Fall in Vermont. The leaves have turned and there is a chill in the air. This is a great time of the year to take on those final projects around the house before hunkering down for another 10-month winter.
For several years I had a light fixture in the garage that needed to be replaced. The reason I was reluctant to undertake this project stemmed from a healthy fear. I am terrified of electricity. More accurately, I am terrified of being shocked by electricity.
This fear is the result of a very traumatic experience I had one Christmas as a child. Miraculously, it didn’t come at the hands of one of those old tree bulbs the size of lemons that got hotter than a branding iron, or from our electric train set which was haphazardly connected with frayed wires, a Diehard car battery and duct tape in a manner that would make MacGyver proud.
My emotional scars were the result of the game “Operation” which my brother received from Santa. This was a toy designed by some sadistic manufacturer with the primary goal of scaring the snot out of little kids by giving them a simulated electrical shock.
Players would gather around a little cardboard man with holes in his torso and take turns removing his body parts with a pair of tweezers.
If you accidently hit the metal strip on the side of each body opening — and everyone did — the guy’s nose would light up and a deafening buzz would fill the air.
I would concentrate with all of my might, and when that buzzer screamed my heart would jump into my throat, I’d throw the tweezers in the air and simultaneously fall off my chair. I tell my therapist on a regular basis how much fun it was.
Despite my fear of electricity, the sight of that broken socket in the garage eventually got the better of me. One Saturday, while at the hardware store for my weekly bonding session with other manly locals, I saw a light fixture on a shelf and started to do some soul-searching.
“Are you a man or a mouse?” I asked myself.
I fought a sudden craving for a slab of cheese and grabbed the socket.
As I put the hardware on the counter at the register, the gentleman ringing me up felt obligated to share an anecdote about a friend who undertook a similar project and wasn’t careful about turning off the proper circuit breaker. “When he touched that one wire it knocked him across the room and into the wall where he left an imprint of his body in the sheetrock!” he laughed.
“Ha! That’s a good story,” I replied as I scooped the item up, returned it to the shelf, and quickly left the store empty-handed.
I returned the next day with a new resolve, and ended up purchasing the socket. Due to my great respect for electricity, I treated the hardware with the same reverence I would a fine bottle of wine — as soon as I got home I put it in the basement to let it age for several years.
When I told an electrician friend about my apprehension with installing the new light, he dismissed my concerns. “All you have to do when you’re dealing with electricity is keep one hand in your pockets at all times,” he said.
“Will this prevent me from getting a shock?” I asked.
“No, but when the ambulance picks you up your hand will be firmly clutching your wallet, and you won’t lose it,” he said with a smirk.
I have a lot of very funny friends.
That night I decided to attack the situation. I went down to the basement, found the circuit breaker box, and turned off every single switch. It was very difficult stumbling up the stairs in the dark with the ladder, but I finally made it to the garage. Once set up, I climbed the steps toward the ceiling. Eventually one of my sons appeared with a flashlight and asked what I was doing on the ladder.
“Fixing the light,” I said matter-of-factly.
“With both hands in your pockets?”
“Not taking any chances,” I explained.
Hours later, by the light of dawn, I made a more serious attempt at the repair. It took the whole morning, but I’m proud to report that I finally was able to replace the fixture.
I recommend that any homeowner who is intimidated by an electrical project should just give it a try. I am living proof that you will survive.
Furthermore, it can be very satisfying work. Today, I plan to take care of another household electrical job. I need to figure out why every time I turn on the garage light the refrigerator shuts off.
Mark S. Albury lives in Northfield Falls.
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