Tim Woodward: Beloved summer cabin becomes thorn in the side

November 10, 2013 

You don't appreciate it until you've traded places with them, but there's a lot to be said for mooching off of your parents.

My wife's parents built a cabin on Hood Canal, a finger of Puget Sound, when we were college students. Every summer we'd visit them and mooch — riding in their boat, eating their seafood and generally enjoying life.

That changed when my wife's father died and her mother moved to Boise. Weary of maintaining the cabin, she turned it over to us.

Inheriting a house on the Sound may sound like a wonderful thing, and in many ways it is. But, as we soon learned, there's a big difference between being guests and being owners — maintenance, repairs, etc. We'd have to paint, weed, buy a lawnmower. …

This required repeated visits last summer. From Boise, it's a 600-mile drive. Road-weary and wanting only a good night's sleep, we parked the car on our first night as the new caretakers and got out the list of things that had to be done.

"Sheesh, look at that deck!" I said, crestfallen.

In anticipation of our new role, I'd spent an uncertain but large number of hours the previous summer scraping and painting the deck. Salt air does terrible things to painted decks. Even in the fading light, the peeling paint was obvious.

"Maintenance Manor revisited," I grumped, a reference to the fixer-upper of our newlywed days. "Let's go inside. Where's the key?"

"One of the neighbors hid it for us. Do we have a flashlight?"

We didn't. But the key, cleverly hidden in a large envelope propped against the front door, wasn't too difficult to find.

"I'll turn the power on," my wife said, studying her list. "You go turn on the water."

It took a while to find and open the main water valve. My wife, meanwhile, was switching things on in the house. The hot water heater under the kitchen sink, for example. I didn't even know there was one. The kitchen is so far from the main water heater that it took forever to get hot water there, so my wife's mother had a smaller one installed under the sink. This led to. …

Mishap No. 1: While I was fumbling with the water valve, the electricity my wife had switched on was coursing through the empty water heater, reducing its element to a smoldering husk.

That, at least, was the diagnosis of the man who answered the phone at the number printed on the water heater.

"Are you sure it's the element?" my wife asked him. "Isn't there a reset button somewhere? Maybe we could try that."

"Can you see a reset button on the top or sides?"

We couldn't.

"Then it's probably in the back."

You have to wonder about people who design appliances. Anyone smart enough to do that should know that the water heater would have to be removed to push a reset button on the back — a process involving multiple pipes, wires, hoses, flashlights, wrenches and vigorous cursing.

"Let's have Clarence do it," I suggested.

Clarence is — or was — the neighborhood handyman. Unfortunately for us, he had recently retired from the handyman business — probably when he saw us coming.

The water-heater company man said that replacing the element was a simple procedure, and that new elements could be purchased at any big-box store.

"There's probably one right around the corner," he chirped.

This ignored two salient facts: Replacing an element might be a simple procedure for an electrician, but he was dealing with the Woodwards. I once knocked out the power to three houses trying to hang a kitchen light. And we were more or less in the middle of nowhere. The nearest big-box store might have been just around the corner, but the corner was 30 miles away.

And the water heater was just the beginning. Somehow, turning on the power and frying it had led to. …

Mishap No. 2: Frying the kitchen lights.

Lurking beneath the lights' decorative ceiling panels were eight fluorescent tubes. One of the eight flickered dimly.

"It might be the tubes, or it might be the ballast," a helpful neighbor said.

Both of which could be purchased at the nearest store, conveniently located the aforementioned 30 miles away.

If you've ever removed the decorative panels on fluorescent lights, you know that they're as fragile as a congressional compromise — cracking or shattering if bumped, twisted or verbally abused. Having had previous experience with this, I put them in a safe place behind a couch — where my wife launched. …

Mishap No. 3: Breaking the panels while reaching for her cellphone.

She needed it to call her aunt, who, told of our introduction to vacation-home ownership, offered a cruel but accurate assessment:

"I thought you were going there to fix the place, not demolish it."

At this point we opted to make do with what we had. There were enough other lights that we could get by without the broken ones. We also could get by without hot water in the kitchen (a good thing because the kitchen faucet leaked like a downspout). There was no telling what would happen if we tried to fix the water heater, but electrocution seemed highly possible.

"Maybe we need to get away for a while. Let's go buy a lawnmower before we burn the place down."

We had to buy a lawnmower because we were being charged roughly $2 a minute to have someone mow the lawn. Call him Bob. Old guys who mow people's lawns are invariably named Bob. It wasn't that Bob's price was unreasonable; he had to drive from God-knew-where and had to include his travel cost. We could save enough to pay for a mower in a summer or two of cutting the grass ourselves.

With help from an online search at the "neighborhood library," conveniently located 10 miles away, we chose a mower. Then we drove another 20 miles and bought it. Altogether, it took half a day.

"Look!" my wife said as we proudly pulled into our driveway with our new mower.

"What? I don't see anything."

"Look at the grass!"

While we were gone, Bob had mowed the lawn. At $2 a minute.

The rest of our stay was uneventful. We did yard work, painted and managed not to break anything. When we got back to Boise, we sent checks for the property taxes.

With the summer drawing to a close, we went back and did more maintenance. By then a neighbor had fixed the lights and leaky faucet ($160), but the main water valve had sprung a leak ($85).

In the spring, we'll go back to scrape and paint the deck again, do more yard work, scrape moss off the roof and other pleasantries.

If we're lucky, we might have an hour or two to spend at the beach.

I think I liked it better the old way.

© 2013 Idaho Statesman

Tim Woodward's column appears every other Sunday in the Life section and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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