Everyone who has ever picked up a hammer, screwdriver, or other tool has at some time made a big goof in a project, something that in retrospect made them laugh even if it didn't seem funny at the time. The great thing about big goofs, aside from their potential for comic relief and the valuable lessons they teach, is the way they can bind friends and family together, and even connect the generations. You notice that especially during family celebrations, when relatives will often re-tell stories of past personal bloopers (sometimes even their own), often to the roaring laughter of everyone present. Some stories get re-told every year or so. The details remain the same, but the incidents seem funnier as time goes by.
One such story from my family that comes up at many get-togethers, including the holidays that just ended, is about old Uncle Billy, who passed away long ago at age 92. After spending an afternoon hanging a new front door, he put his tools down and closed the door—and it just kept swinging. He forgot to measure it. (This is the same Uncle Billy who once went to a wake and, while expressing condolences, told the widow the deceased's appearance had really changed. Naturally. Wrong wake!)
I've written about a few of my own handyman horror stories in this column, and the tales have prompted some readers to send me examples from their own or their family members' checkered past. For example, Instron engineer Steve McMahon tells of the time one of his relatives drove a black drywall screw through a new copper water pipe. He had rebuilt a bathroom in the house and had routed the pipes snugly against the plywood subfloor, where he later drove the screw. The fastener formed a water-tight seal against the wall of the pipe, which was carrying pressurized water. A few months later, the fastener rusted enough to let water out. Steve explained to him the physics involved, but the relative just wanted the water to come out of the faucet, not the ceiling, and asked Steve to help. "The biggest problem was heating the pipe with a propane torch without igniting the plywood," Steve recalls. "So, knowing that water would only heat to 100C at one atmosphere and that it has a suitable high molar heat of vaporization, I made a heat shield by sandwiching an old water-soaked facecloth between two pieces of thin sheet metal and jammed the shield between the pipe and subfloor," he says. The flame evaporated the water and didn't ignite the wood.
Lot's of lessons there for the eager learner. And, there's no doubt in my mind that this fastener story will be retold in the McMahon family for years.
But as I write this, it occurs to me that some of you may not have such stories to relate. So here's a suggestion: Make one up. Think of the most improbable mistake you could have made in some project, and then pretend you really made it. For example, you could relate how you once broke the gate valve on the main pipe bringing water into your house by turning it too hard. Or, tell them you once accidentally disabled everyone's door buzzer in a condo building while trying to reprogram the keyless-entry feature. I've actually done both. Tell these stories and you can be sure your family will talk about you for generations. It's a sure route to immortality. If you really can't think of anything, call me. I'll loan you some of my own true stories.
Reach Teague firstname.lastname@example.org.