The photo is from 1978. My son, his truck. Behind him, my truck.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Technical Training Tuition

Saturday, May 1, 1982

"I hear you're the cat's meow," she says.

"Actually, I'm a dog person," I say.

"I mean, I hear you're good.  Do you repair gas ranges?"

For six years now I've advertised myself as "Carpenter, Plumber, Electrician" though I'm licensed in none of those fields.  In fact, I'm not licensed at all.  I get better all the time by taking jobs that are just slightly beyond my reach - and usually, I reach them.  I keep a stash of how-to books in my truck.  For a long time, the Reader's Digest Complete Do-it-yourself Manual was my bible, an amazingly clear and correct guide.  By now, 1982, I've moved well beyond that level, but I'm no expert.

"Yes," I say.  I can truthfully report that I have experience repairing gas ranges.  Two of them.

Now it's time to raise my level.

So here I am repairing this woman's range in Palo Alto.  Her daughter, a sulky teenager, is spending Saturday afternoon on the sofa watching television.  She's grounded.

It's pretty easy to tell that the main valve is defective, so I buy a new one and install it.
The oven still doesn't work.  I tinker, use up a book of matches, keep tinkering.  Damn.

"Don't you know how to fix it?" the girl calls from the sofa.

"Not quite done," I say.  "I'll have to come back tomorrow."

This is the cost of my education.  Sometimes I have to fail at a task.  So far, I'm into this job for $150.  An expensive failure.  Worse, failure hurts my name.  Most of my jobs come by word-of-mouth.  Like this one.

I had a friend in college who knew all about repairing Volkswagen beetles.  I asked him how he learned.  He said, "When your clutch dies and you're three hundred miles from Houston, you learn how to repair a clutch."

Desperation is a great teacher.  At home in the evening I pore over how-to books. 

The next day I return, tinker for an hour, and light the pilot.  Besides the valve (which really needed replacing), I'm not sure just what the other problem was.  Maybe the thermocouple was slightly out of place.  Maybe a supply tube was slightly too bent.  Maybe it was a dirty orifice.  I adjusted all those things.  Something fixed it.

The girl is back on the sofa, watching dreary Sunday-morning television.  Day Two of grounding.  I restrain myself from saying, "Don't you know how to improve yourself?  Do something."

Bottom line, the woman gets her oven repaired.  It takes me longer than the official appliance guy, but I charge less.  Now I know a little more about ovens.  One more risk, taken.  One more skill, acquiring.

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