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Rated: ASR · Non-fiction · Biographical · #2195507
A definitive end to a frustrating afternoon. (Warning: contains some 'salty' language)

The Chainsaw Incident

My dad learned the basics of electricity and wiring during his time in the Navy and he used that training when he did odd jobs of electrical work for many of our rural neighbors. He was careful and conscientious when it came to wiring. No shortcuts allowed and he always followed his well-worn copy of the National Electrical Code. At one point he even tried to get a license to be a ‘real’ electrician, but State regulations got in the way. The written test was easy enough, it was ‘open book’ and the license fee wasn’t out of reach. A four year apprenticeship requirement was the sticking point. The nearest licensed electrician was located fifty miles away. Dad wasn’t able to work out a deal to be a ‘remote’ apprentice, so he would do local wiring jobs as a 'consultant'. If anyone ever asked, the homeowner could say he did the actual work by himself.

Adding new wiring to an existing house could get complicated. It usually meant adding a new circuit breaker and might even require a whole new electrical panel if no slots were available. You had to crawl under the house with the spiders or into the attic with the wasps to route the new wires. No one wanted big holes in the wall, so you’d have to cut out an opening the size of the outlet box. Then you’d wiggle and twist and push the wires until they reached the right spot. The wire wasn’t very flexible, so it could be a struggle for one person to get it in place.

I sometimes went with Dad and handed up tools when he was on a ladder or helped him to thread the 12-2 Romex cables through the walls. I even learned quite a bit about electricity and wiring myself. I learned how to replace a fuse and reset a circuit breaker. I learned that black is ‘hot’, white is ‘neutral’, and how to use a voltage meter to make sure that the house wasn’t wired backwards. I also learned things like the importance of turning off the ‘juice’ before touching a wire, and what it feels like to get ‘bit’ by a 110 VAC circuit when you leave it on.

Electrical Box, Romex Wire, Outlet, Meter

The job I remember most was for an older lady who had a problem with the outlets in her kitchen. Sometimes there was power and other times not. Sometimes she saw sparks when she wiggled the appliance plugs. The outlets were old, the wires were loose, and it was only luck that she hadn’t already had a fire. We spent a couple of hours replacing the outlets and making sure the connections were solid all the way back to the electrical panel. It was a small job that went smoothly. The only memorable part was the chain saw. I’m sure Dad didn’t ask for much, but she couldn’t afford even a little. Instead, she offered an old chain saw that her husband had used when he worked in the woods. I believe it was a McCulloch – I remember it was heavy, yellow, and it had a fairly long bar. We didn’t have a chainsaw at the time and Dad thought it might be a good trade. Even well used it was probably worth more than the wiring work. He pulled the cord a couple of times to make sure the engine wasn’t seized and called it a deal.

We took it home and put it in the shop since the afternoon had run on pretty close to suppertime. It was the next weekend before Dad got around to mixing up some ‘saw gas’ for the two-stroke engine so he could try it out. It hadn’t been running for several years so it wasn’t surprising that the saw was reluctant to start. We were persistent though. Dad yanked on the cord for a while, I yanked on the cord for a while, and nothing. "Damn! Maybe it’s the spark plug."

We found a deep socket, removed the spark plug and cleaned it up with a wire brush and some fine sandpaper. An odor of gasoline from the cylinder was an encouraging sign, so we put the spark plug back in and tried again. Pop! Hey, maybe we were on to something! Dad yanked the cord for a while, I yanked the cord for a while - all we got was a couple more pops and few sput, sput, pips. "Sonuvabitch! Maybe the air cleaner is dirty."

We took the air cleaner apart and blew compressed air through it. It still looked pretty grimy, so Dad sloshed it around in some gasoline (the handyman’s solvent, don't ya know). We let it dry for a while and blew air through it again. Dad pulled on the cord for a while, I pulled on the cord for a while - all we got was a few more pops and some sput, sput, pips. "Dirty bastard! Maybe the mixture is too rich."

Dad fiddled with the carburetor, adjusting all the screws he could find. Turn this one in, that one out - try it the other way round. He even removed the entire carburetor to fiddle with the reed valve. We took turns yanking that awful cord all afternoon as our level of frustration rose higher and higher. The saw would sometimes sputter for a few seconds, but not long enough to actually cut into a log. Dad’s face was grim, my arm ached, and we were definitely not having fun.

Dad used a lot of colorful language – and I mean a lot. He had a natural talent for swearing, and it had been honed to a fine edge during his hitch in the Navy. Most of the time it was just sort of background noise, but that afternoon it turned serious. I could hear the difference in his tone, so I kept my head down and my mouth shut. And then, as the shadows began to lengthen, he went quiet. Ominously quiet. No more shouting, no more swearing. All he said was “stand back."

Old Chainsaw

Then he picked up the eight pound sledge that was usually leaning against the side of the shop. He measured his stroke, took a mighty overhead swing, and proceeded to beat the crap out of that chainsaw for several minutes. A few large pieces remained in the center of the destruction and a lot of little pieces lay scattered across several feet of dirt. I just watched, eyes wide and mouth closed tight.

“Here, you hit it for a while.” Dad handed me the sledge. I was a bit unsure about taking it, but also afraid to refuse. So I took a tentative swing at the bits of wreckage. It was actually kind of satisfying to get some revenge on that obstinate machine, so I took a few more swings with gusto. When I was done, Dad took the sledge from me and leaned it back against the wall. He didn’t say anything about beating up that saw. He just grinned and said “Well, we don’t have to work on that anymore."

So we went back to the house for supper.

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