Education of a father

Last Tuesday, expecting guests for the weekend, I asked my 12-year-old son Matthew if he'd like to help me with a few chores around the house. First we'd fix the waterlogged tank in the pumphouse and then replace the broken faucet in the kitchen. After that we might tackle the TV antenna on the roof, adding an amplifier so we could get Channel 25. When I got to the last of these chores Matthew nodded his head and his eyes brightened.

First we went to the pumphouse, where two metal plugs presented themselves, a little one at the top of the tank and a large one at the bottom. Explaining what I was doing, I loosened the large one as Matthew watched, and the water flew out with the force of a firehose at Armageddon. The plug shot across the well house, hit the fuse box, and fell into the sand below. Matthew asked why I didn't undo the little one first and let out the air pressure. ''That's a good idea,'' I said, wringing out my sweater.

After we got through draining the tank we started on the faucet. First I tried to loosen the adjusting ring which holds down the faucet handle. It's never very tight. I worked with my hands, then with a long-handled plumber's pliers. It wouldn't budge. As I backed off to assess the problem, Matthew reached over and unscrewed the rig with his left hand. I blinked in surprise and I believe I heard a slight breath of air escape from my wife who had come in to check on the muffins. Matthew genially said I must have loosened it up for him, but I was beginning to feel more trainee than teacher on this afternoon.

Taking off the broken handle and sliding the faucet off the sink stem, I proceeded to put the new Peerless fixtures on when I was told I had forgotten the white plastic ball with the spring washers. So I put that in. Then I tried to screw on the new adjusting ring to the old stem threads, but it just spun round and round. ''The threads must be of different sizes,'' I said dejectedly. ''Wouldn't you know it?'' Matthew reached over and pushed the sleeve of the faucet all the way down so the threads connected. ''Now try it,'' he said. ''You should have been around when I was building the house,'' I said. ''Maybe it wouldn't lean so much to the south.''

We went up on the roof to attach the new amplifier to the antenna cable. I don't know why it is that some people always decide to fiddle with their TV antennas just as night is falling and a dark chill setting in over the land. My hands were soon so cold I couldn't even loosen the adjustable wrench I was using and so I passed it to Matthew, whose hands had been rationally stuck in his pockets. He looked at it a second and passed it back.

''It was locked,'' he said. ''You didn't push the pin.'' We both laughed.

Finally we got all the connections made and went downstairs to hook up the power supply. After snipping the cable and cutting back the two ends to expose the wires, we made the connections to the power pack itself. Then we sat down to try the set.

Nothing. Just fuzz.

I cursed. Matthew considered.

''I think you reversed the cables,'' he said. ''The one from the antenna is supposed to go in the top.''

So I changed them over and tried the set again. Still nothing.

''I knew we never should have bought that amplifier,'' I said, totally discouraged. ''We probably need a whole new set!''

Matthew looked at me and looked at the box. He got out the old rabbit ears and hitched them up to the TV. Rabbit ear reception is what we settled for that night, better than nothing. It looked like all the programs were coming from Buffalo.

Next morning, just before the parades came on, I noticed Matthew working busily with one of the cables joining the power supply. ''There,'' he finally said, touching the bare wires to the TV connectors and turning on the set. He had perfect reception.

I was dumbfounded. ''What was wrong this time?'' I asked, becoming accustomed to my new role around the house.

''You didn't screw in the connectors far enough.''

A king is dead. My wife was nice about it, but firm. I'm still allowed to do a few things - carry in the wood, change flats -- but nothing of an informed mechanical nature. If the stairs creak, a window jams, an appliance hums, she looks at me and then at Matthew and talks about Providential mutations.

But I don't think genes are the explanation. I've lost something I used to have myself when I was 12. Curiosity. And in its place I seem to have developed a vast impatience with the world. If something doesn't work in the house, a whole history of human tribulation goes through my mind. I mumble and rant and suffer huge indignities.

It would be nice, as we grow older, if we could always have a 12-year-old around to keep us calm and observant and tolerant of world breakdowns. Maybe altruists could set up work crews in the seventh grade, sending a special bus around town after school, with kids hopping off in front of houses that seem to lean a little. Something really should be done for the impatient.

But at least one of us has thrashed his way to safe harbor. When the toaster failed to pop the other day, my wife had a new smile on her face. She looked at me askance and called the 12-year-old.

And I was happy.

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