It started when Mel sent me a text that read, “The furnace is broken!!!” A few weeks earlier we’d bought a small house in a small Oregon town. And about one week earlier we’d moved in. Boxes filled the garage, the kitchen, bedrooms, living room, hallway…everywhere. Boxes surrounded us. We were living out of suitcases because we had yet to unearth our wardrobes. And now, buried beneath it all was a broken furnace. And frankly, I had no idea what to do about it.
Shortly after we bought the house I was on the phone with my stepdad, Mike. He was a masculine fellow who’d spent most of his adult life as a power lineman. He was now retired and spent his days in a backyard shop that he built with his own two hands, working on a drag car that he built from the chassis up. Snow or sun he wore a tank top and the majority of his footwear was made from stiff leather.
“You know, Clint, now that you’ve got a home, you’re going to have to get good at fixin’ stuff,” Mike said.
“Yeah,” I said. “But I’m not.”
“Oh…” he said, “But you will. And if you don’t, you’re going to pay out the ear for it.”
|Fix-It Felix Jr.|
I looked at Mel’s text for some time. It was early November, three weeks before Thanksgiving. It was about 50 degrees outside, not deathly cold, but cold enough that it would start to get uncomfortable in the house. And Mel was three months pregnant, so discomfort was something she had little tolerance for.
I thought about how only a few months ago I’d have simply called the landlord and the problem would’ve been handled. But that was not the case now.
I shut my office door and called Mel.
“What’s it doing?” I asked.
“It’ll start, and glow inside for a little bit, then start to blow cold air.”
“Glows inside?” I said, “What the hell are you describing? It glows? Is it the belly of a dragon?”
“No,” she said. “It’s not the belly of a dragon. It’s our furnace and it’s not working. It’s getting cold in here.”
We went back and forth for a while, trying to figure out what was wrong. Most of our troubleshooting was ridiculous: “Is it plugged in?” or “Did it get turned off by one of the kids?” or “Is it getting gas?” or “Did you try hitting the side of it?”
“What about the pilot light?” I asked. “Is it lit?”
I don’t think either of us really knew what a pilot light was, but I swear I’d heard the term somewhere, and it seemed like a legitimate thing. I can recall my mother bitching about the pilot light when I was a child, but couldn’t recall if it were on the furnace or the water heater. And as Mel and I both Google searched “lighting a pilot light on a furnace,” I couldn’t help but think about the irony that before my father died he was a heating and air-conditioning contractor. Fixing a furnace should be in my blood, but it wasn’t. I was surprised by how quickly my biggest fear of owning a home was coming true.
I was terrified that one day I would be cornered because I couldn’t fix something myself, and couldn’t afford to have it fixed. I would feel like a useless father and provider. I was not the kind of person who fixed things. I was the kind of person who tried to fix things, got really pissed off, dropped a handful of swears, and then wound up paying for someone else to do it. It was nice when we lived in Utah because we had several handy family members who were willing to come help me fix the things I couldn’t. Mostly automotive things. And when I say helped me fix things, I mean I stood and watched them fix it, usually wearing gloves and coveralls because it made me feel like a working man. But we lived in Oregon now, several thousand miles away from anyone who could help me with this problem. Nearly all of our savings had been spent on the down payment for the house, and to fix the clutch on my pickup. We canceled our credit card as a way to help us live within our means.
We were broke.
Mel found an ancient video online about how to light a furnace pilot. It was of poor quality, and seemed like it was a VHS tape that someone converted into a streaming video and loaded on YouTube.
“Yeah,” I said. “Try that.”
We hung up. Then she called me back about 10 minutes later to say that our furnace looked nothing like what was on the video and she was afraid of blowing herself up. I told her that she was not going to blow herself up. I tried to bully her into doing something so that I could do nothing. But it didn’t work.
|The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems|
“Call someone,” she said.
“To fix it?” I said. “No way. No way. It’ll cost a bundle. I will figure it out once I get home.”
I really had no idea how much a furnace repair would be, but I had to assume it would cost more than the few hundred dollars we had saved for Christmas.
“Clint!” she said. “I don’t know where the warm blankets are. I don’t know where the coats are, or the gloves and warm socks. I don’t know where anything warm is and it’s supposed to get to 30 tonight.” She went on for a while describing our lack of preparation for a cold house. I mentioned to her how we didn’t have any savings or a credit card. She exhaled into the phone. “I’m pregnant. You know that, right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“If it’s not working by tonight I’m picking up space heaters and electric blankets.”
She hung up.
I knew I had to do to do something, but I didn’t know what. I called my step dad. No answer. I called my father-in-law. No answer. I called several people, but it was the middle of the day. They were all at work, or in the case of my retired step-dad, drinking coffee with his friends or taking a nap.
Finally I got a hold of my older sister whose husband, Derek, did heating and air conditioning work for Utah County. I made an appointment to troubleshoot the furnace with him that night.
My sister had been married to Derek for almost 20 years, and I think I’ve had about a dozen conversations with him. It’s not that I’ve avoided him, or that he has avoided me. I don’t dislike him. I think he’s a nice guy, a good provider, and a hell of a father. It’s just that he hardly talks and has little to no sense of humor. It I was to use one word to describe him it would be: introvert. This is a problem because if I were to use one word to describe myself it would be: extrovert. Most of the time I try to draw conversation out of Derek, while he gives me a look that says, “Shut the hell up.” Furthermore, and I think this was the real root of the problem, Derek was a masculine dude. He went hunting, fixed things with his hands, and owned two large pickup trucks, both with toolboxes built into the beds. In may ways I envied his mechanical abilities and felt insecure talking to him because I am, more or less, an academic nerd. I really didn’t know what to expect from this call, but I was happy that he was willing to help.