Thursday, September 27, 2012

If You Turn Off the Circuit Breaker, Nothing Can Hurt You

I used to be afraid of electric wiring. It was inside the wall. Sparks came out. The electricity experiments I’d done in science class frequently broke.

But, my husband, the alien, and I had maxed out our budget and spent all our savings to make the downpayment on our first home, a fixer-upper.  The house still had remnants of plumbing for gaslights.  The current insufficient and undependable lights were from old, illegal, knob and tube wiring.

We are both book junkies, who believe we can learn almost anything from a book.

We bought the Sears book on how to wire your house.
It was $5 then, but it’s about $3.50 now.

That book can be summarized:

Connect black wires to black wires and white wires to white wires unless you are installing an odd number of switches for the same light.

And be sure to turn off the circuit breaker switch first, before you touch anything.

This, we thought, should be easy.

But we wished we had somebody we could talk to for help.  We’d just moved to Denver for my husband’s first real job.  Here we were in Colorado and everybody we knew who knew anything about wiring lived in California.  Then we remembered Boyd.  Boyd loves train rides. Boyd never has enough money for train rides.  Boyd thinks it’s fun to pay for a ride on BART for one stop down the line and then ride the long way to get to that stop.  We wrote Boyd.  Would he help us wire our house in trade for train tickets round trip from California to Colorado?

This was going to be much less expensive than hiring an electrician. The entire house had to be rewired, and we’d need to install those circuit breakers that the wiring book said we needed to turn off.  Boyd wrote back: yes.

Soon our house was chaos.  We punched holes in the walls to get the old wiring out. And we punched more holes in the walls and ceiling to put wires where we wanted them.

Since we’d just moved to this city for my husband’s job, I hadn’t found a job yet.  I became an unpaid assistant electrician. Boyd would stuff a fat electric wire into the wall, and reel yards and yards of it in my direction.  My job was to feel around in the dark space through a hole in the wall, and grab it.

I was also chief cook and dish washer.  Memo: If you are only person in the house without an income, that means you have to work the hardest.

Boyd knew his way around wire strippers and wall smashers. I learned to create wiring diagrams, and soon began sketching variations to the book designs for those 3-switch lights that require attaching a black wire to a white wire. Our girls played electric ball games, by turning the light fixtures on and off while standing next to different wall switches.

Boyd had a reputation – he liked to have sex with other men’s wives.  But I’d never imagined that could apply to me.  I didn’t date in high school or college. The only man who had ever been interested in me was my beloved alien, whom I married.  But one day, when I was going up stairs, Boyd asked in a bedroom voice, “Now?”  I quickly answered, “Never!”  Soon after that Boyd took the train home.  He had outstayed his welcome and we didn’t really expect him to stay long in trade for train tickets, anyway.

My husband and I finished wiring the house.  We’d found a fix-up job we could do together. Feeding a wire through the walls and ceilings (and pulling it out in the intended location) is a two-person job. Together, we optimized the diagrams.  At one point, my husband created an entirely new diagram, unlike anything in the book – one fixture controlled by 5 switches.

Boyd had put in the circuit breakers.  Since we were doing the work ourselves, and electrical wires, receptacles, and switches are a minor cost of any wiring job, we put switches and outlets wherever we pleased. Every door to every room had at least one light switch. Every wall had multiple outlets.

And we learned not to fear electricity.  Those electrons only go were we tell them to go. We grounded everything either to ground or to plumbing that touched ground.  Our home did not make sparks. Our love did.

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