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2004.04.05 Mr. Can't Fixit

posted Oct 25, 2009, 11:25 AM by Troy Cheek   [ updated Oct 25, 2009, 12:50 PM ]
My very first article after I decided to start posting on a regular weekly schedule, so long ago...

After highschool I attended an institute of higher learning which all of us who attended called a college, though the people in charge of it kept telling us it was a university. The reason we attended this institute of higher learning was to receive a piece of paper saying we had earned a degree in a particular field and were qualified to hold a job in that particular field.

What we all learned later -- much later -- is that you will never, ever, be offered a job in the particular field in which you earned a degree from this institute of higher learning.

That is, unless you count being asked to come back and teach one of the very classes you took to earn that degree. We also later found out that 90% of the instructors at that institute of higher learning were graduates of it.

I am not teacher material. I still believe in spanking kids.

During my first freshman electrical engineering class, the instructor told us a very funny joke. He told us that when we went back home for the holidays, at least one family member would bring us a broken blender, radio, or television and ask us to fix it. Never mind that we were still learning the theory behind electronics at that point and not the actual practice, never mind that we were training to be engineers and not technicians, and never mind that we didn't have the blueprints and diagrams and other information that even a qualified technician would need to work on such items, they would ask.

Very funny.

During the next visit home, I asked what the paper grocery bag sitting on the floor was for. "Oh, your Aunt Linda brought that by. It's half a dozen broken radios. She thought maybe you could use them to build on working one. If not, she said you could keep them for parts. And your grandmother is bringing over a television tomorrow."

I mumbled profanities to myself as I checked the frayed cord on the blender which had just been handed to me.

Yes, very funny. Very funny indeed.

I never got my degree, for reasons which I might discuss in a later article, once the statute of limitations runs out, but that didn't stop people from bringing me broken electrical or electronic items. The crazy thing is that I was occasionally able to fix them. Usually the ones that simply had dead batteries or a power cord that had worked loose. A broken switch is easy to track down and replace. I think I might have once even found a blown fuse that I was able to bypass, warning the relative that the device would likely melt down the next time it failed.

Once in a great while I experienced a gift passed on through my genes from my grandfather Cecil A. Rogers. That was the gift of taking a broken appliance apart, changing absolutely nothing, putting it back together, and having it work again like it was brand spanking new.

"Oh, it's working again? That's wonderful! Thank you very much! What did you do?"

"Um, just cleaned the contacts on the krylon posts and made some minor adjustments to the variable xenon comparator. That should make it last a little while. But it's on its last legs and may quit again at any time. Count on buying another one when that happens."

One radio I fixed like that worked long enough to be passed down to another generation. I was not, however, able to do anything with the next twenty items the same relative brought me.

Eventually, I realized that nobody ever called back to see if I had actually managed to fix any of the devices they had left with me. Often, they seemed surprised when I called them to say the items had been fixed. In fact, on at least a few occasions, I got the very strong feeling that they didn't even want the items back. Looking back after many years, I think that "we'll see if Troy can fix it" was just easier to say than "we'll have to take it to the dump."

I've managed not to kill myself with a television set yet. There was probably a point in time when it was fairly safe to fool around with the insides of one as long as it wasn't plugged in. Really old television sets tended to use the high voltage from the outlet fairly directly and immediately. Unplug it and the set quickly discharged. But somewhere along the line, people got tired of waiting for the set to warm up before they could watch their shows.

You see, back in the old days when your parents were young and dinosaurs ruled the Earth, you couldn't just push a button on your remote control and have the TV come on. You had to walk over to the TV set and find the ON/OFF switch and turn it on. Then you had to wait several seconds as the internal components started building up a charge. You kept your hand on the ON/OFF switch because it usually controlled the volume as well, and as the internal components charged up, the sound would come on and fluctuate for a while. About the time you dialed in the proper volume, the picture tube would finally warm up and you show would slowly fade in. After a little fine tuning, you could settle down and watch your show.

We won't even talk about having to get back up and go back to the TV set to change channels. And if you didn't live through it, you'll never believe me about having to adjust the antenna.

People got tired of all that waiting and, as television technology improved, "instant on" was invented. Parts of the television were powered up even when the ON/OFF switch was off. Indeed, parts of the television stored power even when the television was unplugged.

Stored power for years.

Which is why you used to hear stories of people who noticed an old TV set in the basement or attic, thought they'd open it up to see if they could get the dust out of it, and promptly got the shock of their lives.

I personally would have probably tried plugging it in first, which would have charged everything up, ignited the dust, and killed me in an equally ignoble fashion.

I have a television set waiting not 20 feet from me right now. I have no intention of seeing if it works or not. I have other plans for it. My father has a trick where he takes old console TV sets, adds a couple of glass shelves where the picture tubes used to be, and turns them into china display cabinets. Or whatever else you want to display.

My loving father had heard those rumors about old TV sets killing people. He didn't see how they could possibly be true, but decided to run the idea by me anyway before he took the first one apart. He pointed out the old TV in the corner which he said still worked, as he'd tested it when he first got it. But the relative wanted a display case, so he was going to gut it.

I cautioned him not to touch the insides. He said he hadn't but thought the TV might be safe as he had left it unplugged for over a week. I asked if I could borrow a screwdriver. No, not that one. The one with the rubber handle. Thanks.

A few minutes later, I showed him the holes burnt into the shaft of the screwdriver. And asked him to hand me the fire extinguisher.

But after five or six of these, I think we've got a handle on them, so I'm not worried at all about this one. I'll take all necessary precautions, and remind you that I am a trained professional who went to school to learn about electricity.

As long as I don't do something stupid, I'm in absolutely no danger.

So if you don't hear from me tomorrow, you'll know exactly why.


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