With the help of friends, owner’s manuals, and ballcocks that just won’t stay in place, CJ Kaplan is finally learning how to be a handy man.
The home gym in our basement was unremarkable except for the fact that there was a 5% chance you would be killed every time you used it. Our weightlifting equipment consisted of a bench attached to a stack of iron plates suspended from a pulley. The entire rig had been bolted to the wall and reinforced with a metal bracket to keep it in place. This should have made us feel safe when using it, but we had seen other work by the under-qualified technician who had installed it—my dad.
Throughout my entire childhood, even up until this day, my father has been the proud owner of exactly three tools: a hammer and two screwdrivers, one regular and one Phillips. If it couldn’t be fixed with one of these tools (or, at the most, two), then it just couldn’t be fixed. Loose doorknob—no problem. Loose drainpipe—big problem.
So it was with no small measure of trepidation that my Dad took the disassembled parts of a pseudo-Nautilus machine that my mom had salvaged from a garage sale (because purchasing used weightlifting equipment off a stranger’s front lawn is always a good idea) and reassembled them in a room where the dog occasionally slept and peed. He disappeared into the basement one Saturday afternoon with the hammer and both screwdrivers (just in case) and a stern warning that nobody should interrupt him until the project was finished.
My brother Dan and I stood at the top of the basement stairs listening to the tortured sounds of metal being pounded and twisted as though the machine itself were resisting my father’s efforts. Some two hours later he emerged, sweaty and bleeding, from the depths of our house and declared the task complete.
Dan and I raced down the stairs, anxious for the opportunity to sculpt and chisel our dormant muscles until girls found us irresistible. We had with us a glossy weightlifting manual that the manufacturer and the previous owner had generously included with the machine. On the cover were pictures of buff men and women who had clearly been using this home gym for years, if not decades. Inside were the iron-pumping routines that would elevate my brother and I to the same vein-popping level as those cover models.
We burst into the newly dubbed “weight room” with our testosterone levels at previously undreamed of highs. There it stood, the home gym we had envisioned, beckoning us to escape our pale, skinny bodies. At its base lay scattered paint chips, a few spots of blood and several odd-looking spare parts—collateral damage from the battle my father had waged. Being the oldest, it was my honor to be the first to complete a set of bench presses. I lay down, affixed my hands to the bar and thrust my arms upward.
As the stack of iron plates rose, the entire apparatus lurched away from the wall and pressed up against the thin metal safety bracket with a sound that can only be described as screeching brakes meets nails on a chalkboard. I jumped up, certain that the machine was going to topple over and crush me before I had the chance to obtain rippling pectoral muscles. But, the bracket held.
Dan and I looked at each other uncertainly. Tentatively, I got back on the bench and tried again. Once more as the stacks rose, the machine jerked away from the wall and then settled back as the stack was lowered.
I peered up at Dan. He shrugged. The thing seemed to be holding. So, I closed my eyes and did ten of the fastest repetitions I’ve ever done in my life. The noise was horrifying. At once, my mother’s voice rang out from the top of the stair.
“Are you boys all right?”
“Yup,” Dan yelled back. “We’re good!” With that, he flipped on the boom box we had brought for atmospheric purposes and proceeded to crank some Motley Crue. (Remarkably, the sound of the machine and Vince Neil’s voice were complimentary.)
We used that home gym for several years, never knowing if our next workout would be our last. Did my dad check to see if the machine was attached to a load-bearing wall? Doubtful. Did he try to find a stud when he was pounding in the bolts? Unlikely. Do I know what load-bearing walls and studs are or did I just look up those phrases to sound like I knew what the hell I was talking about? No more questions, please.
Look, I’m not mad at my father because he isn’t good with tools. He’s excellent at lots of other things. I’m mad at him because he passed his un-handiness on to me. In wood shop, my bookends were artless and uneven. In metal shop, it took me all semester to make a small, tin box. And I burned my fingers soldering the damn thing. In college, while other guys were building lofts, my mattress remained on the floor. And when my wife and I moved into our first apartment together, I drilled two-dozen holes in the wall before I managed to hang our shelves straight. To my credit, though, I had done something that my father never had—buy a drill.
I should have done something about my un-handiness the day I bought a house. But even then, when I got a toolbox as a housewarming gift I filled it with gardening implements. And while the curtain rods that I installed were indefensibly lopsided, my tomatoes were impeccable. I had also acquired a large nail and screw organizer with over 30 compartments with which to classify my fasteners. Since I barely had 30 screws and nails, I put one in each compartment so that it would look like I had every type imaginable. Then, my father-in-law, who is handy, optimistically gave me a ratchet set with over 24 attachments. Who, I asked my wife, is doing that much ratcheting? And did my father-in-law go out and get a new set with even more attachments? 36? 48? Where does the madness end?
While all of those things failed to inspire me to find my inner handiness, a clogged sink did. At first, the water in our bathroom sink drained very slowly after I shaved or brushed my teeth. Then it didn’t drain it all. After applying my own repair methods, which included opening and closing the drain really fast and turning the faucet on super high in hopes of dislodging the clog, we called a plumber.
When he arrived, I pretended to be doing something manly by standing in the driveway and peering earnestly at the engine of my car. Luckily, he wasn’t there for the previous twenty minutes it took me to figure out how to get the hood open.
“It’s the sink in the master bathroom,” I drawled as he passed by in a tone that suggested I would have fixed the thing myself if I weren’t too busy rebuilding my carburetor. Whatever that is.
Seven minutes later he came back out.
“All set,” he said, handing me the bill.
Ninety bucks! For a job that took less time than it took me to get my hood open. Well, that tore it. I was going to become handy or die trying. And, given my past, the latter was a distinct possibility.
Still fuming over the bill, I called my buddy Jeff. Of all my friends, Jeff is far and away the handiest. In fact, for reasons known only to him, Jeff built a half wall in his house. Though its purpose remains unclear to this day, it is by any measure an excellent half wall. The day he completed it, my entire poker group went over to have a look. We stood around drinking beer and admiring Jeff’s handiwork. If Jeff could build a non-functional half wall, I thought, surely he could teach me how to unclog a drain.
Jeff and I stood in my bathrooms some days later. I had brought my entire toolbox with me, though I left the ratchet set in the garage. Patiently, Jeff showed me how to take out the drain stopper and unscrew the fixture at the base of the pipe. Then, he showed me how to snake the drain to force out the hair and soap scum and whatever else was causing the clog. (Believe it or not, I somehow owned a snake. It must’ve come with the toolbox.) When the drain was clear, I put everything back the way it was and turned on the faucet. Water flowed freely down the drain without the slightest hint of a backup. I was so happy I could have hugged Jeff. But, that wouldn’t have been the manly thing to do, so I punched him in the arm instead. Then we drank a beer.
Pretty soon I was unclogging drains all over the house. Then, I moved on to showers and toilets. It was especially satisfying to fix the toilet when it wouldn’t flush. And, as my friend Mitch pointed out, it gave me the opportunity to say “ballcock” in mixed company with impunity.
“Lisa!” I would yell down the stairs to my wife. “I fixed the ballcock on the toilet!”
“That’s great, CJ,” she’d respond.
“No, seriously,” I pressed, “you’ve gotta come have a look at the BALLCOCK! It’s spectacular!”
“That’s enough, CJ,” she’d scold, while her Book Club giggled.
Buoyed by my success with plumbing, I moved on to the automotive department. We woke up one morning to find that one of Lisa’s tires was flat as the result of a stray nail.
“I’m calling AAA,” she declared.
“No!” I bellowed. “I’m changing the tire.”
“What?” she replied, baffled.
“I’m a man and I’m changing my own damn tire!”
“Are you serious?
So, I backed Lisa’s car out of the garage onto the driveway. Then, I did what any real man would do. I opened the glove compartment, took out the Owner’s Manual and prayed there were instructions on how to change a tire inside. To my great good fortune, there were.
Using the manual as a guide, I located the spare tire. This proved to be more difficult than I thought since I had to remove the entire floor of the trunk and unscrew a couple of bolts to release the thing. Luckily, the good folks at GM had thoughtfully placed the jack alongside the spare so I didn’t have to call Jeff and ask him to bring over his. Following the diagram in the book, I placed the jack against the frame near the tire and started uh, jacking, I guess. (Boy, that doesn’t sound good.) After only denting the frame once (okay, twice), I managed to get the flat tire off the ground. Then, I used the iron cross/ unscrewer thing (Note: this may not be its actual name) to get the four lug nuts off. When that was done I grabbed the tire and pulled. And that was it. The tire was off!
The motherf’ing tire was off!
I danced around the driveway as if I had just scored a goal in a British Premier League match. Lisa looked on with amusement.
“You still have to get the spare on,” she reminded me.
Collecting myself, I placed the spare on the wheel studs, hand-tightened the lug nuts and then finished the job with the iron cross. (Just typing that sentence made three more hairs grow on my chest.) The spare in place and the car un-jacked, I drove to the service station to get the original tire fixed. While I was there, the mechanic and I had the following conversation:
Me: So, I put this spare on myself.
Me: Pretty good job, huh?
Me: Pretty good job with the spare, right?
Mechanic: Sure, buddy.
Me: You need any help getting the spare off? Because I can do that too.
Mechanic: Yeah, I think we’re good. Why don’t you go wait in the lounge?
And with that, he took his pneumatic unscrewer (again, probably not its real name) and removed the lug nuts and the spare in about 14 seconds.
Well, sure, if you want to take the easy way out …
Now that I’ve achieved an acceptable level of handiness, I’ve decided to teach my son Alex everything I know. Every time there’s a sink to unclog or a tire to change or a half wall to admire, I make sure he’s alongside me. My hope is that he will pick up enough wisdom so that he doesn’t end up with a $90 plumbing bill and a toolbox full of pruning shears.
So far all he’s learned is the terminology.
“Hey, Mom!” he exclaimed, bursting out of the bathroom one evening and into the middle a dinner party. “The BALLCOCK is acting up again!”