06 June 2013

A Penny For Your Thoughts

My dad called me into his bedroom one Saturday morning and handed me a butter knife and told me to dig a penny out of a lamp socket.  I was twelve at the time and the socket was on the north wall of his room and four feet off the floor and looked like a candle stick.

I walked over to it and peered into the opening in the top where the special flame-shaped bulb used to be.  There did appear to be a scorched copper Lincoln-head cent down there.  

"One of the kids dropped it in there and then turned the switch," he said.   The "kids" meant one of my younger sisters.  He didn't know which one and no way was he going to get a confession.  Looking back, it was a compliment.  He must have been assuming I had more sense.

Each wall lamp had it's own rotary switch.  There were a lot of them, identical, and evenly spaced around the living room  and Dad's bedroom.  The house used to be an inn and a restaurant.  Or so I was told.

Long before I was born people would stop there on their way out of Portland to eat  a chicken dinner with mashed potatos and gravy and have a bottle of wine, before heading east for a moonlit drive along the old Columbia River Highway, to the Dalles or Hood River.  Or maybe it was a roadhouse speakeasy with sawdust on the floor where bootleg liquor was poured for traveling salesmen and bawdy women.

Maybe not.  I figure it had to be some kind of eatery because of the lamps and the door to the kitchen was one of those swinging-both-ways ones with a window in it and pivot axles at the top and the bottom instead of hinges.  Dad took it out.

I recall the lamps all had bulbs in them when we moved in, but eventually they burned out and were never replaced.  We never used them, anyway.

My dad was speaking again: "I'm going to the basement and pull the fuse.  You count to ten to give me time and then dig it out of there."  And then he left and I turned my back on the bedroom door and started counting.   I was also thinking that I would rather do the fuse pulling and he the penny digging, but I didn't want to suggest that to him.  My dad was easily riled.

The knife in my right hand was all metal, even the handle.  I was not pleased with this.  I knew enough about good conductors and bad conductors of electricity and I was basically holding a lightning rod.  Why hadn't he given me one of the wooden-handled knives?  Too late now.

I also knew my dad.  It would be just like him to not turn off the juice and let me get shocked....and ten seconds didn't seem enough time for him to make it through the kitchen and back room and descend the basement stairs to the fuse box.

I counted to ten and then twenty and probably would have gone on to one hundred, but I decided to get it over with.  At least my mom was nearby in case I was electrocuted and stopped breathing.  I could hear her opening and closing the drawers of her dresser looking for something. 

I rose up on my toes so I could see into the socket better, and cautiously leaned forward and gently inserted the.....

"Arrrrrghhhhhhhhhhhhhh !!!!!!"  

I felt two sharp jabs in my ribs and my right arm whipped up and back fast as a mongoose avoiding a cobra strike.  The knife was gone.  I think it went into hyper-space, but then I heard it clatter on the hardwood floor twenty feet behind me. 

I turned and looked into the laughing face of my father.  My mom was next to him with an apolegetic grin.  I was stunned.  I was cement.  I stood there staring with my mouth agape and trying to make sense of what had just happened.

My dad had pranked me.  He'd set me up.  Thoughts of the set-up tinkled and clanged around the synapses in my head like a bucket of brass bells dumped on me.  

He hadn't gone to the basement.  He'd stepped through his bedroom door, removed his shoes and  then slipped back in silently behind me in his stocking feet and waited for me touch the knife to the lamp and then dug me in the ribs and hollered.  Mom's dresser noises were to mask any lack of stealthiness.

It was so masterfully sneaky.  I couldn't be angry at him.  All I could do was stand back and marvel at it all.

I'm an electrician, now.  And I look back on my twelve-year-old self and wonder at my thickness.  How could I have been so gulled?

I mean, you don't have to be an expert to ask, "Hey, if there's a spot-welded penny in the lamp, that means the fuse is already blown. No juice.  No spark.  Why did he need to go to the basement?"

He needed to leave so he could sneak back in, and I fell for it.  He mentally primed me.  I was so expecting to be shocked that every nerve in my body and muscle in my arms and legs were ready to jerk out of harms way.

There was no electricity in that circuit but I'll swear on Benjamin Franklin's grave that I felt an electric shock that day.


  1. hahahaha! Love it! Classic Grandpa Jack.

  2. I've been to Benjamin Franklin's grave, and have to say that was a very apt thing to swear on--it's covered in pennies.