One man's trash was another's air conditioner

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but a sense of adventure has got to be a close cousin, especially at our house.

It's true my family lived on a tight budget when I was a kid, but I think my dad really enjoyed the challenge of putting old castoffs to new uses. One of our favorite family outings was a trip to the city dump to go scrounging.

I don't think today's landfills meet the same need. Maybe a thrift store would be the modern equivalent. But at that time, our local dump had an appliance and furniture section full of unrecognized treasures. Nobody minded us removing some of the junk to return it to the civilized world. They were happy to get rid of it.

Dad once cut off an old umbrella stand, laid the bottom half of a dutch door across it, and painted and varnished it into a rather elegant coffee table. It drew quite a few compliments from visitors who saw it in our living room. When anyone asked my parents where they had bought it, they'd just say they managed to spot an unpolished gem that needed a little fixing up.

Washing machines were particularly useful finds. Dad grew up repairing farm equipment and machinery at home and had been a flight engineer in the Navy. He was right at home with mechanical contraptions.

He once brought home a washing machine motor and a broken turntable and announced that he was going to build a record player.

Dad spent weeks of his spare time working out the belts and gears that would slow the motor down to spin the turntable at exactly 78 rpm. When he finally managed it, he proudly placed the first record on his new creation and discovered that it did indeed spin at exactly 78 rpm – backwards. (It's too bad people weren't looking for secret messages in Beatles albums back then.)

Dad once managed to assemble several old washing machines into one workable appliance for our home. But he couldn't quite master the automatic timer. No matter what he tried, the new machine would not cycle automatically from filling to washing to spinning. So he left the electrical circuitry exposed and showed us all how to place a screwdriver between different connections to get the machine to fill, wash, and spin.

Modern washing machine manuals warn people not to use too much soap or put pets in the spin cycle. In our house, instructions focused on using a screwdriver with a wooden handle and not standing in water while making electrical connections. The machine served us well for years, and it was considered a rite of passage when each child was old enough to be entrusted with the electrical aspects of laundry.

Dad's crowning achievement, after some trial and error, was to turn old washing machines into air conditioners. He cut large holes in the machine's sides and installed cooling pads, then connect the motor to a fan to create a "swamp cooler," based on water evaporation. He proudly set up his first system in the kitchen window and hooked it up to a hose from the kitchen plumbing that slowly dripped water onto the cooling pads. Once the pads were wet, my mom stood eagerly in front of the cooler for the first test run.

Unfortunately, Dad underestimated the power of the washing-machine motor. It blew Mom across the kitchen and sent cups flying out of the cupboards. We found the kitchen curtains in the living room.

After more belts and gears were added and the machine ran smoothly, Dad decided to install a second swamp cooler in the bedroom. This one had a perfect test run, although Mom waited in the next room until she was sure he'd gotten it right this time. The only problem was that he hooked it up to a garden hose connected to an outdoor faucet. That's when my 4-year-old brother was going through his "garden-hose stage."

During this stage, Scott was truly a little "squirt." We always knew when Grandma was walking up the street to our house for a visit. She was Scott's favorite target.

We'd hear Grandma pleading, "No, Scotty. That's not a game, Scotty. Put it down, Scotty. It's not funny, Scotty. Scotty, ple-e-e-e-ase!" Sometimes Mom could get to him in time, but often Grandma got her own private summer shower.

Right after Dad put the air conditioner in the bedroom window, Scotty happened to stroll past the faucet and, of course, turned it on full blast. He must have been a little startled to discover that the end of the hose was out of reach, stuck in that big box in the window. But Mom was calling us all to get in the car, so he just ran back around the house and joined us for a picnic at the park.

By the time we got home, the scene in the bedroom had added new meaning to the term "swamp cooler." The chandelier was filled with water, and the wallpaper had peeled off the walls. Clothes were floating in an open dresser drawer.

My folks had to buy a new mattress for the bed, but the warped furniture wasn't a big problem. Another trip to the city dump provided plenty of exciting new replacements.

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