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Tim Woodward: The Wheelbarrow from Hell

You wouldn’t think a wheelbarrow could ruin your life.

It can’t, obviously, with the possible exception of a large wheelbarrow filled with, say, cement, falling on you from a great height.

But a wheelbarrow can complicate your life, as I learned after borrowing the Wheelbarrow from Hell.

The Wheelbarrow from Hell belongs to Rick, a neighbor at my mother-in-law’s cabin in Washington state. We go there every spring to get the place ready for summer. We needed a wheelbarrow to move some gravel for a landscaping project, and, being the good neighbor he is, Rick cheerfully lent us his.

It’s a big wheelbarrow. A very big wheelbarrow. It’s also a very old wheelbarrow. Rick bought it used more years ago than he remembers and keeps it outside beside his garage, where it’s exposed to the elements. Its wooden handles have weathered gray and are rotting inside. We didn’t know when we borrowed it that they were rotting; we found that out the hard way.

I was moving a load of gravel when the right handle snapped, spilling the gravel and putting an abrupt end to the landscaping project. But what bothered me more was that I’d broken Rick’s wheelbarrow. Breaking borrowed tools happens to be one of my pet peeves.

It goes back to a long-ago neighbor who repeatedly borrowed my power tools and returned them broken. He did this without so much as an explanation, let alone an apology. He was an editor at the Statesman at the time, and occasionally my boss, so there wasn’t a lot I could say. At least not what I wanted to say, which was along the lines of, “Are you really as clueless an oaf as you appear to be?”

The experience left me with a deep and abiding distrust of people who borrow tools and don’t take care of them. I would fix Rick’s wheelbarrow if it took all day.

It did.

And then some.

If you’ve never needed one, you wouldn’t believe how hard it can be to find a replacement wooden handle for a wheelbarrow. There may be more difficult things to purchase, but few come to mind. Gull-wing doors for a DeLorean, perhaps, or maybe a Vladimir Putin Teddy Bear.

The clerk at the hardware store in the nearest town looked at me like I had three heads.

“A wheelbarrow handle?” he said, as if I’d asked for a porthole handle from the Titanic. “Gosh, we don’t have any of those. But I could sell you a board. You could cut it to the right length and turn the handle on a lathe.”

Right. All I’d have to do is buy a $500 lathe. No problem.

The store in the next-closest town stocked wheelbarrow handles, but none in the right size.

“No problem,” Rick said. “Just get one when you’re back home in Boise and bring it with you next time you come over.”

Back home in Boise, I checked at two big-box stores and three mom and pop hardware stores. Zilch. The mom and pop stores could order one, but it wouldn’t arrive before we returned to the cabin to continue our adventures in home improvement.

An online store sold replacement wheelbarrow handles for $15, but shipping was $50. Is it just me, or is something wrong with that picture?

Bottom line: We still didn’t have a handle when we returned to the cabin to finish the project. Desperate, I searched online for hardware stores, found one an hour away with the right wheelbarrow handle and immediately drove there and bought it. By then I wouldn’t have cared if the store was a day away. Anything was better than skulking around like a criminal, hoping Rick wouldn’t spot me and delicately inquire about his wheelbarrow.

As the proud owner of a shiny-new replacement handle, I figured the worst was over. Now it was just a matter of installing it.

How hard could it be?

Right. The pyramids were built in less time than it took to install that handle. The remains of the broken one were secured with nuts and bolts that had rusted tighter than Kim Kardashian’s girdle. It took a hammer, an assortment of wrenches, two pair of Vise-Grips, an ocean of WD-40 and some spirited cursing to get them off.

The new handle was only slightly less cantankerous. Supposedly a perfect fit, it was anything but. It’s a good thing no one was around to see me tearing my hair and throwing wrenches or the whole sorry episode would have ended up on Facebook.

Then, the final insult. ...

We spend only a few weeks a year at the cabin, which until several years ago was my wife’s parents’ home. It’s still furnished and filled with their belongings, and occasionally we find a surprise — as my wife did while pruning the blackberry bushes out back behind the shed.

“You’re not going to believe what I found out there,” she said, moments after I’d finishing installing the handle.

It was my late father-in-law’s wheelbarrow — with unbreakable steel handles. It was buried under the overgrown blackberry vines the whole time.

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

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