Sippican Cottage



A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Television

I decided to move my desk into another room last night. It’s been in my dining room. I put it there because about five years ago I moved to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Actually, that’s not quite true. I moved to Rumford, Maine, which is more like Superman’s horizontal freezer inside his Fortress of Solitude. Rumford is colder than an ex-wife that passes by when you’re panhandling. The only heat in the house is the pellet stove in the dining room and I parked my sorry self within ten feet of it five minutes after I installed it. I’d get right in the hopper and button up like a Panzer tank if I could, but that would void the warranty, I think.

Unfortunately, it’s like a bowling alley in the dining room, and I need to think occasionally when I write. I don’t think about what I write, but I do like to think about central heating and other mythical creatures while I type. Passes the time. The dining room simply has too much hubbub, bub.

In order to move my desk into our bedroom, I needed to install an electrical outlet. Our house was built when McKinley was president, and I think he was the electrician, too. It still has knobs and tubes all over the place, and most rooms in the house only have one convenience outlet. The room where the kids practice music doesn’t have any electricity at all.

I know how to install electricity in a new house, and an old house, and a restaurant, and a gas station, and a football stadium, and several other kinds of places no one invites me to build anymore. It’s really very simple except the part where you’re dealing with what was installed in the mists of antiquity by an escapee from a support group for mentally challenged subcontractors with Frankenstein fetishes. The meetings were held in my basement, I infer.

So I had a hankering for electricity last night after supper. My older son usually helps, but he’s sick and in bed, and the little one is watching something on the screen in the living room. That left me by my lonesome to scurry up and down the stairs to find a spot to bring Romex up from the basement and into the wall on the first floor to install the outlet. I located a knot in the subfloor, and used it for a measuring point. I found an abandoned wire I could re-route from a clothes dryer from the seventies, and I followed it back to a spider’s cathedral in the ceiling of the other, nastier part of the basement where I keep my personality and the circuit breaker panel.

I had to hunt around for stuff. I couldn’t afford to buy a single screw, so everything had to be found in the heap of jetsam I keep handy in case I want to build an atom smasher or fix a window screen. I found an old work box suitable for a lath and plaster wall, a 15-amp duplex outlet left over from a house I built in the ninth century, and a cover plate still in its wrapper that included the rarest of things in the history of construction: a usable center screw. I found some wire nuts wherever you find wire nuts. No one ever buys wire nuts. You just find them in your basement, like mildew.

Now for tools: I located a hefty hammer drill that never had its perpendicular handle and will break your wrist like Rex Kwan Do if you’re not careful, which I never am. I put a comically big 18″ auger bit labeled the “Nail Eater” in the chuck, and prepared to drill a hole through 1.75 inches of subfloor, a little bit of the carrying beam of the house, and the 1-3/4″ sole plate of the wall upstairs. The idea is that the auger will appear magically inside the wall at the bottom of the correct wall stud bay, directly under the outlet box I just installed. That’s what I was preparing to do, as I said. I was expecting to drill through my wife’s foot, or come up in the middle of the lawn like Larry Fine, or some such.

I had to turn off half the circuit breakers in the house because everything’s labeled like jars in the dissection room of a dyslexia museum and I have no idea if I’m turning off some guy’s iron lung across the street or a lamp in my living room.

I was getting ready to actually drill the hole, so I went upstairs to warn my wife that the “Nail Eater” might be coming her way, and I had no idea if they were referring to toenails or framing nails or what. And there, in the living room, was my 12-year old son, watching an ancient rerun of This Old House on streaming media on the TV because nothing else in the house will turn on. Tom Silva was explaining how to drill holes in framing lumber so as not to weaken them unduly when making holes for electricity or plumbing. My son was watching it the way teenaged boys watch girls at the beach. So I asked my son if he wanted to watch his father drill a great big hole in some framing lumber in order to install an electrical wire.

He said no.

16 Responses

  1. Well, I'll say this: when you write you write. Every sentence I was clicking to not just similar but the same experiences. Er, except the bits about your family.

    Forty-four years in the trade and I have seen it all, just like Hank Snow. If I haven't seen it it's because it would have happened in the forty-fifth year, shrug.

    In this project, you think you had the drill plumb but you probably didn't. (Only got about three inches inside that wall, right?) In all my years I only saw one guy that could drill plumb. Nobody liked him.

  2. My Lad has a flat tire on his bike. I asked if he wanted to learn how to fix it; he said he already knew how (he does seem to know everything else there is to know). After he gave me a long and overly complex explanation of how to put air in a tire, I told him about actually addressing the REASON it was flat, and how to patch a tube. It being one of the last days before he has to head back for another hitch in the joint (5th grade), I suggested we fix it properly and actually go outside. No going with this one and, as I remember from the shank of every summer vacation I ever had, he's BORED.

  3. You also reminded me of the time I was living in a Pre-Revolutionary barn in New Jersey when we lost juice (I was a mucker for 65 horses – crappy job but I can drive a tractor and back a manure spreader like a boss). I wandered over to the 1750's main house, went into the basement and, standing in ankle deep water, began to change out the screw-type fuse (dunno what you call them, and don't wanna know). Somehow, through some Tesla-type action, I was instantly transported to the other side of the basement, and my arm didn't work (felt kinda funny, too). Having the good sense that I did then, (and still do, for the record), I decided I needed to stack some bricks up so I wasn't standing in water to change the fuse. It worked, and I've been terrified of all things electrical ever since. Doesn't mean I still don't do things electrical around the house; just means I'm terrified when I do them.

  4. I laughed out loud 3 times, and read aloud 2 paragraphs to Meg and the dog, who both looked blank at me. Kids today.

  5. Hello Chasmatic- My house is framed like a barn, and the interior walls are plopped directly on top of the carrying beams below, so you have to drill at an oblique angle to end up in the stud bay. There's a fair bit of guessing, but I'm a good guesser, I guess.

    Hi Bob- You're right, of course, but I can and did compete, and will write about it shortly. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    Hi Johnny- Boredom is a huge part of it. Bob is correct that the TV program has all the drudgery stripped out, and so the action is concentrated and more interesting.

    Hi Larry- Thanks for reading and commenting. That's my basement. It's not the basement I was referring to in the essay. The picture shows the basement under the basement, which is worse than the basement. It had two different fires over the decades.

  6. Yeah, Sipp, they don't call us "magicians" for nothing. Working on houses born in 1903 or so, takes a little while to get the carps' handwriting. Lathe and plaster, yikes.

    Johnnie, my man, yer lucky to be alive. I got hit a number of times, it hurts. When I did I looked around to see if anybody saw it. I got bit by 480V one time, my arm went numb and I hadda sit down for a time.

  7. Thanks for this. I am overwhelmed with home improvement and I am actually somewhat experienced and competent, but it never ends and it seems to always be a bit depressing. Nice to know that even Sippican who I look up to has similar concerns. If only I could write like him maybe someone would care. Or should I say Sippican, to whom I look up, has similar concerns.

  8. Johnny G., do you mean to say you're mucking out the barn and NOT wearing rubber boots? Rubber boots are just THE thing to be wearing standing in water and messin' wit' electric things. Oh, and them screw-type fuses? Just called 'em fuses.

    chasm, I usta work in a place with 480V AC all over, and high-amp DC too. Got trained with "that stuff'll kill ya, ya don't be real careful".

  9. Sam, You had good training. My last job was at a copper mine down here in NM. we had 147KV comimg in, transformer stations dropped it to 13.5KV and sent it all over the property.there were a lot of pumps rinning at 4160V. Think: 200hp moving 1000 gallons per minute. Working on the switchgear wearing arc flash suits, redundant lockout safeties, still some chance to get incinerated.I confess, I liked tth danger, an adrenalin junky I guess. took me back to when I worked with energetic materials fofor Uncle Sam.

    whoops, sorry Sipp, didn't mean to hijack the thread.

  10. Fourteen years into our remuddle (1918 four squarish farmhouse), with three bedrooms and a sun porch yet to go.

    A few months after having ⅓ of the foundation rebuilt, I was running new supply plumbing (cpvc) and as usual was a little wet from cutting in a T into an existing line. Backed up against the 1970s Singer brand furnace and got a nice tingle. Thought to myself, "that shouldn't be." Started checking things and found I had 120 on the hot, neutral *and* copper ground. No wonder my old CRT computer monitor had the shakes!

    Turns out the foundation contractor had run a 3" screw into our aluminum siding to hang the electrical service wires up out of the way and forgot to unhang them when done. I guess the wind or something (mischievous coyotes?) had rocked them back and forth enough for the screw threads to cut through the insulation, which then energized pretty much anything metal in the house.

    I called the contractor (having properly secured things) and when I told him what his crew had done, I could hear him turn white over the phone.

    That said, I've had to do some creative drilling for the very same reason, and so far have managed to put the holes where they are supposed to go.

    And I'll go ahead and say it because no-one else did; for one brief, glorious moment, I thought Sipp was about to continue the "foundation story" that brought me here for the first time several years ago.

    But it was not to be…

  11. Kids have different priorities and it's going to be a few more years before they appreciate the skills that we would like to pass down to them.

    Part of it is public school: All the shop classes are gone. Manual labour has been devalued. Experience is an alien concept.
    Part of it is me: I could have better teaching skills, more patience.

    Younger son was keen on cars. I bought some plastic models to build: not interested.
    So I sold the '63 Lotus Elan. I wasn't going to rebuild it myself.

    Older son has 2 bicycles and 3 flats. He knows how to fix them and I'm ready to lend a hand, but priorities…

    They're good kids. Just not interested in the same things.

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