Monday, September 19, 2011

I never sang for my father

And that is good -- because I do not have a voice that would enhance terms of endearment.

But I didn’t have to.

He was one of those fathers who thought the sun rose for the benefit of his two boys.  And I hope we reciprocated.  He was one of the strongest positive influences in my life.

From him I learned that failure is a possibility and should always be accepted as an opportunity to learn something new from life.  That everyone deserves an invitation to Thanksgiving dinner.  That work without joy is a form of slavery.

All of them important.  But he did not teach me how to fix things around the house.  If it had an engine, he always had the correct tool and knowledge.  But if it was in the house, we usually called my Uncle Frank.

Uncle Frank knew more about electricity than Thomas Edison.  Or so I thought.  He was brave enough to tackle switch box replacements or light fixture installations without throwing breakers.  Because he knew what to touch.  And what not to touch.

I thought of Dad and Uncle Frank recently when the light switch in my kitchen went to Reddy Kilowatt heaven (even though I have often imagine Reddy running quite a different afterlife establishment).

Those of you who do not live in Mexico probably have not encountered Mexican light switches.  That is one at the top of this post.

The toggle switch has a vague European look.  For style, I have always liked them.  The problem is inside.  The little springs and plastic that control the toggle mechanism are badly engineered.  They do not last long.  They end up on Mexican walls because they are inexpensive.

I called my land lady to check on which breakers to throw for the kitchen.  Instead, she volunteered to come over to help with the task.

I was fully prepared to replace the switch.  But, I must admit I was happy to have her show up.  I felt as if we were reenacting another episode of Uncle Frank tames the wires.

The house I am in was built by a Canadian who owned a ship yard.  Because he knew his electrical stuff, he brought down several NOB light switches to replace the Mexican switches that would inevitably die.

We found one of the imported switches, and went to work.

Whenever you open anything electrical in Mexico, you can never be certain what you will find.  But you can almost be certain what you will not find -- ground wires.

When we opened the switch, we found a wire in and a wire out – and an additional white wire.  A ground wire, it wasn’t.  And because our space was now limited with the larger switch we were about to install, we let it go free.  Until one of us said: “Could that be to the kitchen fan?”

And it was.  So, out came the switch, on went the additional wire on the hot side, and the plate was back on.

Well, it was almost that easy.  Of course, there was a bit of plaster to knock out.  Some suspended switch acrobatics to get the screws to hold in place without losing the switch in the old hole.  And a bit of jiggling here and jiggling there.

Uncle Frank would not have approved.  His German sense of order would have propelled him to re-plaster the hole to make a snug fit.

But some times good enough is just that.  Good enough.  And it worked.

So there you are, Dad.  One of my songs for you.

Not to mention a light switch that works through the agency of my own hands.


tancho said...

Good for you!  That stuff is not that hard especially if  you grew up around people that had to or knew how to fix stuff. Nowadays I see blank looks when something fritzes out, or then they complain that replacing the toilet flapper cost 50 bucks just to have the guy show up.
Mexico is a grand place for fix its...necessity and the credo of self reliance seem to prevail more than NOB.

Steve Cotton said...

That was one of the joys of home ownership (and having a contractor brother) is that I learned as an adult what a lot of people learn in their teens.

Sparky said...

May I suggest an appropriate title for a future post? - "If only I had a fire extinguisher..."

Francisco said...

My brother was an electrician.  When I was young he offered to teach me.  I had a good job and declined his offer.  Just one of the many foolish decisions I've made over the years.

Felipe Zapata said...

When my wife and I built our house in 2002-03, we had good switches installed, and we've never had a lick of problem. The whole system is grounded too. It's best to build your own house down here, and pay attention during the process.

The electricians (moonlighting school teachers they were) did install all the electrical outlets upside down, however. The ground hole is at top, not bottom, as is usually done in the U.S.  Has no practical effect, however.

Teresa Freeburn said...

very entertaining steve. i could just see you and your landlady working on that switch. good thing you realized before it was too late that the white wire was for the fan.

we are supposed to get a big typhoon tomorrow morning. it is already causing floods, evacuations have started, some trains have stopped running, etc. i know  you've gone through preparations for some that did not go through. this looks like the real thing but of course it could change course during the night. please keep japan in your prayers. there has been enough suffering here this year. as for us, we live on a hill and God willing we will be fine, at least we won't be affected by the flooding.

take care,


Steve Cotton said...

A fire extinguisher I have. A CPR unit might be a good addition, though.

Steve Cotton said...

I often wish I had learned more from Uncle Frank.  He was one of those men who seemed to know how to fix anything.

Steve Cotton said...

Japan has had far more than its share of suffering this year.  Its proximity to North Korea is just as unnerving.

Steve Cotton said...

Most of the switches in the house have now been replaced.  There is only one Mexican switch remaining -- in the guest room.

blog said...

OK I am impressed by your versatility. Cannot go wrong having some handyman skills.

Norm Kwallek said...

I bought an old house a few years ago and changed out the plugs because they were falling apart. I came across a plug that had #12 wire going in and #14 going out and had 10 outlets on the run, all fused by a 20 amp breaker-the reason  the burnt-up plugs  were falling apart. These plugs were all in what would be considered the kid's bedrooms of that house.  I check the load on each fuse now when I get into a new project. The rule of thumb is: no more than 8 outlets on a #12wire with a 20 amp breaker and no more than 6 outlets on #14 wire and a 15 amp breaker. My father taught me how to fix things when I was a kid, I tease him about working me like a field hand but I'm grateful for what I learned.  

Steve Cotton said...

As limited as they may be.

Steve Cotton said...

And then there are the usual extension cords (or surge protectors) filled with far too many items. If I end up starting a fire, it will be at my computer table.

Sparksmex said...

Cement/concrete does not burn

Steve Cotton said...

But my computer and furniture will.

Kim G said...

I'm glad you got your switch replaced, but I wouldn't be too cavalier in Mexico about working on live wires. You can get away with that in a wooden house NOB, but in Mexico everything is masonry, with no basement, and you are indeed WELL GROUNDED.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where our father is someone who can fix ANYTHING and has passed along a decent bit of that. Thankful we are.

Steve Cotton said...

I should point out, my landlady and I wisely threw the circuit breakers before we started tempting the electron goddess.