We learned how not to assemble a table

In the mid-1980s the department I worked for took its first tentative steps into the age of desktop publishing. And my tiny office had nearly as many adjustments to make as I did.

My reliable old typewriter served willingly on an unassuming little cart. But not so the computer. It (a Hewlett-Packard 120) and its entourage (thermal-paper printer and 16-baud modem) required a specialized piece of furniture that would gobble up some 2-1/2 by 5 feet of scarce real estate.

After a couple of hours conferring, measuring, and furniture-muscling, we found an arrangement that would accommodate the newcomer. I assumed the hard part was done.

That would have been the case had the new table arrived as expected - carried in and jockeyed into place by a couple of maintenance workers.

Instead it arrived in a box, "ready to assemble." (Are there three more ominous words?)

That long, shallow box might as well have been a pod deposited by space aliens. Peggy - whose outer-office domain it intruded upon - and I stood staring at it, shrugging.

Our boss came out of his office, sized up the situation, and took charge. Hank tore into the cardboard and wrestled the table top and assorted mysterious pieces out of the box.

Cardboard and table components took over the entire outer office. Nancy, a part-time worker who epitomized unobtrusiveness, continued to work, studiously ignoring the invasion - until a few table legs landed on her desk.

I had pitched in to help Hank with unpacking, and now we each straightened up and surveyed the mess.

Hank picked up a little bag of screws wrapped in a sheet of instructions. He handed me the instructions and pointed to the far side of the office.

"Put this over there, out of the way," he said.

Foolishly, I asked whether he might want to read it, and he waved the question off. "Takes the sport out of it," he quipped.

We cleared horizontal space for the table top to rest bottom-side up, so Hank could attach the legs - long, strategically bent metal tubes.

The concept seemed simple enough: Each tube leg had several sets of holes to accommodate screws that supposedly would secure the legs to the table top. Piece of cake.

The conundrum: The screws were shorter than the thickness of the tubing. That meant there was no way to hold onto a screw while getting it started in the table hole. Instead, the screw would fall over inside the tubing. (A magnetic screwdriver might have solved the problem, but we didn't have one.)

Hank, a natural entertainer, tried repeatedly to balance a screw and control it with the screwdriver. But each attempt ended the same way - with somebody having to fish the errant screw out of the tubing.

The table had arrived sometime after lunch, and now we were well into the giddy lateness of a long day. I struggled to ignore the mounting comic elements of this misadventure and to focus on the challenge at hand.

At last I hit upon a solution: rubber cement!

In those precomputer days when cut-and-paste involved actual cutting and pasting, we all had bottles of rubber cement.

Why not put a little dab on the head of a screw to give the screwdriver something to hold onto?!

By this point Hank was open to just about anything (short of reading the directions). So I opened a bottle of rubber cement, intending to brush some of that wondrous glop onto a screw head. But Hank reached for the brush, and I handed it over.

He held a screw over the bottle and deftly wielded the brush in a downward stroke toward the screw head - knocking it out of his own grasp and right into the nearly full bottle.

That did it. The laughter I had been suppressing exploded. Tears rolled. I crumpled against the wall. Hank laughed, too, though not quite as effusively.

Peggy and Nancy seemed concerned for my well-being. Or, perhaps, for their own.

Hank finally looked at the instructions - and discovered that the table had come with the wrong set of screws. So we all gave up and went home.

A day or two later the new furnishing, properly assembled, appeared in my office and thereafter served its intended purpose. I don't recall (or maybe never knew) how it came together.

Much has changed since then. These days, my computer perches on a piece of plywood resting on two filing cabinets. No tube legs. No screws. And it's a good thing, too, because I'm completely out of rubber cement.

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