Or So it Seems … Up on the Rooftop

Once a year, in April, my house tries to kill me.

That’s when I go to the rooftop to prance around, attempting to revive my aging swamp cooler.

Sure, I’m up there in the fall, too. But it’s no problem to cork it up, and shut it down. Simple.

But my spring rendezvous to reawaken a recalcitrant cooler? Well, that’s a different story.

It’s not so easy to bring that big, beige box back to life. And it takes a zillion trips up and down my demoniacally possessed extension ladder.

It’s in cahoots with my little house of horrors.

Yes. In theory, it should be a snap. All I need to do is to ascend eight rungs and perform the most basic of maintenance, a bit of cleaning, a touch of lubricating, and the tiniest adjustments to one of the simplest appliances I own. How simple? Consider this. Your average evaporative internal-climate-control device consists of a pump, float valve, large-ish fan and two-speed electric motor.

Dishwashers are far more complicated. So do-it-yourself cooler repair…. Nothing could be easier?

Not quite.

Indeed, take a look at my April check-off list. These steps represent years of hard-won knowledge gained through practical experience, injury, near-death experiences and public humiliation.

How To Revive Your Slumbering Swamp Cooler

1. Go into barn to get ladder. Search for 30 minutes. Then remember you put it under the shed to save room.

2. Dig ladder out from under shed.

3. Carry ladder towards house. Notice black widow crawling up your sleeve.

4. Scream. Flail wildly, dropping sharp edge of ladder on your toes.

5. Limp to house. Align ladder with dents made during a prior-year’s cooler-maintenance-caper gone wrong.

6. Place all required tools in your pants pockets. Try not to puncture leg with screwdriver. Arrgh! Remind self to carry band-aids.

7. Ascend Lucifer’s ladder cautiously, rung-at-a-time. Better yet… pray, then ascend. Allow an hour or two for this task.

8. Reach roof top and feel vice grips slide through hole created by screwdriver. Hear them hit the ground. Return to earth to retrieve them. Vow to buy a tool belt next year.

9. Return to rooftop. Remove canvas cooler cover, toss towards lawn, watch it fall into pool instead. Descend again to save it from the pool sweep.

10. Return to cooler. Remove panels and inspect. If they don’t disintegrate into heaps of rust, you’re good to go.

11. Replace the drain stand-pipe tube. Be gentle—it’s old. Try not to break it. Fail. Go down ladder and make a hurried trip to the hardware store to buy another.

12. Check float/shutoff valve to see if it shuts off properly. Note that it still leaks a bit. Ignore leak.

13. Check pump to see if it still pumps. Get squirted in process.

14. Check motor to see if it still motors. Get shocked because your hands are wet.

15. Check fan bearings. Decide they need attention. Reach for lubricant. Realize you dropped lube can when flailing at spider. Climb down ladder.

16. Lubricate moving pulley. Whack wrist. Curse. Resolve to re-visit and re-order the testing procedures next year.

17. Replace panels. Cut hand on sharp, rusty edges. Wonder when you got your last tetanus shot.

18. Descend safely. (You hope.)

19. Realize you left your crescent wrench in the cooler.

20. Decide to buy another wrench.

Over the years I’ve tried and tried to perfect this process and failed miserably. I know that going up and down the ladder is the worst part of this job. My goal is to do it once because it’s dangerous. Yet I can’t seem to carry this off.

Take this year… please.

Last week I was enjoying a warm April afternoon. I decided it was time to put the old breeze-box back in action. I was home alone, and I thought it would be nice to surprise everyone with the clammy comfort that only a swamp cooler can deliver.

So I gathered the necessary tools and stuffed them in my pockets.

And this year I’ve added a can of wasp spray. Why? Last time out I pried open a panel and was assaulted by hornets. Instinctively I ran away and came to my senses just a few feet shy of the roof’s edge.

I decided if someone has to die up there, it ain’t gonna be me.

Once I had my hand-tools at the ready then, of course, it was time to fetch the ladder.

God I hate that thing.

What’s so hard about setting up a ladder? Well, it’s all in selecting the correct “angle of ascent,” that is, the correct distance between the house and those little waffle-ridged rubber feet.

What’s the proper angle? Once upon a time, there was a sticker that showed the optimal angle. This fell off and disappeared sometime during the Clinton administration, and ever since, I’ve been left to my own devices to decide just how I should do it.

Given that I do it twice a year, I almost remember.

I know that if I put it too close, there’s a chance of the ladder falling over backwards, and if I pull it out too far, then there’s precious little ladder left over to allow me to dismount. Each year I try a different angle.

None of them seems entirely satisfactory.

Several years ago I placed the ladder too far back, too far away from the house, and as I reached the top, the ladder began sliding out from under me. I leaped on the rain gutter just before the ladder lost traction, thereby saving myself and the ladder.

But the rain gutter didn’t fair so well.

When I shared this story with a mathematically-minded friend, he explained what had happened.

“Oh there’s a formula for that,” he said. “Essentially, the side-load vector over-came the frictional forces that should have been imposed by a more direct downward force.”

When I asked him what this meant, he further clarified.

“You set the ladder up wrong, dummy.”

After that debacle, the next year I tried a more vertical alignment, putting the ladder much closer to the house. After a step or two up, I knew I had “good traction.” And after a few more steps skyward, I realized I had a different problem,

There wasn’t enough forward pressure of the ladder against the house. I could feel it pulling away from the gutter, threatening to cast me in the starring roll of a Keystone Cops movie. To avoid falling over backward, I threw myself against the ladder. And it worked.

Sort of.

The ladder then slipped sideways and I landed, tools-and-all, in a heap.

Once my wounds had healed, I again sought to learn from my experience. My math friend helped me gain a deeper understanding of my misfortune.

“This time,” he said, “we face a different problem. But there’s a formula for that, too. It’s explained by plotting the coefficient of friction between the aluminum latter and the galvanized steel gutter against the forces set up by the lateral, inertial forces resulting from a sudden, asymmetrical movement on your part.”

My puzzled look again led him to clarify his thesis.

He smiled and said. “You set the ladder up wrong, dummy.”

So this year I took pains to do the baby-bear thing. I didn’t set it up too close, nor too far away. I did it just right.

And I made sure no one was around to laugh at me if I took a dive.

I was so pleased with myself. I made onto the roof without a fuss, and I dismounted the ladder in safety.

Except for one thing. As I rolled off the ladder, my pants caught an edge and sent the ladder crashing to the ground.

The good news is that, for once, I was able to get the cooler fully operational without making repeated trips down.

The bad news was that, in order to protect it from all the tools I carried, I’d left my cell phone on my dresser.

In other words, I was all alone and stuck on the roof.

So, once the cooler was finished, I admired the view and thought. There was little else to do.

First, I did some mental math and calculated the distance between the roof and the old tree-house in the mulberry near our front door.

Could I make the leap? Perhaps, but then I remembered how rotten the wood was, and thought better of it. I pondered what my math friend would say if I made it, but fell through the particle board floor.

It would be painful, but I wonder how deeply I’d sink? I thought. No doubt there’s a formula for that.

I decided to spare myself the math lesson.

Next I speculated on who would return home first? Karin or one of the kids?

I guess I’d have to wait and find out.

And wait I did. Time seemed to pass in slow-mo. All the while I ruminated about the many years I’ve spent on that stupid roof, battling a house that is intent on doing me in.

Finally, one of the kids arrived and rescued me.

And the experience has left me a wiser man. I’ve decided that next year, come April, I’ll hire someone to come up on my rooftop and face down my demonic dwelling and its cantankerous cooler.

That soul will need to make snap decisions, be tough, sure-footed, cool under pressure, and able to handle the heights.

Sounds like a job for Santa Claus.

I wonder where he spends April?

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. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County. He can be reach at robb@robblightfoot.com.

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Robb Lightfoot is a humorist, author and educator. He and his wife raised a family of four kids, a dozen or more dogs and a zillion cats. He 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 teaching at Shasta Community College, and his former 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 in national competitions. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-10 finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives and writes in Chico where he manages ThinkingFunny.com. He also hates referring to himself in the third person, and will stop doing so immediately. I can be reached in the following ways: Robb@thinkingfunny.com PO Box 5286 Chico, CA 95928 @_thinking_funny on Twitter
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10 Responses

  1. Avatar EasternCounty says:

    For nearly all the years I was growing up near your hometown, our swamp cooler sat on the porch blowing its cool air through a living room window. And every year, Daddy would change the excelsior and spray it with the garden hose to prime it for cooling. The cooler itself coupled with the blowing were so noisy that it was difficult to carry on conversations much less hear the television. So it was decided to replace the old cooler with a new one atop the roof. As he had always done, Daddy sprayed the excelsior on the rooftop unit — only to realize that all that water came cascading down the vent into the living room. The carpet finally dried, but the ceiling required coats and coats of paint to cover the water marks. The rooftop cooler was still there when they sold the house after living there for 25 years. They moved to the coast where a cooler wasn’t required.

  2. Avatar Robb Lightfoot says:

    Great story. That’s the dilemma. Do you put it “up” and out of the way, or down where it’s easy to get to and blasts everyone across the room.

    • Avatar EasternCounty says:

      The good thing about being blasted across the room was that our house was the meeting place for all the neighborhood kids, and on hot summer days, we would play cards or board games on the living room floor while enjoying the cool — if annoyingly loud — breeze (read: gale).

  3. Avatar Grammy says:

    The article starts in the middle of the whole process with being at a hardware store to buy, say fertilizer for that lawn that is going to die this summer from lack of water, and see all the sizes of pads. Now who remembers year to year what size pad is needed for their cooler? My Husband has the right idea, send me and blame it all on me. Good thing is that when you buy one bigger, it usually works out okay and you do not have to deal with “return hell”.
    And oh by the way…thank you all those horrible people that shop lift and then return the item to the store for $$. You ruined the returning of an item for all of us. Finding that receipt is always a pain.
    April is an interesting month. One day it is 51 with you sitting feeling very cold while you watch your grand-child play soccer. The next you are getting sun burned watching soccer practice.
    Picking the day to get that water cooler working is a shot in the dark also. The North State often has a huge rain storm during Cool April Nites. Not a good combo for people using a water cooler.
    What is the formula for using the water cooler (when it is humid and your clothes are sticking to you) verses getting a shop fan and blowing air through the house at 60 MPH? Which will make you more comfortable? As “Menopausal Woman” I can tell you, there is NO winner on this decision on choice.

  4. Avatar Gl says:

    Great read Robb, hits home with every sentence. I’ve known several folks seriously hurt while on a ladder over the years. Ladders ARE serious business! Thanks for the reminder as I approach another season of painting the house, on a ladder.

    • Avatar Robb Lightfoot says:

      And the embarrassment often keeps me from seeking help. I have had more “ladder moments” than I care to remember.

  5. Avatar Barbara Nicoson says:

    Too funny. This year we have to kick the rust bucket off the roof and start over. We like to plan this right about the time the mother in law shows up. Gives us both a project!! By the way…love the rooftop view, yours and ours!

  6. Avatar Joanne Lobeski-Snyder says:

    I laughed out loud. I love the way you tell a story. I think climbing on a ladder is a test to see if you’re paying attention in life. The consequences of not being alert can be dire. Are you wearing the correct shoes? Did you gain weight so the angle of the ladder needs to change? lol.

    Great article at the right time.

  7. Avatar Ginny says:

    Great read! Best thought was to hire someone next year. Let them kill themselves and save you to write more funnies! ;o)