from under the car, clean-up, and go speak on the phone. I took all these calls while doing a boring, repetitive task—repeatedly removing and replacing a wheel. On the five-millionth time, I ran the lug nuts up finger-tight and had the wrench in hand when, once again, the phone rang and I went inside.
The conversation lasted much longer that the others, and since it was midday, I took lunch. Eventually, I returned, and everything looked good to go. I took off for a test spin.
I was in 4th gear, doing about 50, when something jarred my memory. That “something” was the front end shaking violently—it tore the steering wheel from my hand. The Spitfire then lurched to the driver’s side, as the car parted company with its front wheel. It ripped off a fender, and exited stage left. I came to a stop traveling on three wheels and a disk brake rotor while I watched the errant wheel race onward. I saw it take flight on a bump—almost reaching the height of a telephone poll. Fortunately, no one encountered the thing as it bounced along for more than a half-mile before wobbling to a stop.
I was lucky…. Or, I’d mastered the power of prayer.
I was reflecting on these events last week, when I found myself in my office flat on my back, staring at the underside of my desk, screwdriver in hand. For 21 years I’d fussed to get my office refurbished. Finally, I’d gotten the OK to see some fresh paint applied to the walls of my dungeon. But as mother used to say: “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.”
I had to clear out all my stuff to let the painters in.
As the final move-out date drew near, I faced a problem. To get my desk and chair and remaining items into my wife’s little Subaru, I had to dismantle them. This was “a process.” Before I could remove the top, I had to pull the drawers, gussets, spacers, supports, and the fossilized bodies of a million spiders. In all, 1.2 billion bits and pieces had to come out before I could gain access to 16 screws that held the top in place.
I packed all this off. The painters then came and worked their magic. My office looked beautiful. All that remained was to reverse the process.
Moving boxes of books back in was easy. Ah, but there’s still one teeny-weeny sticking point. I had to reassemble the desk. But, hey, how hard can it be to put a few screws back in the right place?
Harder than I’d like to admit.
Years ago, when I’d first assembled it… I had instructions. Sadly, I noticed AFTER taking the thing apart that the big bucket contained three slightly-different-sized fasteners. They’re so close in appearance that the “wrong” screws fit quite easily in the “right” place, and “right” screws fit in the “wrong” place just as happily.
And then there were all those Lincoln-Log wooden braces, shims, supports, and door guides.
They, too, were ALMOST identical. But some tapered to the left, and some to the right. It’s possible to install a piece upside down, backwards, on the wrong side, and with two possibly incorrect choices of screws—all at once. Then… just as the last piece is jammed into place… the desk explodes like it’s the star of an episode of Candid Camera.
Lying under that desk, with my hands overhead, feeling my blood drain from my fingers, I had plenty of time—hours in fact—to contemplate the wisdom of dismantling the beast and not tagging its parts. I should have known better, and it occurred to me that it would have been easier to just fell a nearby oak and whittle a new desk with a soup spoon.
But, being a true gadget-guy, I refused to quit.
Done at last, I tested my work it by tugging on a seldom-used drawer. It opened and revealed a vaguely familiar bag containing shards of plastic—just as Karin walked in.
She picked up the remains of her old pocket camera.
“Remember when you told me you’d fix this?” She laughed.
I squared my shoulders and stuck out my chest.
“But I didn’t say when.”
Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe – “Or So it Seems™” – Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. He has two humor books in print, The Doggone Christmas List and The Stupid Minivan. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County, Northern California.