A few kind words are the right steps in the direction of successful home repair.


March 09, 1996|By ROB KASPER

A JOURNEY of a thousand miles begins with the first step, unless that step resembles the one sitting outside my back door. In that case, there is a strong chance that rather than landing 1,000 miles away, you will land on your backside. The step is loose. It rocks. It rolls. If you don't step on it as lightly as a cat, you can easily end up spread-eagle.

I got a telephone call at work the other day telling me I should fix the step. The call came from one of my kids. It wasn't a suggestion. It was more like an assignment.

I wasn't sure how I felt about the kid giving me a job. I was heartened that the kid had noticed that something was broken. Perhaps this interest could inspire him to join the ranks of home repair persons. But the kid had to learn the language of domestic persuasion. He needed to attach the phrase "when you get around to it," to any request for home repair. Saying "This needs fixing now!" tends to rile the repair person. An angry repair person is a hurried fixer. And a hurried fix is a bad fix.

When I got home from work the other night, I was met at the door by the 11-year-old. He was the complainant. Together we walked to the back of the house to look at the troubled step.

It was a step, or stair, made of wood. It was a free-standing structure, a rent-a-step if you will, that could be moved to whatever spot needed a lift. In our house, the structure bridged a gap between an elevated backyard brick patio, and the slightly sunken area outside our back door.

For reasons I didn't really understand, the structure had stood its ground for decades without wobbling. The years, however, had taken their toll on the wood, especially lately as our kids and their friends have lost their light-footed ways. Kids who once trod so softly that one sitter wanted to put bells on their shoes, now move through a house like a thundering herd of buffalo, shaking the ancient timbers, fraying their father's nerves.

Worn down by age and assaulted by bounding boys, the back step had finally given way. I flipped the structure over and spotted the problem. A board had rotted. Rotting wood can strike fear in a homeowner's heart. It can be a sign that you are feeding termites. I carefully looked at the spoiled wood. I saw no mud tunnels, which termites build. Nonetheless, I made a note to periodically check under the step for any fresh signs of wood-eaters.

It appeared that after battling this harsh winter, a slab of water-soaked wood had finally fallen apart. I sympathized. The winter has been hard on all us. My son and I knocked the nails out of the rotten board. Then, much to his delight, I let him jump on the board, smashing it into pieces small enough to fit in a plastic trash bag.

I jerry-built a repair for the unstable step. I hammered a few pieces of wood onto the remaining sound parts of the structure. When I tested it, I found that the step would hold its ground, as long as it was stepped, not stomped, on. I warned all members of the family to avoid bounding up or down the step.

In some ways the trouble with the back step was propitious. The kids' basketball season had just ended. That meant we were no longer flying up that step to get to a game or practice. Last weekend when the championship games were on tap, we charged out the door and up the step. But when we came home, we were dragging. Last Saturday we played four different games at two different gyms. We lost every game, some by a little, some by a lot.

Last weekend the usual words of parental wisdom were offered as attempts to cheer the downhearted. They were told they had played well. They were told their fortunes could change. They were reminded that next year they could be like the red team in the Towsontowne 13-15-year-olds league and lose every game during the regular season then rebound and win the tournament championship.

The downhearted didn't want to hear it. Instead they wanted to LTC remain downhearted, at least for a few hours. Time, rather than parental bromides, seems to be the best tonic for defeat.

I know the seasons are changing. I know eventually it will stop snowing every weekend. I know someday the ground will soften and this season of discontent will give way to the promise of spring. I know baseballs soon will fly in the alley behind our house. And I know that when the kids go bounding out to play in that game, I better have the step fixed.

Pub Date: 3/09/96

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