JWR Articles: Commentary - The Toolshed (Author: S. James Wegg) - September 5, 2001
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The Toolshed

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The perils of neighbourly advice

I seemed to be good at family living. There was always something for me to do in and around the house.

Three quarters of our surprisingly large backyard was covered by an uneven quilt of patio stones—the remainder was dirt and weeds. A somewhat precarious mud-brown slatted fence—designed to keep the neighbours from knowing precisely when the steaks were done or just how our tans had progressed—hemmed in the space. It was valiantly supported by a threadbare cedar hedge, which, nevertheless, I trimmed twice annually.

The front yard boasted a lawn. It was divided by a paved strip that led to the well-worn sidewalk. A thin patch of earth—home to an over-fertilized bed of giant tulips whose proud stigmas risked an obscenity charge—was situated directly below the brightly curtained kitchen window. However, not even the brazenness of the pitch-black prongs could compete with the allure of the saucy red-orange petals that became the insatiable desire of various rodents which—drawn like moths to a flame—risked drowning by garden hose in order to satisfy their vegan desires. But once those short-lived riots of colour had collapsed and withered, much less tasty specimens were planted to add visual relief from the cracked asphalt and dandelion infested sod that penned in our shameless den of floral rapture. Nothing the neighbours grew attracted nearly as much interest.

Even though the condominium association was responsible for cutting the grass (represented by spindly-legged, thirteen-year-old Bill, who was exceedingly meticulous when trimming the borders at the height of tulip season), my wife decided that, if we were to maintain our lead in the best flowerbed on the block contest, then a toolshed had to be installed. As a bonus, the 5’x6’x6’ structure would just cover the un-stoned section of the yard, thus reducing the frequency of use for the gardening implements it would hold.

The purchase was easy: only one of the specially priced units remained when I finally got to the home supply store ten minutes before closing on the last day of the sale. Yet, it must have been freeze-dried then jammed into its cardboard shell before being forcibly held down while finger-threatening industrial-size staples and miles of packing tape sealed it shut. Dragging this hernia inducing product from the car to the house under the cover of darkness (no need to amuse the neighbours day and night) would surely be the most difficult task.

On the last Saturday in June I got up early, strangely excited by the prospect of erecting my tool chalet. For I would build it from scratch; it would be my greatest home-achievement ever. Our six-pronged rake, oil-starved hedge-clippers, two flat-tired bikes and garbage container would finally have a place of their own—made by me! I shivered at the prospect.

However, my apprenticeship for this do-it-yourself-project had been long and arduous. The only time I’d made my middle-school metalwork teacher smile was on the final day of class (although, even now, I still use the weed-puller I’d crafted there as a stir stick for paint). My major assignment during woodworking shop—a walnut-stained LP record cabinet—is still in service; but, due to a slight design flaw, only 45’s actually fit. Thank goodness for CDs!

It’s true that in all things mechanical I am cut from a different cloth than my father. He was a veritable wizard of architecture and construction: cottages, garages—even a darkroom where I had great success mixing the chemicals, however, no film should ever be exposed in a photo-shop built by me.

No better example of my handyperson prowess comes to mind than the garage-raising nineteen years ago. I was Bill’s age and—like him—all skin and bone. My job was simple: haul the hand-mixed cement from the backyard to the front and then dump it into the centre of the wooden mold that outlined the floor. Even though a wheelbarrow novice, I had no qualms about proceeding! But I only managed three wobbly steps before my fluid cargo zigged as I desperately zagged, listing unstoppably to the left and sliding completely out of its tub. The lawn never recovered.

On subsequent construction projects, “a few of the young lads from work” began to appear. My contribution was limited to bringing out the drinks to my dad’s well-muscled colleagues. Catering became my forte.

So, on this fresh summer day, I was determined to succeed unassisted. I vowed to read the directions and—perhaps—even follow a few. I would take it slow and steady, knowing full well that the amount of time required to assemble anything is always greater than the estimate. But I had all day and was going to enjoy every minute.

Tom, my four-year-old, was in the vicinity but understandably a little leery of being anywhere near the work site or me. For just a few weeks ago, carrying him horsey-style on my shoulders while trying to force open the constantly stuck screen door, disaster struck. When the entryway suddenly flew open, my first born lost his grip around my neck and fell with a sickening thud onto the unyielding patio stones at the base of the steps. I thanked the God of Heredity that Tom’s head was as thick as mine—he immediately hollered at full volume, serving as a siren call to the neighbours: Immediately everyone searched for a vantage point that would surreptitiously permit them to observe the drop site.

Obviously planning my sudden demise, my wife dashed out to see what “your father has done to you this time!” By then, Tom was in my arms and I tried to comfort him while gently probing for any lasting damage. Then, with a false front of outward calm (while no mechanic, I could act), I drove Tom to the hospital where I was viewed with great suspicion by the Doctor-on-call. Several hours later, I learned that the only harm done had been to what remained of my self-esteem. But, to this day, my son won’t let me carry him into the house.

Still, even that traumatic experience couldn’t prevent Tom from wanting to see the contents of the shed-in-a-carton. I pulled out a rusted carpet knife from my fishing tackle cum tool box and began slicing through the cardboard. Soon, a few of Tom’s chums appeared. The neighbourhood network worked well: “Free show, Tommy’s Dad is going to put something together.” I was surprised to find that my young audience hadn’t come armed with their parents’ camcorders.

Once slit, the toolshed’s container yielded a myriad of wrapped and loose metal components, which (according to the advertisements) “would fit together easily in no time at all, ready for years of use.” I was delighted that I could identify some of the pieces by sight—roof, walls, a few beams—without referring to the legend. But there were even more screws, washers and odd looking bolts than in last winter’s new “some assembly required” bookshelf, which, due to its inexplicable penchant for falling over whenever the garbage truck rumbles by, has been confined to holding discarded textbooks. Not surprisingly, the kids wanted to get right at it, but I held them back, patiently explaining that, like the sky of a jigsaw puzzle, all of the pieces had to be sorted by shape and function before any construction began.

Somewhat reluctantly, they opened the bags while I looked through the guide.

Computer manuals have much in common with manufacturer’s plans: they come in several languages; contain many interesting illustrations and diagrams (always one model number removed from what was purchased); and omit the most important information of all. The unwitting consumer is forced to call the support desk where, after being left on hold for 45 minutes with no company but looping elevator music, is told, with gallons of condescension, that no one else has ever needed that particular direction before. The real problem comes from the authors who write these technical tomes knowing full well very little of their work will ever be read cover-to-cover. Perhaps another Pulitzer category is needed.

Nonetheless, seeing no 1-800 FIX SHED listed on the page, I devoured every word to ensure my success. This erection would be methodical, use every nut and bolt, and finished in time enough for me to watch the magicians of the links begin their summer sorcery of sending dimpled white balls both heavenward and in a forward direction.

As I read, I realized with growing satisfaction that I had correctly anticipated the first steps: opening the box and now’using child labour’sorting through its contents. Following inventory, (“Make sure every part has been included”) the fun would begin. But not even half way through their task, the size of my workforce dwindled considerably, leaving just Tom and his large-headed friend, Andrew on the job. Five minutes later, they, too, bailed, opting for the superior pleasures of the nearby sandbox/community-kitty-litter-station. But no matter, I was inwardly pleased when the gate slammed shut. Now I could work at my own pace—unobserved. (Having endured the results of my mechanical skills for years as well as being supplied with vivid accounts of my pre-marriage projects by family and friends, my wife had escaped soon after breakfast so as to “catch up on a year’s worth of shopping” promising to return later in the afternoon to “admire your handiwork.”)

Satisfied that everything was present and accounted for (with a few spares to boot!), I began.

There was little difficulty fitting together the six lengths of frame that—when linked—would become the foundation. Even though one of the rails was bent, I managed to force it back into alignment so that when the doors were added (step 22) they would easily slide open and shut. Bloody marvellous! However, some bits could not be used: eighteen holes had been pre-drilled into the base pieces through which an equal number of anchor screws were meant to be inserted in order to secure the entire structure onto a concrete slab. But my shed sat on dirt. I toyed with the idea of mixing up some cement to remedy this slight deficiency but, since I didn’t have a wheelbarrow, quickly dismissed the notion and succumbed to the sudden urge of brewing tea.

Now refreshed from the rigours of the first stage, I moved confidently to the “blue sky” section. Thousands of small metal spirals and their associated washers would have to be carefully threaded then tightened around some “funny little cross pieces” before being attached to the roof and walls. I patiently screwed for over an hour, content that progress was being made.

By the time lunch hour arrived, I had successfully completed no less than twenty couplings of those twisted connectors to the metal sheets without any need of first aid. At this rate I’d be finished my challenge just as Nicklaus and Trevino began theirs.

“Looks like you could use some help.”

I bristled inside and out.

Andrew’s Dad, David-the-Arrogant, had somehow learned of my project and—unannounced and uninvited—was invading my domain!

My screwdriver ripped into flesh as he continued.

“It’ll take all weekend to get that up the way you’re going—good thing I brought my trusty B&D ‘lectric driver.”

I had to take a stand now or forfeit ownership of the project!

“Well, David, it’s kind of you to offer but I’ve just got the hang of things now and I’m sure I’ll be fine. Thanks—”

—“Nonsense. My drill will tighten every screw far better than your hand job—wouldn’t want the shed to collapse on Tommy—strike two, eh?” he guffawed peering with glee at the blood dripping from my skin.

Visions of the toolshed blowing over and revealing its untethered bottom flashed through my mind. But my mood improved immeasurably as I imagined redoing David’s fillings using his own bit!

Still, I’d lost again. David had already finished his third screw by the time my outrage subsided. Instinctively I prepared to go in and make sandwiches and coffee—but I forced myself not to give up.

And so I fell from chief to helper, but—like an experienced O-R nurse—I anticipated Dr. Drill’s instrument requirements even as he hijacked my operation. Worse still: he never glanced at the plans.

Two hours later, I took quiet solace when I realized that the south wall (the doors facing north) had been screwed on entirely backwards by the Master of Home Improvement.

“Are you sure the bumpy parts should be on the outside?” I ventured quietly.

“Hmmm,” David mused surveying the panel in question. “Lemme see those directions you’ve been hiding.”

My heart leapt and I inwardly shrieked a thousand “Ha ha’s!”

“They’ve got it wrong,” he announced authoritatively pointing vaguely between steps 18 and 19. “Good thing I caught it so soon.”

Resigned, (there were no witnesses—at least none who would ever admit to it) I thanked him for his insight into this highly technical matter. He quickly shifted his drill into reverse and blundered on.

I went in to make lemonade.

The rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully, although just as I was bringing out some cookies, David lost his balance and stumbled, permanently denting the roof with his boot. He didn’t realize I’d seen his wayward lurch. But to cover his not inconsiderable buttocks, he drew my attention to the aluminum crater, feigned surprise, then suggested I take it all back for an exchange because of “that defective top panel.” I reddened as I declined, gallantly pointing out that only the birds and our most observant (ha, ha!) neighbours would ever notice his depression, thus sidestepping the impossible task of getting everything back into its “original packaging should a return be necessary.”

Several times Tom and Andrew dropped by to check our progress. With each successive trip their conversation moved closer to the conclusion that Andrew’s Dad was doing a fantastic job of building Tom’s Da’s toolshed. My ego suffered a greater blow than I had inflicted on my son’s head—but he was more resilient! I began muttering loudly (twice when the kids were in range) about the hundreds of cottages, houses, garages, and “even a kidney-shape swimming pool” that I had helped my father construct. David just grinned and screwed on.

Finally, after the doors had been successfully wrestled into place (with just a few teeny scratches to the finish), it was done. The instructions had long ago been swept over the fence by a huge gust of wind, though I’d made no effort to retrieve them—the metaphor was too overwhelming. Instead, I found myself wishing for a precision tornado to land and suck David and his drill out of my yard then deposit them into the dankest water treatment pool in the region. But my wishes had a few more months to wait.

Still, although losing the opportunity of completing the shed myself, I had probably avoided a trip to Emergency where no one would minister to the self-inflicted wounds of a known child-dropper—“betcha his son took revenge.”

So as we surveyed the brown and white gardening mausoleum, I summoned all the shallowness I could muster and thanked David for his untiring assistance.

“Think nothing of it,” he intoned magnanimously, “Glad to help—it’s the least I could do.”

As he quaffed his fourth lemonade and sauntered away, I assured him that someday I would return his kindness. That was my best threat.

It remained for me to clean up the mess. Another talent—there’s not a dust bunny to be found in our house and even the tops of the door frames will sparkle for those tall enough to appreciate their gleaming surface!

Not soon after, my wife arrived and gave our new addition a thorough examination. Except for the damage to the roof, she was visibly impressed. I identified the perpetrator.

“David was here too? Did he help much?” she asked innocently.

“More than I could ever have asked for,” I said with a remarkably civil tongue.

“Well aren’t he and Elsie coming over for a drink? It’s the least we could do considering all he did.”

I counted to twenty. “Why don’t I call them right now?” she volunteered a tad too eagerly.

As if pre-ordained, Elsie walked through the gate at that very instant. She and my wife oozed favourably on “David’s skill.” I made sure Elsie noticed the roof.

“Oh my man,” she beamed, “He just can’t help being a good neighbour.”

Realizing the day was entirely lost (no VCR then; no golf for me), I graciously invited Elsie to go and fetch her husband so that we could all have a little drink together.

“Oh yes” demurred my wife, “And I’m sure David will want to try some of Tim’s new single malt scotch.”

“Somebody say scotch?” exclaimed the salivating interloper as he re-appeared out of nowhere.

The thought of this overbearing, overblown, balding bully devouring my nectar of the Gods (and worse, giving me no time to switch bottles so that he’d have to settle for a blend) was ten times worse than the hours of humiliation I’d already endured.

But, despite the aversion of both women to whiskey (double gin and tonics sufficed for them), the whole bottle evaporated. (Nevertheless, I did my best to ensure at least some of it found its way into my eagerly awaiting bloodstream.) But the gutting of our liquor supply didn’t stop there. A great deal of my wine and beer (homemade—winner of blind taste tests; a useful sideline to catering), was consumed to wash down the ordered-in pizza (delivered by the aforementioned Bill, whose enthusiasm for lawn cutting had waned in recent weeks commensurate to the wilting of the tulips and whose loose-fitting tank-top would have to wait several more years before having anything of sufficient bulk to test its stitching). Since both David and Elsie had left their wallets at home, our “little drink” ended up costing far more than the toolshed and its contents combined.

Finally, when nothing remained, our guests decided to stagger home (I was tempted to carry David out through the back—the screen door still wasn’t fixed). As he tottered through the yard, using the shed for support, he assured me that we would get together again “real soon and throw something else up.” Fortunately, he was so steeped in our hospitality that both his offer and my two word response would never be recalled.

Although David had robbed me of the satisfaction of making something completely on my own, that sorry episode would soon spur me on to begin the biggest re-construction project of my life. But this time, I’d have no choice but to do it alone. JWR

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