Sunday, May 6, 2012

Living With Bill...The Ups & Downs

Affixed to the cabinet alongside our refrigerator, secured by a small Velcro patch, sits an innocuous little gray box. It’s the remote control for our electric garage door opener, not very imposing or even notable to the casual observer.

And yet… this little battery operated device opens more than the door to our garage. For me, it’s a key to a treasure trove of happy memories…

Our raised ranch home was shared by my brood of 5 living upstairs and my in-laws who occupied the lower half. I’ll give my wife’s parents credit; Bill & Gert were the picture of patience when it came to adapting their September years lifestyle to the often chaotic activities that came with raising three children and an infinite series of pets that included dogs, an albino boa constrictor, two cats, and numerous hamsters…not to mention a bat (the flying kind) that my children brought home one afternoon. Richard, pounding out an overabundance of teen hormones on an 80 pound punching bag, would cause seismic reverberations throughout the house. Gert was famously phobic about snakes and Jen’s boa constrictor caused no end of lively discussions. And then there were the doggie deposits that seemed to gain a whole new revitalized fragrance when Bill would inadvertently run over a hidden pile of poo with the mower.

But I was talking about the remote control, wasn’t I?

Bill & Gert’s prior home, the one that they had blissfully lived a solo existence in, had come equipped with an electric garage door opener, a feature that was painfully lacking in the home we now shared.  Anyone who has ever attempted to open their garage during a torrential summer thunderstorm, or one of our New England-style winter nor’easters will attest that an electric garage door, while it may not be a “necessity”, is certainly highly desirable. At least until you have a power failure.

But that’s another story.

So Bill and I agreed to split the cost and installed a Craftsman opener we had purchased at Sears. The whole installation process went remarkably smoothly considering Bill was left-handed where I favored my right. To those of you who are not experienced in multi-dexterous interaction, I can tell you that left-handed people don’t think the same way as right-handed folks.

Not that they’re wrong, mind you, just… different.

Add to that, Bill was one generation removed from being British, with his parents having come across the pond just a year or two before he was born. As for me, I was born and bred in Kentucky (the land of beautiful horses and fast women) from a mongrel line of Scot/Dutch/German descendants (all of which have a disagreeable history with the Brits). Bill was of course, a member of what journalist Tom Brokaw referred to as “The Greatest Generation”. While I had my questionable coming of age in southern California, not Haight-Ashbury mind you, but still, it was the 60’s. Needless to say, where Bill would select a crescent wrench, I’d be grabbing a socket wrench. When I tried to finesse a part into place, his idea was to use a bigger hammer. And yet, somehow we managed to not only refrain from killing each other, but to become fast friends in the process… despite my wicked and shameless sense of humor.

It was only a week or so after the opener’s installation that it began to malfunction. Press the remote button and the door would start to rise only to stop halfway up. Try to close it, and the darn thing would come half way down only to pause in its descent and then go back up. We figured out that the seasonal temperatures had changed, causing the metal door runners to expand or contract. This put too much tension on the opener and triggered its safety switches. Not a big thing and easily adjustable. So I left Bill to do the adjusting. Dragging out the ladder and an assortment of wrenches, screwdrivers and other paraphernalia, Bill spent about 20 minutes tweaking and adjusting the guides and the sensors until he was satisfied that all was operating smoothly. From my kitchen window, I watched as Bill put the tools and ladder away, walked to the front & center of the driveway, about ten feet outside the garage, raised his hand with a flourish, aimed his remote control, and pressed the button.

With a motorized whirr and a metallic clatter, the garage door obliging descended to the closed position. Bill, eminently pleased with his handiwork, began to turn and was in mid-stride back to the house…

When I reached out to my remote, (remember the one velcro’d to my cabinet by the fridge? Yep! That’s the one!), and I pressed the button.

The door, which had hit bottom and appeared to be happily at rest suddenly reanimated itself, rising like Dracula from the grave, apparently of its own accord.

Bill, who you’ll remember was in mid-turn and mid-stride back to the house, almost tripped over his own feet as he spun about to watch in wonder as this formerly inanimate object was seemingly coming to life on its own.

He stood there a moment, staring at the garage…thinking. Once again, he extended his arm raising the remote with what I must admit was quite an imperious manner. Pressing the remote’s button again, but this time with that English air of authority, he commanded the door to close….and it did, (almost).

Until (grinning from ear to ear), I pressed the button on my remote again.

 I am SO going to rot in Hell for this!

Bill stood there in amazement as the door once again began to rise. Holding the remote with one hand and scratching his head with the other, he then looked up at the clouds doing that “God, why are you doing this to me” prayer. In the kitchen, I’m laughing so hard that I can barely stand.

Now Bill’s wheels are turning in high gear. He looks at the remote and briefly considers that it might be misfiring. So back into the garage to get a screwdriver he goes. I watch him in the garage as he disassembles and reassembles the remote, and then returns to his command spot in the driveway, raises his arm, and once again commands the door to close.

Just for variety, this time I let the door come down only half way before I stop it with my remote.

If there had been any room for doubt, it was now more than obvious that Bill was thoroughly pissed off. His eyes have bugged out to an alarming level and his normally pale face was beet red. Storming into the garage, he drug out the ladder once again and set about inspecting the door runners on either side of the garage. Then, he proceeded to spray lubricant over every inch of the runners.

Then, while still inside the garage, he hit the button again.

As the door descended those last few inches, I envisioned my father in-law peering at the door mechanisms, trying to identify whatever the malfunction might be should the door decide to rise again.

So of course, this time I didn’t trigger my remote, leaving him standing in the garage was just too tempting.

It took a minute or two. But eventually, the door once again began to rise. But since I had him trapped in the garage for the moment, I figured, “What the Hell” and hit my remote again to freeze the door as it reached the midpoint. This action was immediately followed by not so equal but opposite reaction characterized by a prolific string of expletives emanating from the depths of the garage. Then the door once again descended as Bill pressed his button again.

Having effectively extended his exile to the garage, I was laughing so hysterically that I started to tear up and I was in serious danger of becoming incontinent. Meanwhile, Bill had commenced crashing about in the garage, doing God knows what to that poor innocent electric door opener.

Finally, in a rare moment of charitability, I grabbed my remote and stepped out onto the porch where Bill would be able see me. After an extended period of banging around in the garage, Bill pressed his button and emerged from the garage. It was at this moment… this oh so memorable moment, I innocently asked, “Are you having problems with the door, Pop?”

Exasperated beyond reason, Bill explained that he didn’t understand what the problem was, but the door opener must be faulty. And that we’d probably have to take it back to Sears for a refund. To demonstrate, he once again raised the remote and pressed the button.

Dutifully, the door began to descend…

At that moment, Bill turned to look at me, just as I raised my own remote and pressed its button, stopping the door once again at the midpoint.

Bill just stared at me with this blank expression.

It took a full 10 seconds for him to grasp what I had been doing and that I was the source of his last 30 minutes of insanity.

“YOU SON OF A …” For the sake of his grandchildren, I won’t repeat the words that poured from the mouth of this otherwise normally agreeable, peaceful, pleasant man. But since I’m laughing (even now as I write this), I have to admit I deserved every word of it.

As much as I treasure that memory, the crème de le crème moment occurred about a week later when Bill figured out how he could get even with me. Without telling anyone, he changed the code on the door opener and his remote, (but not ours). Consequently, he could operate the door but we couldn’t. He was in his element as he waited to take his revenge. But the only thing he hadn’t considered was that I didn’t park in the garage! His daughter did. So when the magic moment came, my wife, who was innocent in this whole affair, was the recipient of Bill’s vengeance.

So now I sit looking at that remote control… that otherwise mundane little device and remember. I’d like to say that was the end of the arguably juvenile pranks I played on my father in-law. I’d like to say that I eventually matured and never again had a laugh at his expense. I really would. But then, there’s always the tennis ball, an otherwise mundane little toy...

But that’s another story.


  1. How're those son-in-laws doing ?! ... chase all the prospects away? (or looking forward to it?)

  2. Ahh, Grandpa. A very fond memory indeed, and a further illustration of how a "family" was supposed to relate to one another. An example of which I was very much in need.

    That said, I've still never forgiven you for scaring the sh*t out of me in your kitchen with that scary mask thing when I was about 11.