Yours Truly

[Yours Truly]

[Garrett County Press]

Excerpt from
Yours Truly
by Hugh Downs

My father was one of the last to capitulate to an age of specialization. He is the original do-it-yourselfer, and tends to believe that if anything is beyond his powers of comprehension or manipulation, it doesn't really exist. (I say "tends" because he has finally bogged down in toto in dealing with his television set.) I think what discourages the workbench hobbyist, when it comes to highly technical things, is the knowledge that no one person anywhere in the world knows enough to handle certain projects from start to finish. No single human being could assemble an atom bomb or a television set. But TV sets are brought into being from raw materials every day because one team knows how to make special glass for picture tubes and another team knows how to pull the air out of picture tubes and seal them up -- and so on down the line.

One drawback in being born into an age of high technology is that we take for granted things that are practically miracles. Dad belongs to the age of transition. Young enough to live among these miracles, he is just old enough to think of them as such. This probably explains his peculiar attitude toward machinery.

Although he has always been extremely long-suffering in his dealings with other humans he is understanding and able to control his temper remarkably. He could never apply this patience to inanimate things -- particularly machines. This is because of a deep and basic suspicion of machinery. The more complex the machine the more hostile Dad is to it. He shares Norbert Wiener's belief that man may be putting himself out on a limb by building machines and letting them take over some of his thinking for him.

In spite of this, he is an inveterate tinkerer, having worked tirelessly on the automation of mechanical things -- in effect, teaching them to think. In his own way he was a pioneer -- a fact documented by a number of bizarre events.

When we moved to the MacBeth farm, the house was supplied with water from a cistern and a drilled well. In the basement there was a primitive pumping system, supposed to be fed by the cistern. Water was then distributed by a pressure tank through faucets in the kitchen and bathrooms. The equipment was far from perfect. Dad renovated it in a few months' spare time, putting in a new and much more powerful basement pump as well as a larger tank. Since the cistern water was not safe to drink, we pumped well water by hand and kept a tin bucket of it in the kitchen. There was an aluminum dipper in the bucket. I doubt if I'll ever forget the taste of that water. It was heavy and diamond-clear, and bristling with minerals. It came unendingly, in unchanging character, from some constant source deep in the earth, far removed from the effects of changing seasons, bringing its freshness to fever and dust and sweat. That water gave to memory something silver. And because standards of the taste in water are formed by conditions of youth and thirst, all the water I've tasted since is somehow weak and stale. I've always believed the subject of The Old Oaken Bucket, recruited to serve temperance, is not the moss-covered wooden container with its bright burden, but the author's lost childhood.

Step by step Dad automated our water system until it frightened people. Literally.

When he installed the new house pressure system in the basement, he sealed off the cistern. From here on, as it was all well water, we could drink from the faucets. That system still had its limitations.

In those days you couldn't (or at least he didn't) buy a unit that included cutoffs and other control devices. These he built. But again, a step at a time. When the pump was first installed, we had to time its running and shut it off after the pressure had built up to a certain point. Frequently this operation was neglected. Then the loud and agonized clanking of the over-burdened pump signaled that the pressure was maybe six or eight times what it ought to be. On these occasions, opening a tap without great caution could mean blasting the dishes out of the sink. Within a single evening a thirsty guest had a glass blown to bits in his hand, while another guest emerged from the bathroom with the lower part of his clothing soaked. He said to Dad, "Very funny, Milton, very funny." And to his wife, "Get your things, Alice, I think we've stayed long enough." The other guests agreed with his first statement, and my parents with his second, so my father nodded pleasantly and showed them to the door.

We still had to supply big drums in the basement with well water from the pump, which was located near the house under an abandoned windmill tower. Dad had run a long pipe from the pump through the foundation into the basement when he sealed off the cistern. Most of the pumping was assigned to Paul and me, but I did my share and his. Although I was a little heavier, it took all my weight to bring the cast-iron handle down. At ten, I was not tall enough to operate it properly. With the handle in the Up position, I had to jump up and perch on it like a bantam rooster and bring it to the Down position. These calisthenics produced about a pint of water; the drums were fifty gallons each.

Since Paul was nearly my size he could have taken his turn. I found that out after what seemed like months, but he had proved to Dad that his perching on the handle did nothing but make him look like a hypnotized plover. He couldn't budge the thing. After Dad watched one of these trials I saw Paul remove from the fulcrum a stove bolt which he had put there to block any motion of the handle. I hit him in the eye.

In late summer, 1931, Dad christened a power unit for the pump made from harrow teeth, binder twine, and machinery rejected by junk yards. It operated roughly on the principle of the internal combustion engine. We called it Milton's Folly, but I cheered it since it represented deliverance from my drudgery.

Dad was getting the hang of control devices. His spare time was largely spent now in refining, and adding to, the concept of work-free living. Some of his effort, however, was spent in what might be called the pursuit of pure science. In the hall between the kitchen and dining room, for example, in an alcove that had had pantry shelves at one time, he had set up a sort of master control panel, on which he tied everything together by elaborate wiring. There were pilot lights, switches, relays, fuses, tubes, rheostats, and some devices I had seen only in movies in the basement laboratories of mad scientists. At one point there were battery-run emergency lights all over the house for use during power failures, a wind charger with an airplane propeller for keeping the batteries up, a heat-controlled attic fan with louvered vents, a crude stoker that screwed coal out of the coalbin into the furnace, and an electric-eye control on the door from the dining room to the porch (which, never having the proper timing, usually opened on a person's approach in time to catch him square in the face as it swung closed again).

The photo cell fascinated my father. He foresaw many things now in use. "Just think." he'd say, "the photoelectric cell, coupled to a type of rheostat, could make lights come up slowly in your house as daylight faded."

He never got around to that. But he did build an electric timer outlet -- a clock that switched appliances on and off at preselected times. It was made with the radio in mind, but we used to plug all sorts of other things into it. He also rigged a system of closing the windows automatically when rain hit the sill. Although it was impractical to do this all over the house, we had one ground floor window that would close at a drop of rain. My brothers and I nearly wore it out by spitting on the sill.

The turning point was the time of our vacation at a lake in Indiana. We were only gone four days, but none of that family of automatic machines was the same afterward. Dad had hired Mr. Kitchell to stay at the place and look after the stock while we were gone. Kitchell was a seedy old bachelor from nearby Spencerville who had helped on occasion with some of the heavy work. He was stolid and laconic. The little finger of his right hand was missing. He told us that his brother had chopped it off with an ax at his request when he was bitten on it by a poisonous snake years ago in Michigan. I had always thought of him as imperturbable. On our return I was shocked to see him perturbed to a point that might clinically have been described as violent.

It was planned that he sleep in the "office," a small downstairs room that nobody ever used as an office, but which had become a catchall for items of no use but some imagined value. He brought his own Army cot.

On our return, he had his cot in the barn, and he looked fifteen years older. While his account of those four days was not too coherent, we pieced together a general idea of what had happened. The first night he was awakened by the vacuum cleaner starting up. Someone had left it plugged into the timer. It had taken him awhile to find it and, as he didn't want to get near it, he attacked its cord with a pair of tinsnips. This gave him something of a jolt.

There had been a thunderstorm the second night. At the first gusts and distant flashes he had tried to close the automatic window, working in vain for several minutes. When he finally gave up and turned his back on it rain started to fall, whereupon the window ground shut by itself, catching part of his nightshirt and holding him prisoner, amid a whir of motor and a ghastly, undulating whine of rack and pinion. He freed himself after some struggle, and being deathly afraid of the lightning, now flashing jagged bolts followed more and more closely by salvos of thunder, he made his way to the center of the room, away from the windows.

It slowly dawned on him that the house, his refuge from an out of doors saturated with horror, was showing signs of hostility more threatening than the familiar fury of nature. The window biting his nightshirt was only a feeble start.

The lights dimmed, then winked out, due to power failure. Mr. Kitchell was used to this. What he was not used to was the illumination of emergency bulbs in each room -- bulbs which had not been in evidence before and for which there were no switches. After a short time, and while he was searching for the fuse boxes, the drain on the batteries activated the release of the fin on the wind charger, which swung into action to bring the batteries back up to full charge. In an ordinary breeze this wind charger made a noticeable racket, and as it was attached to the roof, it sent some vibration through the house. In a full-blown storm the effect was like an airplane readying for takeoff directly overhead, and it was probably heavier than the roof was stressed for.

About the time Mr. Kitchell found the master control panel and discovered the fuses were intact, the power came back, turning on the lights that had been off, while turning off the lights that had been on. However, he had unfortunately fiddled with some of the switches. These switches formed a network of such subtle interrelation and vast complexity that had there been an operating manual (which there wasn't -- it was all in Dad's head, which was in Indiana), Mr. Kitchell could not have grasped its rudiments in weeks of study -- and at the time he stood there, tiny lamps in the panel winking on and off at him, he must have thought he had only minutes to live anyway.

The havoc he wrought came from throwing perhaps no more than four or five switches. But an inept brain surgeon can work lethal wonders with very little pruning. Having brought his unsterilized hands to the very nerve center of the house, Mr. Kitchell, in a certain sense, deserved his fate.

Suddenly everything leaped into action, for the house, touched to the quick, underwent a paroxysm. The sump pump jumped awake under its hot manhole cover. Louvers opened in the attic wall to let the wind drive the fan blades backwards for a moment, throwing current into the line and shorting the thermostat relays. This switched the fan on and overcame the wind, adding a new vibration.

Mr. Kitchell swore he had heard a toilet flush at the height of all this. It seems unlikely that this was anything but his imagination, although the pressure in the water system was abnormal when we got back.

The stoker came on and ran for two days with no fire in the furnace.

The firebox filled with coal, forcing the door open from inside and depositing a half ton of coal at the foot of the furnace and an eighth of an inch of coal dust over every piece of furniture in the house. Mr. Kitchell didn't know this because he didn't go back inside the house after that night.

But he lived up to his agreement and watered the livestock by carrying buckets from the lake.

Dad gave him credit for that, and deep down I think he sympathized with his terror.

"Machines will sometimes turn on you," he said.


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