I stopped making fun of the "MacGyver" approach to problem-solving after seeing Dad bring my wife's car back to life with a Bic pen.
Of course, I had seen my father resuscitate countless stalled cars, whether they were in the driveway, the shop or the side of the road. But he was always working with tools carefully collected during a lifetime as a car mechanic.
One winter day some 20 years ago, he stopped by after I mentioned Lisa's Ford Escort hatchback had broken down in the Bronx, N.Y., where she got some emergency care at a dubious garage that enabled the car to magically travel no farther than our driveway. On this rare occasion, he didn't have a box of tools handy.
"Pop the hood," he said.
He looked over the engine -- spotting things I couldn't possibly see -- and asked Lisa to turn the key.
"Hold on." I couldn't see a solution to this puzzle, and asked if he needed to borrow anything from my meager tool set. Instead, he pulled a Bic from his pocket. You know the one I mean. Its official name is the Cristal pen. It was known as "the Atomic pen" in its native France after it made its debut in the 1950s. It is the best-selling pen in the world; part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art. And yes, you probably know it best as The Spitball Pen.
In my dad's hands, it was transformed into a Craftsman tool set. He took the pen apart and installed pieces into the engine. "OK, try it again," he told Lisa.
Yes, it really did start. Take that MacGyver, you piker.
From that day forward, my wife saw my dad through different eyes. He could do anything. She even heeded his advice after the car started.
"You need to get rid of this car," he said gently, summoning The Voice of Reason regarding auto repair. He invited Lisa to share his view under the hood. "Look at that. They hot-wired the radiator. The wiring harness is fried." (Actually, I have no idea what he said, but he still remembers the details.)
We took his word for it and donated the car to charity. The Bic was worth more at this point.
A couple of years later, I sat down at the microfilm machine at Greenwich Time to look up some old clips. The librarian walked over to inform me the machine was awaiting repair and there was no way to turn the spools. I was on deadline, the newsroom equivalent to being stuck on the side of the road in the Bronx. I pulled a Bic from my pocket, took it apart and used the cap and the cylinder to turn the wheels. They were made for each other. "I love that," the librarian marveled. It got the job done for several weeks.
Now, no one in my family mistakes me for a handyman. I did retain a little knowledge from working my way through college for a swimming pool company. That information, of course, is pretty useless when you don't have a pool. But those skills probably came in useful when I installed new sinks and toilets. And I'll always try something once. Sometimes it works out OK, such as when I built a new back porch, replaced glass panes and windows, or repaired locks, the garage door opener, etc.
Other times ... not so much. I once patched the dining room ceiling after it sprung a leak. The ceiling still looks pregnant (if only it would give birth to another bathroom).
And I probably improvise too often. For the "Star Trek" geeks out there, I'm a believer in the Capt. Kirk approach to the Kobayashi Maru test. If you can't fix it, just cheat. I fixed a rattle in a bathroom fan by wedging in some business cards as a cushion. As a result of my pool days, I use PVC tape for everything. Every time I opened the living room drapes, the finials slid off the rods. A little PVC tape wrapped around the rods took care of that problem. The next owner of this house will find PVC tape, business cards and Bics in crevices of every room.
It took me decades, but I finally encountered a repair that required zero tools. The water dispenser on our refrigerator was shooting blanks last week. Perhaps there was a break in the clear plastic tubing, I pondered, secretly hoping I could fix it with a Bic. I could not identify a break, though much of the line is inside the door. I peeked online in search of fellow home repair chuckleheads who might have stumbled onto a solution through trial and error. One guy reported that a hair dryer cleared the line, but melted the plastic (that would be an error).
I decided to open the freezer door and walk away for 20 minutes. When I returned, the ice had melted and the water was flowing. Maybe it really is best to keep tools out of my hands.
My dad recalls an early challenge to repair something outside of his area of expertise. He was a teenager at the time, and an acquaintance asked him to bring a rocking chair with a broken curved arm rest to his father, who was a cabinet maker.
My grandfather took a look, and apparently saw a teachable moment.
"You can fix that yourself," he told my father.
With a little direction, my dad took a stab at carpentry.
"Your father does nice work," the customer opined when the chair was delivered.
"I did that myself," my dad replied.
The customer was dubious. Sometimes, doing it yourself has to be its own reward.