Little things are key as lock, math take a turn for the worse


Every so often things get upside down and backward. That happened to me recently when I took apart a back-door lock and when I tried to help one of my kids divide fractions.

Both projects were not exactly roaring successes, but the lock ended up in better shape than the math.

These were old battlegrounds for me. I had worked on the lock a few weeks earlier. And I had faced fractions an eon or two ago when I was in school.

The lock is a mortise type. That means its workings are wrapped in a metal rectangle case and recessed in the edge of the door. To get the case out of door you burrow and pry.

I subscribe to the open-door policy of lock repair. This means the first step in the repair process is to get the door open. When you are trying to fix a closed door, you draw a crowd. Everybody who wants to get out the door gets on your case. But if you work on an open door, family members zip past with nary a nod of recognition.

This lock had a casual attitude toward work. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. To change its attitude, I had to delve into its troubled innards. I opened the door and looked for the magic screws that would lead me deeper into the lock's chambers.

Working on the mortise lock reminded me of those Russian matroshka dolls that fit inside each another. You peel away layers by removing or loosening the magic screws. I found the first two screws on the faceplate, the metal plate on the side of the door that the latch poked through. After removing the screws, and popping off the faceplate, I found three more screws and removed them. Later I learned, this was not necessary. I could have simply loosened the screws. But once my screwdriver got going, it was hard to stop. I was in a groove, on a roll.

Each screw seemed like a new challenge. When I removed the setscrew, the big fella that connected to the lock cylinder, I felt like a fisherman who had landed a whopper.

With the screws out, the lock cylinder slid out of the door like a piece of spaghetti. The remaining lock parts came out of the hole in the side of the door.

Once I had the lock into pieces I felt a mixture of panic and wonder. The panic came from the fear that I might not be able to put the thing back together. The sense of wonder came from seeing all those precise parts, clicking into place. The clicking was easier after I sprayed a lubricant, WD-40, on the lock parts. After bathing in the lubricant, the parts had lost their grunge look and had a bright, shining appearance. I wondered if the lubricant might have the same effect if sprayed on teen-agers.

Once I had cleaned the lock parts, I carried them to a neighborhood locksmith. It is much cheaper to carry your troubled lock to a locksmith than to have him visit your house.

The locksmith sprayed my lock with more lubricant. He turned the key several times. He told me there was nothing wrong with the lock. When I told him that the latch was refusing to move, he said that was probably because the lock's metal case was not packed tightly enough in the door. If the case moves around inside the door, the latch gets out of alignment and the lock gets stuck.

Back home, I saw that the hole in the door was slightly bigger than the lock's metal case. I vaguely recalled that about a month ago, when I first took the lock out of the door, little pieces of wood had fallen to the floor. At the time, I thought these pieces were trash. Now I realized they probably had held the lock case snugly in the door.

This time, when I put the lock case back in the door, I plugged up the hole about the case with some wooden matchsticks. They seemed to hold the lock steady. A crumpled-up matchbook probably would have worked better, but nowadays, when smokers are scarce, matchbooks are getting harder to find.

When I put the layers of lock back into the door, I hit a problem. The faceplate wouldn't fit. That meant the door wouldn't close. Panic returned. I took several deep breaths. Then I saw that the faceplate was upside down and backward. I did the same thing a few nights later when my son asked me to help him divide fractions. Instead, I inverted the numerator, when I should have cross-pollinated the denominator.

The lock is in the door. It works, but sometimes you have to jiggle it. And now, when the kid has a question about math, he asks his mother.

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