The scary sump pump and other tales of dread

Greg Bean

My home repair motto is: If you can’t fix the problem with a hammer, get a bigger hammer.

That says a lot about the kind of do-it-yourself homeowner I am. In other words, I’m no kind of do-it-yourselfer at all. Many more of my projects wind up with minor to semi-serious injury than wind up with the wife and me looking appreciatively on a complicated home-improvement job I’ve finished, like those people are always doing on Home & Garden television.

There was the time I was sharpening an ax to chop out some nasty roots in the backyard and wound up slicing the palm of my hand open before I even got to chopping. That little episode meant a trip to the emergency room, 14 stitches and a fist I still have trouble closing.

There was the time we realized in the middle of the night that the sump pump had stopped working, so I went downstairs in my underwear to find out what was wrong. Forgetting for a moment that the sump pump was still plugged in, I stuck my hand into the hole to try to find out what was clogging the thing (a dead mouse, as it turned out) – thereby completing the electrical circuit between the pump, all the water on the floor, and my nearly naked self. The resulting blast knocked me on my keister and seriously fried the part of my brain that deals with short-term memory. My more competent friends tell me I’m lucky to be alive, but I can’t always remember why.

There was the time I was trying to fix a leak in the plumbing under the sink, but as soon as I turned the water valve back on, about 3 feet of pipe blew out and hit me in the nose, followed by a jet of water powerful enough to wash the freckles off my face. In my hurry to get out of the cabinet and away from the water, I conked my head on the sink and knocked myself out. When I woke up, I had a bloody nose, no skin on any of my knuckles, a knot on my head the size of a prune and a concussion that prevented me from remembering how I’d wound up there in the first place.

The numbers of my disasters and near-death experiences are legion. In my years as a homeowner, my hammer has never tried to assassinate me, but there have been chain-saw incidents, snowblower incidents, ladder incidents, power-drill incidents, skill-saw incidents, paint-gun incidents, sewer-pipe snaking incidents, power-washer incidents, spray ceiling texture incidents (wow!), a garage-door spring incident that nearly decapitated me, and please, don’t even get me started on electricity.

My wife suggests that the only way for me to safely work on anything electrical is to call the power company before I begin a project and have them turn off the juice at the power plant. For me, trying to turn the electricity off by flipping one of the switches in the breaker box is the equivalent of playing Russian roulette. Word of advice: when replacing a light fixture and you don’t know for absolute certain that you’ve flipped the right breaker, don’t grab the silver wire in one hand and the copper wire in the other. Especially if you’re standing on a metal ladder. Barefoot. Holding a screwdriver between your teeth, like some deranged household pirate.

Who knew?

Truth is, I’m all thumbs when it comes to this stuff. I could probably blame it on my father for not teaching me better when I was a kid, but to be honest, I just don’t have the mental aptitude for it. I’m not good at physics or calculus either, but my deficiency in those disciplines has seldom endangered my life.

And springtime – for the accident-prone owner of an older home, like me, where something is always breaking down or wearing out – is the most dangerous time of year.

For one thing, once the ice and snow melts, you can see all the things that need fixing. New cement to keep the brickwork on the porch from crumbling. New slate tiles to keep the roof from leaking. New support beams to keep the deck from sagging. New posts to keep the fence from falling over.

For another thing, springtime is the season when my spouse gets the urge to renovate and change things around. Any conversation that begins with her looking dubiously around a room and uttering the phrase “I’ve been thinking about …” is enough to give me the shivering fantods.

Considering all that, if I survive to see another fall, it will be a miracle – and I’m not alone.

According to an article in the May 3 edition of The New York Times headlined “Easy, Mr. Fix-It,” emergency rooms all around the country are being inundated by patients who have nearly slaughtered themselves doing home-improvement projects. Did you know that every year, 36,000 people in this country are treated in emergency rooms for injuries related to chain saws? Or that there were 198,480 ladder-related injuries in America during 2006 (including one man who sawed off the branch that was supporting his ladder)? Or that the number of nail-gun injuries among nonprofessionals rose a whopping 30 percent between 1998 and 2005?

I didn’t know any of that either, but it doesn’t come as any great surprise. And it makes me realize that instead of being a freak of nature who can’t even Krazy Glue a broken picture frame without welding his fingers together so tightly it takes a doctor to separate them, I’m a fairly representative specimen of the genus Masculinus Klutzikanus, the male klutz.

We hide our shame by being quiet about our failures, our shortcomings and close calls, and we continue to take on new projects – not only to reassure ourselves about our questionable masculinity – but in the insane hope that someday, one of these projects will turn out right.

They never will, and it will likely end badly. Badly as in all dead, not just mostly dead like Wesley in “The Princess Bride.”

If our families loved us, really loved us, they’d do an intervention and save us from ourselves. They’d block “This Old House” on our televisions. In fact, they’d block Home & Garden television altogether. They’d pull the welcome mat from under Bob Vila’s muddy feet. They’d sell our tools – except for our hammers – at a garage sale. And the next time we saw some dangerous project that called out for our efforts, they’d say the eight beautiful words that could save our very lives: “ Honey, I think we should hire a professional.”

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at