Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Prize Inside

My lawnmower broke. My wife had set out to mow the lawn but quickly reported the lawnmower broken, again, and we needed a new one. Having maintained that mower for years, I wasn’t about to give up on it. Not that it was anything special, it was a no-name gas-powered mower, red on the bottom, black engine on top.

I wondered what the problem could be this time: dirty carburetor, fouled spark plug, clogged air cleaner, broken starter rope, bent cutting blade – what else? I figured it would take a while just to size up the situation. But, with my keen diagnostic powers, I identified the problem in an instant. The right front wheel was sticking out at a crooked angle. Instead of rolling forward, it was digging into the ground.

When we first bought our house, we planned to put in a hot tub, a sauna, a pool table, the idyllic dreams of home ownership. Reality intervened and we put on a new roof and bought a lawnmower. In the course of years, lawnmowers get old, they break, and they wear out. But the idea that we needed to replace this lawnmower didn’t sit well. The way my father taught me, if something broke – well, it shouldn’t break in the first place because you should have taken care of it – but if it did break, you didn’t just run out and buy a new one, you fixed it. So I’d been maintaining and fixing this lawnmower for years, and it – and the roof – hadn’t worn out yet.

I brought it into the basement and examined the wheel arrangement. It didn’t have an axle with a wheel at each end, like a car. Instead, each wheel had a short bolt that attached it to the housing, the heavy sheet metal that shields the blade (so you don’t cut off your toes) and support the engine. This wheel was still bolted to the housing, but bent outwards at an angle. I loosened the nut on the inside of the housing, removed the bolt, and then removed the wheel. It became clear what happened.

The section of the housing around the bolt was cracked and bent outwards. I surmised that the nut on the inside of the housing had loosened a little bit so the wheel wasn’t attached firmly and consequently, every time you pushed the mower over a bump on the lawn, the wheel was jostled back and forth. Over the course of years, it bent the section of metal housing back and forth until finally the sheet metal had fatigued and cracked and gotten bent outwards.

In the years before my father died, I would have called him on the phone, described the situation, and asked for his advice. I would call him when I had an electrical problem, his specialty, or any kind of home repair or mechanical problem. He had a knack for using language so precisely and descriptively that I could follow what he was saying, even over the telephone, without diagrams or hand motions. Instinctively I thought about calling him. Habit.

I figured I could patch the cracked section with a piece of heavy sheet metal that would overlap the cracked section. I cut out a piece of scrap sheet metal, drilled a series of small holes near the perimeter of the patch, drilled matching holes in the housing, and attached the patch to the housing with pop rivets. The patch held firmly. In the middle of the patch I drilled a new hole for the bolt that holds the wheel in place.

I put the bolt through the wheel and then through the hole. I picked up the lock washer and the nut that will tighten onto the bolt and hold the wheel in place and, as I looked at the lock washer, I saw that it was squashed flat. The lock washer is supposed to be springy, to press out against the housing and the nut, to prevent the nut from coming loose from all the vibration from the engine. And I realized this was why the wheel failed. It was this lock washer. It wasn’t doing its job so the nut loosened, the bolt wiggled back and forth, the metal fatigued and cracked, the wheel went crooked. The lock washer was the source of this problem!

I needed a new lock washer. I considered driving down to the hardware store. But, I thought, if I run down to the hardware store I will have to find a place to park my car. And so long as I’m making the trip, since the CVS pharmacy is right across the street, there are a couple things I need to pick up there. And when it comes to buying this lock washer, I’m going to have to buy a whole blister pack of assorted washers, because you can’t go and buy just a single one. Instead, I decided to look for one in the basement.

I headed down to the “tool room,” and started looking. I looked through the plastic cabinet I’d bought with two dozen little plastic drawers, each stocked with a particular type and size of fastener: wood screws, sheet metal screws, machine screws, washers, and nuts. It had a range of lock washers but none big enough for this bolt. So I moved on to search through my father’s old storage boxes.

My father had kept a number of black rectangular boxes, made from Bakelite, "the first synthetic plastic," from when he worked at Tech-Art Plastics in the 1940s. He always referred to them as “the Bakelite boxes” and used them to store his miscellaneous parts and supplies. It had been my job as a kid to find things for him. He was an electrician and we’d be working on a job and he would say, “Sandy, run out to the Jeep,” he had an old, 1948 Jeep station wagon, “and get me …” 8/32 screws, wire nuts, BX connectors, fluorescent starters, knock-out blanks, whatever he needed.

It happened quite often that I’d come back and say, “Dad, I couldn’t find it.” And he would say, quite forcefully, “Look with your hands!” It took me a long time to figure out what he meant: if you just look in the box, if you just use your eyes, all you see is what’s on the surface. You have to reach in with your hands, rummage around, pick stuff out, dump out the box, go through it piece by piece. You have to use your hands, not just your eyes; you have to “look with your hands!”

I was in the basement searching through those old Bakelite boxes, searching for the lock washer I needed, hearing my father’s voice, “look with your hands,” and what did I find? There, among the dirty old screws, washers, and nuts, a small, plastic magnifying glass, the round, magnifying end the size of a nickel, with a plastic handle that ended with a little hole so you could put it on a key ring. And I was transported to a day, probably 45 years earlier, when I was four or maybe five or six years old.

It was a beautiful sunny day. We were on a family trip to visit Cousin Ray who lived near the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. After much searching for a parking space, my father parked the car and my mother went into the apartment building, to the seventeenth floor, to get my elderly Cousin Ray. This would take a while. My father and I walked out to the promenade to kill time. In the middle of the walkway there was a large, wooden planter with a small tree growing in the middle surrounded by bright flowers – blue and yellow pansies, red petunias, golden marigolds. Facing out from each side of the planter was a built-in bench, the wood a weathered grey. My father and I sat down on one of them, taking in this lovely day.

My father reached into his pocket and took out a cigar, carefully removed the cellophane wrapper, and put it in his mouth. He reached into another pocket but came out empty handed. He tried another pocket and another, pants, jacket, shirt. No matches. How frustrating! A fine day to smoke a cigar, but no matches. Gazing down the walkway, he noticed a vendor selling Cracker Jacks. He said to me, “Sandy, here’s a nickel. Go over and buy a box of Cracker Jacks. Maybe we’ll get lucky and there will be a plastic magnifying glass inside.” That was back when the “toy prize” in the Cracker Jack box was a real toy.

I wasn’t all that fond of Cracker Jacks, but I wasn’t going to turn him down. Moreover, my major interest in Cracker Jacks was the “toy surprise inside.” I tore open the box and, not feeling the polite obligation to first eat the contents, went right for the toy prize. And there it was, a small, plastic magnifying glass. My father took it in one hand, held his cigar in the other, and focused the rays of the sun to a pinpoint on the end of the cigar. I had no idea what he was doing.

Within a minute, I was amazed to see the end of the cigar start to smolder. “Sandy,” he said, “you come around the other side of the cigar and you puff on it.” But I was five years old and I didn’t know how. I tried but I couldn’t get the cigar to light up. “Okay,” my father said, “you hold the magnifying glass and I’ll puff.” He held the cigar and leaned forward so I could reach the cigar as I held the magnifying glass, trying my best to focus the rays of the sun on one spot on the end of the cigar, just as he had done. I held it as steady as I could, though I couldn’t keep it from wavering. My little-boy effort was more intently focused than the beam of sunlight coming though that magnifying glass.

At last it started to smolder and my father leaned forward even more so he could puff on it, gentle, short puffs, and I watched as the pinpoint glow of the tobacco gradually spread to the edges. He raised the cigar, signally that I didn’t need to focus the magnifying glass any more, and leaned back to take a long, relaxing puff. He was beside himself. Not only had he lit this cigar, he demonstrated to his little boy the magic, the power of the magnifying glass. And we sat there, the two of us, he puffing on his cigar, me, eating my Cracker Jacks, feeling pretty darned pleased with ourselves, perhaps even a little smug, and I had a small plastic magnifying glass in my pocket.

This recollection flashed through my head and then I was back in the basement, holding a Bakelite box, hearing my father’s voice, “look with your hands.” I’m wasting time, I thought, fighting with myself, just get in the car and go to the hardware store

I found it. A lock washer just the right size, stored there by my father, perhaps 50 or 60 years ago. I tested it out on the bolt. It was perfect. I put the bolt through the wheel and then through the hole in the new section of sheet metal. I put on the new lock washer. I used two wrenches – one on the head of the bolt, one on the nut – to get it good and tight. Learning the lesson, I checked all the other wheels to make sure they were all good and tight. I put the tools away, just as my father showed me, so I could find them the next time I needed them. I took the lawnmower outside and rolled it back and forth. It worked perfectly. I pulled the cord and it started right up. My wife heard the lawnmower, came outside and took over, mowing the lawn.

I sat down on the glider on the front porch. I took out a cigar, removed the cellophane, put it in my mouth. I struck a match, lit it, and sat there, listening with satisfaction to the buzz of the lawnmower in the backyard. And I would have to admit I was feeling pretty darned pleased with myself, perhaps even a little smug, and I had a small, plastic magnifying glass in my pocket.