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Hand-me-down genes.

Whenever convenient, we stay at motels offering a "free" breakfast, trying not to think that the cost lies buried in the bowels of the bill. But that's neither here nor there.

Where is it then, you ask? Just keep your shirt on, we'll get to it.

The problem is, the freeloader is required to draw his own orange juice, collect his own cereal, toast his own bagel, and stuff like that. The second problem is, I'm no good at stuff like that. And I'll be the first to point it out. (Make that the second to point it out. No need to tell you who is first.)

The fault lies not entirely with me. When genes for operating things of a mechanical nature were handed out, my early ancestors must have been out back, possibly inventing a square wheel to be used when they weren't going anywhere. Actually, I need to go back no further than the previous generation.

"She's not hitting on all four," my father announced one day, referring to our Model T Ford Touring Car. His knowing that the car had four cylinders was a triumph in itself. But over Mother's advice against it, he removed the spark plugs, then with one of her paring knives scraped off the carbon deposits. In so doing, to his amazement, he discovered that the points on the plugs did not meet.

"No wonder," he remarked, reaching for the pliers. Mechanics, of course, are trained to space the points to the nth degree. Dad, on the other hand, chose to squeeze the points tightly together. And then, with a great sigh of satisfaction, exclaimed, "There!"

When "she" then refused to hit on so much as one, never mind four, he decided he must have put the plugs back in the wrong holes. After numbering the holes and the plugs, he spent the morning attempting to return each plug to its "home" hole. Not until Mother called in Bill Williams, our local garage man, were the plugs properly spaced and our "tin lizzie" hitting on all four again.

Dad had no better luck with our first radio, a Capehart, as I recall. I don't recall the call letters of the station we tuned in most frequently at that time (KDKA comes to mind), but I do remember that the squawks and squeals came all the way from Pittsburgh to our aerial in little old Richfield Center, Michigan.

When the static didn't come in clearly enough to suit him, Dad had this ritual of first stomping on the floor. If that didn't improve the reception, he would begin slapping the set until Mother made him stop. The Capehart soon developed a complex, refusing to cease squawking and squealing after being turned off.

Putting his head together, Dad decided that the noises had been left over in the aerial. To his nightly chores of shoving the dog out and checking to see if the house was on fire, thus was added the duty of disengaging the aerial. "To let it drain," he explained.

Mother, by this time, had given up calling upon Dad for assistance in matters that involved things of a mechanical nature. For instance, when our dog, Belle, got her tail caught in the cogs of the washing machine.

Walking past the machine on this washday morning and wagging her busy tail in greeting to Mother, her long hairs got caught in the cogs and wound her tail about halfway up to her rump. Leaving dear old Dad to restrain the dog from pulling her tail off altogether, Mother ran next door, where Frank Cross, our friendly blacksmith, was shoeing a horse. She reamed, "Our Jog is in the washing machine!"

Laying a hot horseshoe back on the anvil, removing his pipe from his mouth and spitting expertly into a keg of sawdust, Frank casually remarked, "That's a h-- of a place for a dog."

Though Dad carefully watched the blacksmith's every move as he turned the cogs backward and set the dog free, it was knowledge down the drain. Even after the bald section of her tail had recovered its hair, Belle never again went past the machine, idle or running, without giving it as wide a detour as possible.

Well, like father like son, as the saying goes. Which returns us to the free breakfast at motels.

I refer in particular to a free breakfast I underwent not too long ago at the Comfort Inn in Richmond, Indiana. Not that I am complaining about any shortage of comfort as far as the inn is concerned, let me hastily add. I blame only my shortage of genes in the do-it-yourself department.

After watching fellow breakfasters press down on the handle of an orange juice dispenser and seeing orange juice dispensed into their paper cups, I finally found the nerve to walk boldly up, position my cup, and cockily press down on the handle. It came off in my hand. After working unsuccessfully to restore it, I had no alternative but to stick it behind the dispenser. Although I got no orange juice, at least I had the satisfaction of knowing that no one else got orange juice from that time forward.

For my next act, I inserted two halves of a bagel into the toaster oven. The word "TOAST" already aligned on the operational doohickey, I stood there and waited for the bagel to toast. And I stood there. And stood there. And people stood there and stood there behind me, waving their bagels and waffles whenever I looked around. I might be standing there yet, as a matter of fact, had not my dear wife laid down her sweet roll and come over to pull down the handle that put the toaster in business.

Later, now wise to the ways of the dumb thing and the crowd having thinned, I brought a second bagel to the toaster, stuck it in, smugly pulled down the "TOAST" handle, and waited. And waited. Methodically, dear wife finally laid down her sugared doughnut, worked her way through my accumulated audience, turned a knob from "OFF" to "400," and the bagel began toasting.

I am now sitting at my desk, having spent the past half hour trying to tape the bulb part of the floor lamp to the standard from which it has fallen. Walking past the open doorway to my dungeon and noticing the ribbons of tape streaming from my elbows, my dear wife stepped in and put the bulb part back on the standard simply by screwing it in. As she patiently pointed out, by being continually swiveled from my desk to the typewriter, the bulb section had become unscrewed.

If my dexterity-impaired genes went back no further than my father, there might be hope that one day I might still successfully step up and toast a bagel all by myself. But then I think of my grandfather, Fred, and the time he tried to progress from horse flesh to horse power by means of our Model T Ford Touring Car.

The "tin lizzie," as it was called--among other things--had been parked that day in the shade of a maple tree bordering our driveway. His driver ed limited entirely to observation, Grandfather's genes nevertheless must have assured him that he could drive the car up the ramp and through the double doors of the barn where the car was housed (or barned, in deference to you English students).

To our amazement, he not only got the engine started, but selected the proper pedal among the clutch, reverse, and brake on the floorboards at the driver's feet. Then hit the open doors of the barn dead center.

It was only after the T had disappeared into the dusty interior that his desperate yell came echoing off the stacks of baled hay: "WHOA! ... WHOA! ... WHOA! I SAY."

Fortunately, a stack of loose hay at the back of the barn held the damage to no more than a leaky radiator and headlamps now ideally adjusted for hunting coon.

I have no way of knowing, of course, in what era our family's genes for dealing with things of a mechanical nature went off the track. For the untidy sum of $20, 1 once had our lineage traced back to William the Conqueror.

If it is true that he was one of us, how he managed to conquer remains a mystery. I suspect there must have been a Mrs. William the Conqueror. And it was she who showed him how to fit an arrow to the bow. And after he had stood there and waited ... and waited ... she finally put down her tea cake and patiently explained how to send it off.
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Title Annotation:dealing with do-it-yourself breakfasts in motels
Author:Stoddard, Maynard
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1996
Words:1454
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