Willow Wood, Chapter 10... How to Make Minor Repairs

Updated: Oct 24

“Oh-my-gosh-it’s-freezing-in-here,” my teeth chattered as I shuffled out of my room bundled in a robe. “J, did you turn down the thermostat?”


“I thought you did,” he replied.


He was making breakfast and he was wearing a sweater. This was notable. Most of the time he wears a short-sleeved shirt. In the winter, when it’s 20 degrees outside, he wears a light jacket for the walk to school. I frowned and looked at the thermostat, which was set at 70 degrees, and hovering, in reality, at about 50.


“Ooooo, brrrrrr,” I groaned, shuffling to the furnace.


The furnace was a green-grey metal box in the hallway, one and a half feet across and reaching from floor to ceiling. I put my ear against it and listened. Normally there was a hornet-like buzzing, but it was silent. Grumbling, I took the covers off and peered through the tiny peephole at the pilot light, which was still burning normally.


“Huh,” I said, sitting back on my heels.


One thing about homeownership is that the furnace is your furnace to fix. If it develops an attitude problem, you’ve got to reason with it yourself. So I tried coaxing, bribes, and promises. As the temperature of the house dropped to 40, I even tried begging.


Now, it’s true that merely trying to fix things will lead to problems. People will feel like they are only a tool to and have no purpose other than functioning properly in society again. So you must be careful when dealing with furnaces – especially this furnace. He was very, very old. So old that the only information about it I could find online was a PDF of a user’s manual which looked to have been printed on a printing press. He had been living in that house all his life and had served the occupants well without so much as a thank you.


Now, the truth is, he did have a problem that needed to be fixed. It turns out, the problem was the fan motor. But it was important to first let him know how much we appreciated the warmth of the house and his consistent work throughout the almost-century, and that I wanted to help him function as he was meant to, which would bring joy to him and to me.


Sometimes things do need to be fixed, but it’s all in the way you approach it.


After hours of grueling research trying to locate the antique PDF, and countless other hours searching for one of the last remaining fan motors in the world for that model of furnace, we had to wait another 2 weeks for the parts to arrive from some small town in Alaska. By a miracle, we did not freeze to death. Needless to say, when the parts arrived, we were highly motivated to get them installed immediately.


With screws and bolts and strangely-shaped pieces of metal strewn across the hallway floor, J and I both poured over the included instruction manual, which was one page and reprinted from the same ancient PDF I had found online. Lewis watched the laborious work with fascination, despite the pretended disinterest as he cleaned his paw. There seemed to be numbers which may have indicated steps in which to assemble it or could have been references to the part numbers listed below. It hardly mattered – the numbers were so small they were illegible. I let the sheet fall to the floor and winced.


“Do you think maybe this one goes… here?” I ventured, looking at the sheet and holding two parts against it.


J rubbed his hands through his hair and the musician hair sprang upwards and stayed there, making him look as frazzled as we both felt. I wished my hair could show my emotions so well.


“Let’s start with taking down the old motor,” J said. “Maybe we’ll be able to tell how it goes together.”


We tinkered with it for a couple hours. We had to take it apart several times before we were able to use all the screws without having any left over. But eventually, we did puzzle it together and installed it into the furnace. It was shiny like sunlight in a mirror against the dusty, tarnished metal around it. I brushed my hands together.


“Let’s give it a try,” I said as I ran to the breaker box and turned it on.


We listened for the hornet-buzzing noise… nothing. J turned the switch off and on again. Dead silence.


Sometimes, when you try to fix someone, they shut down on you.


I gave a long, exasperated sigh. “I’m so tired of being cold and wearing seven layers, and my toes being numb and having to wear this scratchy hat all the time,” I complained to the furnace. “Why can’t you just do what you’re supposed to do?”


Even Lewis was having a hard time with the cold. He is extremely averse to cuddling and had taken to sitting only a few inches away from us on the couch.


“I don’t think it can hear you,” J said, eyebrow raised as he traced the cords through the machine. “Ah, here’s the problem. The switch was triggered.” He pulled it out and tried to re-set it. “Well, that’s broken. We’ll have to get a new one.”


The furnace must have been quite upset with us, because after we installed the new switch, it still refused to start up, and that turned out to be a loose wire connection. I believe to this day that it was purposefully sabotaging itself. I’ve given up wondering what its purpose was, but if it was to make us appreciate him more, I will say that at the end of three weeks of frigidness, I was immeasurably grateful for him and never took it for granted again. Our relationship, however, was forever marred with a lack of trust and a general uneasiness.


The furnace wasn’t the only quirky, old thing in the house. The windows were all original to the home. They had thin metal rims on the outside and the outer panes were stacked horizontally, three on top of each other, except for the taller windows which had five. They would open by means of a turning handle. By this time, all of the handles had disappeared except for two. One was attached to a window in my room, having survived the almost-century the only intact of its kin (this turned out to be quite important later). The other one was detached, and we kept it like a key in the kitchen drawer. Any time anyone wanted to open the windows, they would need to find the key and go to each window, inserting it and turning.


The interior windows were one pane and could be either glass or screen depending on the season. Most people’s storm windows are installed on the outside, but someone had apparently decided that if a person was putting on storm windows, it was therefore cold outside, and would therefore be more pleasant to put them on in the inside. It’s a pity that idea didn’t catch on. It really is brilliant.


But about the one remaining window with an intact turning handle in my room – this proved unexpectedly useful.


There were four keys to the house. One for me, one for J, and one for the rest of the family since they came down to visit so often. The last key was the spare key, which we kept hidden rather secretively in a bright red umbrella just outside the door. That weekend, J was out of town, the family was not in town, and I had ridden to an event with a friend. It slipped my mind that I would need keys (I wasn’t taking my car, after all) and when I’d returned and was standing in front of the door, I realized three things.


1. You do not need car keys if someone else is driving

2. You do need a key to get back in the house!

3. I had forgotten my key earlier that week and used the spare and… left it inside.


Two keys were locked inside, and the other two keys were 250 miles away. This was a problem.


I kicked myself for a while, which seemed like a good first step. Then I walked to the patio and sat in a chair and thought hard. I didn’t want to pay for a locksmith. I was scraping by as it was. And I certainly wasn’t going to ask my parents to drive three hours just to let me into my own house. I’d gotten myself into this mess, and by golly, I was going to get myself out.


I paced around the house, looking at all the windows, testing them to see if I could get inside. They were all shut tight, and the only two sliding windows were locked. Lewis watched me from inside, his head cocked. Finally, he came out through his cat door to say hello. I tried to convince him to go in and get the key for me… but, well, you know cats.


Well, at least the house was secure. That was a comfort, if not at the moment. I could try busting through the doors. That always works in the movies. But then there would be repair costs. No, I needed something more… aha! There was a window cracked open! It was only cracked open by an inch, but I could work with that.


I stood on my tiptoes and tried to reach up to it, but it was too height. I tracked down the old aluminum ladder behind the shed and set it up, but it was all the wrong height and was making it more difficult than before. So I turned it around, wedging the top under the window and the feet against some cinder blocks on the ground, and walked up it like a ramp. Sitting there, I was in the perfect position to work.


If you will remember, this was the only window in the house that still had an attached opening mechanism, and this mechanism I could see right in front of me, only inches away, separated by the glass and the window screen. I wiggled the window open to 2 inches and shoved my hand inside, then, working with a pocketknife, slit a few inches at the edges where I knew the turning tabs would be which kept the screen in place. I turned them to the side, then slowly pushed and slid the screen until it dropped to the floor.

Now I finally had a clear shot at the turning mechanism. With my hand still rammed between the window and the frame (and now a very weird shade of purple, I might add), I rammed it in even deeper until I got my fingers on the handle. Slowly, painstakingly, I turned it until I could get my whole arm inside and turned it until the window was completely open.


Now, when open, the window openings were only eight or so inches, and thankfully I was on a poor-college-kid diet. Still, it was a tight squeeze as I pushed myself off the ladder and through the opening. Once my knees were through, I fell the rest of the way to the floor and landed with a thump, more pleased with myself than I have been in a long time.

Sure, there are a few tiny slits in the screen window now, but all in all, it was a pretty cost-effective method.


While it can be stressful not having enough money to replace an upset furnace, or hire a locksmith, there is something about making do that enriches life. Because making do takes a lot of creativity, ingenuity, and thinking outside the box. In a way, it can be more of a blessing than having something done for you. The challenge of hunting for historic furnace parts, the working together to solve the unsolvable PDF riddles of the ancients, and the opportunity to run a legal heist – these are things other people pay to do. But we the making-do-ers? We get ‘em for free.


There’s power in making do. In knowing that whatever comes your way, you can figure it out. And that you can be content with a little, and it’s enough for you.

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