A junior Mr. Fix-it, filled with curiosity and a child's hope


December 26, 1992|By ROB KASPER

When the kid first asked about the fireplace, I gave him the practical answers.

He is one of those kids interested in how things work. A kid who, at the age of 7, has his own toolbox and wants to fill it up with "real" tools. This Christmas he had requested a hacksaw.

So he got a lecture on fireplace maintenance -- on why some fireplaces work, and why ours didn't.

He was told that the bricks of the fireplace were held together with special fireplace mortar. He heard that the chimney had to be tightly sealed all the way to the roof. Otherwise smoke and sparks could escape from the chimney into the walls, and burn the house down.

Our fireplace chimneys did run all the way to the roof. He knew this. He had walked out in the back yard and studied the roof. He had seen the chimneys, one topped with three smokestacks.

But the bricks were pitted, the mortar crumbling. Some chimneys needed to be relined. Some of them had been sealed to prevent heat loss.

Anticipating his next question, I said that fixing the fireplaces was too big a job, even if he helped me. However, we could fix the sagging door in his bedroom.

Toolboxes in hand, we climbed the stairs to his room and inspected the door. It wasn't closing correctly. It banged the frame, about a foot above the door handle. The door was a victim of a spirited door-slamming episode of a game of hide-and-seek.

I tried tightening the screws in the hinge. When the screws wouldn't bite, I changed plans. I loosened one screw, and pulled it out of the hinge hole.

Into the empty hole I stuffed a wooden dowel, a long, round wooden stick I had bought at the hardware store. It was a tight fit. The dowel seemed reluctant to enter the dark hole. But after it was coaxed along with a hammer, it changed its mind.

When even the hammer couldn't make the dowel go in the hole any deeper, I stopped and snapped the dowel off flush with the door frame.

Then I put the screw back in the freshly plugged hole. This time the screw bit into the wood, firmly holding the hinge. I repeated the dowel-stuffing routine on the other two hinge holes.

This was a shortcut fix. Home-repair books I had read outlined a more detailed method.

In the books, the door is taken off the hinges. This is done by removing the hinge pins, lower pin going first, with a hammer and screwdriver.

Next, the hinge screws are removed. Then the hinge is pulled out sideways to avoid chipping the notches in the door frame. Using a 1/4 -inch drill bit, the hinge holes are enlarged.

The enlarged holes are filled with perfectly fitting pieces of 1/4 -inch wooden dowel that are glued into place. Finally the hinges and door are put back.

I simply stuck the dowel in the holes and snapped it off. It worked fine. The screw held tight. And the door, now properly aligned, closed easily.

My son helped me work on the door, and on another project, nailing some loose fiberboard on the back of a wardrobe.

He knew his tools, which screwdriver was a Phillips, which pliers was the needle nose. He pulled a nail out without bending it, so we could use it again.

As I watched him hammer the nails in with a smooth, steady stroke, I felt like I was watching him grow up, right there behind the wardrobe. He seemed so adult.

Then he asked again about the fireplace. Again, I explained the difficulties in making it work. How the mortar was loose, the flue had to be kept tightly closed to prevent hot air from rushing outside.

From the look on his face, I could see that I wasn't getting through to him.

He rephrased his question.

"How can Santa Claus get in our house," he asked, "if those smokestacks are in his way?"

There it was, the difference between the way adults and children see the world. When I looked at the fireplace, I saw responsibility. I saw a nuisance that needed to be sealed up to prevent wind and rain from damaging the house.

When my son saw the fireplace, he saw opportunity. He still believed that the night air, which I dreaded, carried hope -- that happiness could somehow find its way down a crumbling chimney, at least for one more year.

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