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The right connections when the power fails


THE NIGHT the electricity went out, I glowed with a sense of accomplishment. The orderly household scene that greeted me as I returned from an evening outing made me feel that my endless pronouncements on how to react to a household crisis had finally borne fruit.

When the house was plunged into darkness, members of my family had not only been able to find some candles, but they had also located a working flashlight. Moreover, I learned that when the lights went out someone had checked the circuit breaker box. Never mind that the problem wasn't in the breaker box. No matter how many switches were flipped there, the electricity was not going back on. The power was out for most of the neighborhood. At least someone in my family had made the mental connection between electricity and circuit breakers.

By the time I walked in the door, the teen-ager was doing homework by candlelight. "Just like Abe Lincoln," I remarked. The teen-ager rolled his eyes. His mother had already used the Abe Lincoln line. Parents, he observed, tell the same jokes, bad ones.

Despite the criticism of my sense of humor, I was impressed with the way my household crew had reacted. Without me at the helm, our ship had taken a hit, righted itself and continued on course. Someone had even telephoned BGE and had been reassured by a recorded voice saying help was on the way. This thoughtful course of action made me think that all those "what-if" sessions I had conducted at the supper table were worth it.

Like many fathers, I periodically attempt to teach my family how to keep the household running. "What if a water pipe burst while I was away," I ask the clan on a typical "what-if" session held at the supper table. "What would you do?"

The usual response to such inquiries is silence. After a few moments, someone says, "Pass the potatoes." Family members

mistakenly think that by ignoring a dad's sermons at the supper table, they can quiet him. A veteran dad learns that, like a preacher delivering "the good news" to a bunch of sinners, you have to make your message heard regardless of audience reaction.

So I continue my "what-if" speech, answering my own questions. I remind family members that in the event of a plumbing emergency, they should turn off the valve over in the corner of the basement, the one that controls the flow of water into the house. I do the same question-and-answer routine for other domestic emergencies, like power outages.

And when I finish, someone usually asks, "What's for dessert?"

Until the other night, I was never sure any of these important messages to family members had struck pay dirt.

This feeling of confidence in my crew didn't last long. It dissolved a few nights later when a smoke detector started beeping.

It happened, as these things do, at 11 o'clock at night. The 12-year-old was already asleep. I was headed for bed. My wife was busy finishing off a crossword puzzle. The teen-ager was still up and was the first to hear the alarm. His reaction was immediate. He advocated violence. "Let's get a broom and hit it," he said.

The periodic nature of the beeps told me that rather than signaling the presence of a fire, the smoke detector was sending out word that its battery needed replacing.

It made a lot of noise, as smoke detectors are supposed to do. I hurried down to the basement to get a stepladder to reach the howling smoke detector, which was attached to a hallway ceiling. The teen-ager followed me.

"Should we get the broom?" he asked.

I told him, no broom, just come with me back upstairs and hold the ladder.

The smoke detector returned to its normal vigilant yet silent state after we gave it a fresh battery. The smoke detector crisis had ended.

The next day, however, another domestic crisis popped up. The ice cream in the refrigerator had gone soft, indicating that something was wrong with the fridge freezer.

The kids, who had just arrived home from school for their afternoon feeding frenzy, called me at work with the news. I made them answer a string of fridge-crisis questions. "Was the light inside the freezer on?" I asked. "Yes," came the reply. That told me the refrigerator was getting electricity.

Was the freezer door shutting easily? Were any packages of frozen food preventing the door from closing tightly? The correspondents reported that the door was moving easily.

"Don't open the fridge until I get home," I told them. The kids agreed, but broke this promise within minutes. They were


When I got home, I pulled the fridge out from the kitchen wall. There was an eerie silence. At our house the fridge motor seems to hum, a constant, almost desperate tune as it attempts to keep the fridge interior cool. But now all was quiet on the fridge front. The motor hummed nary a note.

I unplugged the power cord. I got a broom and swept up the mounds of dust that had taken up residence behind the fridge. Lacking any bright ideas, I removed the dust cover on the back FTC of the fridge, and cleaned out the dust balls that had gathered on its motor and cooling fan.

When I plugged the cord back in, the fridge began to hum. Soon the ice cream began to harden.

"How did you fix the fridge?" my family asked me.

I told them I used an old technique, one I learned from my father. I hit it with a broom.

Pub Date: 2/22/97

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