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It's Always Something

How our columnist first got in the home-inspection business—and trashed a perfectly good recliner in the process.

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Pardon a paragraph of celebration, but I’ve got to say something: This is the one hundredth consecutive Helter Shelter column. That’s 75,000 words, mostly about keeping a house in good shape, some about avoiding buckethead repair people, and a little about life at my house with wife Brenda and daughter Jess.

I figure now would be a good time to explain how I got into the business of knowing things about houses. It started when I was 17, on a June night, when my father, Jabo, went out dancing at the Augusta, Ga., Amvets club with my evil and snake-faced stepmother, Montine.

Jabo, whose creed was “Never sit down on the job,” stayed on his feet a little too long, bugalooing when he should’ve been sitting his big ass down. He dropped dead right there on the dance floor. When Montine moved out and started hauling away Jabo’s furniture, tools, and guns by the truckload, I turned to family lawyer Frampton Toole, who had gotten my stepbrother, Geames, acquitted of a federal bootlegging charge. (Geames was guiltier than hell, by the way.) Toole, bless his heart, got me the house.

It never was much of a house, but Jabo built it; it was all that was left of him, and I meant never to let it go. Whatever it took to keep it from leaking, burning, or falling to the ground, I would by God do it.

The first thing to go wrong was the kitchen sink drain. One day, it refused to swallow anything. I crawled under the house, not even knowing what I was looking for. I just knew that the first corollary to Jabo’s no-sitting creed was, “Never do anything half-ass.” I figured since he’d done the plumbing, whatever the problem was, it had to be minor. Well, in the process of fixing the sink drain, I figured out that our septic system’s drain field had clogged years earlier, and Jabo had rigged the pipes to dump all our waste water into the creek behind the house.

The same week, a deputy came to the house and served me with court order, saying that the probate court had awarded Montine Jabo’s TV and recliner. I called lawyer Toole, and he told me there was no use fighting the order; I had to turn the stuff over. “What if I catch Montine up on the second floor of the mall and pitch her over the railing?” I asked.

“Probably justifiable, but her daughters from a previous marriage would still get the TV and recliner.”

With that in mind, I called my buddy Mark, who now heads a research group at MIT. “Got a job for you, bro,” I said. “Bring your electronics tools.”

Mark lived about 10 miles away, so while I was waiting for him, I put on a pair of black combat boots and started jumping up and down on the recliner. Not as hard as I could, but enough to make it all lopsided and squeejawed. Then I turned it over and hacksawed most of the way through every nut and bolt.

When Mark arrived, he found me in shorts and boots only, dripping sweat, standing over the tortured recliner. “Uh, Walter, you want to brief me on the mission?”

“Judge says Montine gets that TV tomorrow,” I said, pointing to the guilty unit. “Your mission is to fix it so it’ll kinda work, but not so anybody could ever enjoy it. Any use of the TV must result in raging frustration. Also, you must make it unrepairable.”

So Mark took out resistors and capacitors and transistors, replacing them with parts that were just a little bit off spec. Then he rewound the coils on the tuner so that the channels would drift in and out. He rigged circuit bombs like people plant daffodils—some would blow early, some would blow soon after, and some would blow late. Finally, he etched the circuit boards with acid. I delivered the stuff to Montine the next day. Haven’t heard from her since.

For 10 years, I defended Jabo’s house like it was the last fort between heaven and hell. If it sprang a leak, I patched it. If it sparked, I rewired it. In 1981, I walked away from it. The house I share now with Brenda and Jess is a long way from perfect. But I’m steadily fixing it up—even if there is still a big hole in the hallway floor.

Visit Walter Jowers’ Web site at http://www.nashscene.com/~housesense/.

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