Broken Furnace (Why Home Repairs Make Me Feel Like A Failure) Part I

 

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It started when Mel sent me a text that read, “The furnace is broken!!!” A few weeks earlier we’d bought a small house in a small Oregon town. And about one week earlier we’d moved in. Boxes filled the garage, the kitchen, bedrooms, living room, hallway…everywhere. Boxes surrounded us. We were living out of suitcases because we had yet to unearth our wardrobes. And now, buried beneath it all was a broken furnace. And frankly, I had no idea what to do about it.
Shortly after we bought the house I was on the phone with my stepdad, Mike. He was a masculine fellow who’d spent most of his adult life as a power lineman. He was now retired and spent his days in a backyard shop that he built with his own two hands, working on a drag car that he built from the chassis up. Snow or sun he wore a tank top and the majority of his footwear was made from stiff leather.
“You know, Clint, now that you’ve got a home, you’re going to have to get good at fixin’ stuff,” Mike said.
“Yeah,” I said. “But I’m not.”
“Oh…” he said, “But you will. And if you don’t, you’re going to pay out the ear for it.” 
Fix-It Felix Jr.
I looked at Mel’s text for some time. It was early November, three weeks before Thanksgiving. It was about 50 degrees outside, not deathly cold, but cold enough that it would start to get uncomfortable in the house. And Mel was three months pregnant, so discomfort was something she had little tolerance for.
 I thought about how only a few months ago I’d have simply called the landlord and the problem would’ve been handled. But that was not the case now.
I shut my office door and called Mel.
“What’s it doing?” I asked.
“It’ll start, and glow inside for a little bit, then start to blow cold air.”
“Glows inside?” I said, “What the hell are you describing? It glows? Is it the belly of a dragon?”
“No,” she said. “It’s not the belly of a dragon. It’s our furnace and it’s not working. It’s getting cold in here.”
We went back and forth for a while, trying to figure out what was wrong. Most of our troubleshooting was ridiculous: “Is it plugged in?” or “Did it get turned off by one of the kids?” or “Is it getting gas?” or “Did you try hitting the side of it?” 
“What about the pilot light?” I asked. “Is it lit?”
I don’t think either of us really knew what a pilot light was, but I swear I’d heard the term somewhere, and it seemed like a legitimate thing. I can recall my mother bitching about the pilot light when I was a child, but couldn’t recall if it were on the furnace or the water heater. And as Mel and I both Google searched “lighting a pilot light on a furnace,” I couldn’t help but think about the irony that before my father died he was a heating and air-conditioning contractor. Fixing a furnace should be in my blood, but it wasn’t. I was surprised by how quickly my biggest fear of owning a home was coming true.
I was terrified that one day I would be cornered because I couldn’t fix something myself, and couldn’t afford to have it fixed. I would feel like a useless father and provider. I was not the kind of person who fixed things. I was the kind of person who tried to fix things, got really pissed off, dropped a handful of swears, and then wound up paying for someone else to do it. It was nice when we lived in Utah because we had several handy family members who were willing to come help me fix the things I couldn’t. Mostly automotive things. And when I say helped me fix things, I mean I stood and watched them fix it, usually wearing gloves and coveralls because it made me feel like a working man. But we lived in Oregon now, several thousand miles away from anyone who could help me with this problem. Nearly all of our savings had been spent on the down payment for the house, and to fix the clutch on my pickup. We canceled our credit card as a way to help us live within our means.
We were broke.
Mel found an ancient video online about how to light a furnace pilot. It was of poor quality, and seemed like it was a VHS tape that someone converted into a streaming video and loaded on YouTube.
“Yeah,” I said. “Try that.”
We hung up. Then she called me back about 10 minutes later to say that our furnace looked nothing like what was on the video and she was afraid of blowing herself up. I told her that she was not going to blow herself up. I tried to bully her into doing something so that I could do nothing. But it didn’t work. 
The cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems
 “Call someone,” she said.
“To fix it?” I said. “No way. No way. It’ll cost a bundle. I will figure it out once I get home.”
I really had no idea how much a furnace repair would be, but I had to assume it would cost more than the few hundred dollars we had saved for Christmas.
“Clint!” she said. “I don’t know where the warm blankets are. I don’t know where the coats are, or the gloves and warm socks. I don’t know where anything warm is and it’s supposed to get to 30 tonight.” She went on for a while describing our lack of preparation for a cold house. I mentioned to her how we didn’t have any savings or a credit card. She exhaled into the phone. “I’m pregnant. You know that, right?”
“Yes,” I said.
“If it’s not working by tonight I’m picking up space heaters and electric blankets.”
She hung up.
 I knew I had to do to do something, but I didn’t know what. I called my step dad. No answer. I called my father-in-law. No answer. I called several people, but it was the middle of the day. They were all at work, or in the case of my retired step-dad, drinking coffee with his friends or taking a nap.
Finally I got a hold of my older sister whose husband, Derek, did heating and air conditioning work for Utah County. I made an appointment to troubleshoot the furnace with him that night.
My sister had been married to Derek for almost 20 years, and I think I’ve had about a dozen conversations with him. It’s not that I’ve avoided him, or that he has avoided me. I don’t dislike him. I think he’s a nice guy, a good provider, and a hell of a father. It’s just that he hardly talks and has little to no sense of humor. It I was to use one word to describe him it would be: introvert. This is a problem because if I were to use one word to describe myself it would be: extrovert. Most of the time I try to draw conversation out of Derek, while he gives me a look that says, “Shut the hell up.” Furthermore, and I think this was the real root of the problem, Derek was a masculine dude. He went hunting, fixed things with his hands, and owned two large pickup trucks, both with toolboxes built into the beds. In may ways I envied his mechanical abilities and felt insecure talking to him because I am, more or less, an academic nerd. I really didn’t know what to expect from this call, but I was happy that he was willing to help.

Broken furnace (Why Home Repairs Make Me Feel Like A Failure) Part II

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Clint Edwards is a tutor coordinator at Oregon State University. He is also the former co-host of the Weekly Reader on KMSU and a graduate of the MFA program at Minnesota State University. His writing has been listed as notable by Best American Essays, and has been published in The Baltimore Review, and through The University of North Dakota, Boston College, Emerson College, The University of South Carolina, and Minnesota State University. 
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Showing 8 comments
  • Jeff Deem

    Wow, I feel your pain right there. It must really be hard trying to live within your means and then have something broken like that in a time you needed it the most. I think a good way to avoid that next time would be to read up or look up tutorials on Youtube on how to fix them up. Also, you can try calling on a heating and ventilation expert, and then observe what he'd do and ask questions so that the next time it breaks down, you'd be able to do it yourself.

    Jeff Deem

  • Eric Powell

    Hopefully, you got it fixed, Clint. Cold temperature is never good for a pregnant wife. Maybe you can try looking into tutorials online of the type of furnace that you have. Maybe it can help you. Or take notes and ask your brother-in-law questions for future reference, if ever it breaks down again.

    Eric Powell

    • Clint

      Eric: Yes. We did get it fixed! I think I am getting better with fixing things. Although a furnace repair is still a bit scary. I did however fix my toilet a few weeks ago and I felt like a champ!

  • Mia Hart

    As a currently pregnant woman I can relate very easily to your wife. I am constantly freezing and no heater would sound like a death sentence to me. I'm glad you were able to get help figuring it out.

    Mia | http://www.summersandsmith.ca/

    • Clint

      So am I!

  • George Ellsworth

    Yeah, these kinds of problems do have the tendency to seem intractable. But sometimes they are, and when it gets to that point, then you go with replacements. There's the physical and mental aspects to account for, as much as the material one. The lesser, the better. A better furnace does help.

    George Ellsworth

  • fitzjames41@gmail.com

    Hello,
    Great post…..You said that a relief program started for home repairs it's very interesting thing in our part of life not only in North Virginia let us start here also if come forward everyoneHome Repairs.

  • Casey Jones

    Haha, I love this. My Dad told me something similar when I got my first home. He said I would need to start learning how to fix things as well. My furnace just broke and I still don't know how to fix things. I guess I will give the furnace repair guy a call.
    http://www.cydcom.ca/furnace_repairs.html