The Washtub War

“The washing machine,” the wife informed me in her distinctive sing-song, you-have-to-do-something-about-it tone,  “is broken.”

Her voice was heavy, loaded with the apprehension of knowing I would not call the repairman as she intended.  The effort was a lonely cry in the wilderness.  After all, I am a mechanical engineer, I thought.  Nothing could be that hard to fix.

Hah.  Now, only now, can I laugh.  Hah.  Hear me laugh again.  Hah.

I do not usually start out trying to fix things.  The decision is made when I make the call to the repair shop and I am informed of just how much it is going to cost.  My hackles rise, the conversation deteriorates rapidly and goes something like, well, I’ll let you listen in to my side:

“Hello, Ace Repair Shop?  I have this gizmo that needs fixing and I wonder if it would be possible for you to come out and have a look at it.  Uh-huh.  Uh-huh.  When?  No sooner than that?  Oh, I see.  What?  Sounds?  Well, it’s goes whiz-bang-whee-pop-pop-pip-pop-ching when my wife pulls on the push button, but only at night when there’s a full moon.  Uh-huh.  What do you think the trouble could be?  Ah-huh.  Well, if that’s what it is, how much do you think it would cost to fix?  You’re kidding.  No, I’m serious, you must be kidding.  My children didn’t cost that much, why on earth do you think this machine is worth half as much?  What?   That’s just for labor?  My wife’s labor  didn’t….what?  Well, I never.  No, I’m not kidding.  For that kind of money, I’ll just do it myself.  No, No that’s all right, just tell me how much the parts cost.  What?  Now I know I’m going to fix the whizzlestick myself.  Uh-huh, that’s right. I really don’t care what you think; I’m going to fix it myself. Uh-huh.  What’s so funny?  Trained mechanic?  What?  Well you broken-down…”

The conversation slides downhill from there.   Of course, after you have said something of that nature to a repairman, you’ll do almost anything to avoid having to call him again.  I always do.

As I said, my wife had great misgivings about my playing Mr-Fix-It..  She listened patiently to my explanation, looked at me, looked at the machine, looked at the ceiling, and walked out of the room.  That’s her you’d-better-admire-my-non-committal forbearance coming out.  I sighed and went for my tools.

First things first, I thought.  I’ll figure out what is wrong with the thing, and then I’ll fix it.  It’s a logical approach, what could be simpler?  I took the back off the machine.  There before my eyes was the most completely baffling arrangement of tubes and wires and struts and supports and belts and linkages and clamps that I had ever seen all surrounding this machine casing closely resembling a miniature black hole of infinity.  I thought that is what it must be, because no matter what direction I tried, I absolutely could not get any light from a flashlight, any flashlight no matter how small, into that hole.

Well, I pushed on this and pulled on that and generally stared at the thing until I came to realize the machine was probably smarter than I was, and that I did, after all, need a service manual to figure it out.  The cash register in my head rang up cost number one against the cost of a repairman.

The next day on the way home after work I bought a manual for the machine (wrapped in plastic, of course.  The significance of this will become apparent later).  I brought it home, and sat down in back of the machine, with my tools surrounding me like faithful servants bowing to the high priest of repair, and reverently opened the manual.

No one had told me the Egyptians had washing machines.  They must have had, for this latter-day papyrus was damn sure written in hieroglyphics.  I spent the remainder of the evening pulling on this and pushing on that, and squinting a lot through reading glasses, trying to match the words and pictures in the manual with the reality in front of me.  I finally figured out I had spent good money (isn’t all of it good?) on the wrong manual.

The next day I stopped to buy the correct manual, and to my irritation found that, no, I could not return the incorrect one because it was no longer in its’ plastic wrap.  The tiny cash register in my head rang up cost number two.

That night I was all set once again, but this time under the spotlight glare of my wife’s “I told you so.” face.  Not an easy task to concentrate under such trying conditions, but I was confident she would see the light once I had saved so much money.  I strode manfully off to the laundry room, set on being the hero of the house.

I had thought it would be relatively simple to fix, because the company we had bought it from (the name is withheld to protect myself as well as the guilty) is an All-American firm that has been in business ever since there has been an America, and so I thought this thing must have been put together by good old American hands with good old American know-how.  The know-how turned into no-way.  I started spotting all sorts of little oriental characters on the parts.

The next thing I figured out (as you can probably guess) is that since it WASN’T good old American know-how, I needed metric tools, since the guys who REALLY made this thing do not speak any form of MY language.

At this point in the proceedings it should be said I was determined to fix this machine, and in this state of mind rationalization runs rampant.  I told myself there would be a time when the metric tools would actually come in handy, the world was going metric, and later there would certainly be a use for them.  Little did I know how much later it would be.  My son went to college before they were used again, and then he used them.  I assume he did, since he took all the tools with him.  I never saw them again because they were stolen out of his car the following semester.  I hope whoever stole them is getting good use out of them.  Really.  Really I do.  Really.

The little cash register in my brain rang again, this time a little louder.  Is ching ching the sound of an oriental cash register, laughing at this poor Yankee trying to fix his own machine?  Fortunately for my sanity, my determination stopped my mind from counting the bells.

The wife, of course, knows from her shopping, how expensive rationalization can  be.   We guys are a little slower on the uptake about some things, I suppose.  Then again, maybe it’s just the level of experience.

I worked on the machine over the weekend (my wife now giving me longer sidelong glances, for the laundry was forming foothills around me in the laundry room) before the next mountain I had to bring to Mohammed’s Repair Shop.  I realized I needed the dreaded SPECIAL TOOL.  (note  the  capital letters, folks, it means great danger to a wallet)  to undo that thingamajig to get to the gizmo behind the whatchamacallit that I THOUGHT was the problem.  At least that is what the troubleshooting portion of the manual told me.  I tried to undo it anyway using what I thought was a clever combination of a long screwdriver, visegrips, a toothbrush (only the handle part, which will never, ever be the same), and one of my wife’s old hairpins. I succeeded in dropping the hairpin and a retaining spring clip for the thingamajig into the aforementioned small black hole of infinity.  I began to use the acronym for Small Hateful Infinity Territory.  I only mention this because I began to use this acronym with greater frequency after the small black hole seemed to suck small precious things right out my hands, probably due to the funnel-shape at the opening of the hole which had been thoughtfully provided by the  machine manufacturer.  Cunning devils, those designers.

Meanwhile, the foothills of laundry built higher into small mountains under the impatient eye of my wife, who knows the next time I need a shirt for something and it isn’t clean,  I won’t have one,  and don’t come complaining to her.  It’s this way I have of reading the way she crosses her arms in front of her.  I know, it’s a gift I have, the way I can translate these things.

I went back to the shop to buy a new spring clip to fasten the whatnotthingamajig  back to the whatzit.  I tried to explain the thing to the guy in the shop and he just stood there and nodded his half-shaven chin up and down with a small smile.

Without a word, without so much as looking in a parts book, he left for the back of the store.  Much to my surprise, he came back immediately from his trip o the storeroom with exactly the right  part.

“Thought you’d be needin’ this.” he said.  And with far too smug a smirk, I might add.  Cheeky kid.  Again, ching ching.  Oh, and the special tool.  Ching ching.

Slowly I began to figure out one of the most closely guarded secrets of appliance repairmen.  I had thought the reason they take so many breaks from work is out of laziness.  My friends, this is not so, not so at all.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The deep truth of it, the reason they take so many breaks from work is so they can sneak up on the machine to fix  it, because that is apparently the only way it can be done.  The theory behind this statement goes something like this:

If you work on a machine for too long a time in one sitting, it gets tired of playing with you.  When this happens, the machine tends to mess itself up further.  The purpose is so the machine can continue to rest from its’ labors,  (which was the intent of the self-sabotage in the first place) and they accomplish this by faking failure.  This is done to the accompaniment of mechanical laughter, which we, as puny humans, interpret as the symptomatic sounds of the thing being broken.  Ha.

After many hours, many labors, I finally thought I had accomplished the impossible, I had indeed repaired the machine.  I fastened the back in place, hooked up the hoses, plugged in the wires and turned it on.  There was no response.  Not a whir, not a squeak, not a ding, not a hum.  Faced with this, I did what most men do at such a time of perplexity.  I stared at it.   When it didn’t seem to help, I pulled the back off and stared at  the inside.  That didn’t work either.  I played push-me-pull-you with just about every wire and hose in there for the rest of the day, trying to troubleshoot the problem.  In the process, I came to understand what the term ‘troubleshoot’ means, since I came close to  getting my gun to put the thing out of its’ misery and mine.

Then, a dawn of light broke in my mind, a lifting of the veil of my own  stupidity.  I remembered I had thoughtfully pulled the fuse which controlled the machine as a safety precaution when I first started to work on it.

Gritting my teeth, I got up, plugged the fuse back in, and turned on the machine.  It just hummed back at me.  No clicks, no bells, no whistles, just hum.  I turned it off and resorted to my previous tactic of staring.  I stared at it all over.  I pulled off  the back cover, and stared some more, until I  saw,  hidden, right  under  my nose, right in the middle, the problem.   I had left a  screwdriver blocking the gizmo thing  from turning and letting the whatchamacallit slide back and forth.  I pulled it out and tried to turn the machine on again.  My breathing was deep and ragged.  I was losing control.

By this time, there was a laundry mountain resembling Everest where the molehill used to be.  There was also a certain wifely Everest attitude as well.  To whit, very high-and-mighty and very cold attitude where the forebearing molehill used to be.  I tried to freeze her with a similar return glance and was freeze-dried in return by a single “Humph.”  I decided to kill the machine.

I admit, I lost my temper.  Looking back, I think that’s all the machine really wanted.  It wanted to get the better of me, and it did.  I beat on it.  I beat on it with wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers and anything else that came to hand.  The outside of the machine became much the worse for wear.  So did the wife’s attitude.  The inside of the machine was the same.  Broken.  I finally piled all the laundry mountain on top of it, hoping to smother it into submission.   “Sniff that for a while.” I sneered.  I left the room, shoulders sagging in exhaustion and utter defeat.

The next day, with the bolstering of a few beers under my belt, I strode into the laundry room to try again, spaghetti western no-consonant choruses ringing in my ears.  I was prepared to spend the rest of my life in that room, if need be.  I put the fuse in, plugged the plugs, hooked the hoses and turned it on.

It ran.  I shook my head.  It still ran.  Beyond all reason, this time, it ran.  Perversely, ‘Sweet Mystery Of Life’ began to play in my head.

It has continued to run to the present day, seems to run pretty well.

Well, okay, so I lie.  It bangs and chatters on the “gentle” cycle, probably due to my being none-too-gentle with it, but I try to ignore that.  It runs, anyway.

I figure I spent roughly three times the estimated repair cost in broken parts, tools, etc. and recently the machine has acquired yet another sound.  Whenever the spin cycle comes on, there is a plaintive squeaking groan it seems only I can hear.

It is either a bearing trying to burn out, or the machine is talking to me, laughing,  playing with my mind to make me guess which will crack first, its crankcase, or me.

But that’s all right.  I know that infernal machine is probably just faking.  But even if it isn’t, it doesn’t really matter, because I’ve made a decision the machine doesn’t know I have made.  If it decides not to run again, I’ve decided to hire a mercenary.  That’s right, a repairman who will make this unruly thing toe the mark, stand up and fly right.

Someone to do battle for me.

I plan to sit, like some king of old, draft beer in hand, watching the tournament, watching the blood and oil flow in the heat of battle.

It will be wonderful to watch.  I can’t wait.

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3 thoughts on “The Washtub War

  1. Jim Thomas told me about your blog page. Really enjoyed your short story.

    Theresa Cocolin
    Lillington Writer’s Group

    • Thank you, you’re very kind. The story was inspired by real events of doing battle with a washing machine, so I decided to turn the experience into fiction. Thank you so much for reading.

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