HOUSE BOUND OR TALKING ‘BOUT MY GENERATOR

Life on a lake takes on new meaning during the winter months, especially our view from the kitchen window. With the absence of leaves the vista expands and the black branches are a stark contrast to the now frozen water crusted with thin white snow. A red tailed hawk circles overhead, waiting.

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Black ice before the first snowfall. ©Robert Forlini

After the first leaf season ended we settled into what we believed would be an almost sublime skate across a wide open sheet of black ice. This would be followed by a cozy scene of a happy family toasting marshmallows in front of the open fire while the snow floated past the picture window. Who could ask for anything more from winter?

During one of our tours of the house before buying it the owner highlighted all the selling points. The house had new windows, it was wired with an alarm system and oh yes, it was wired for a generator.

As city transplants we cocked our heads and asked, “Why?”

“Just in case the power ever goes out,” she said.

“Does that happen often?”

“No, but best to be prepared,” she said.

A thinking person would have investigated this a little further and asked around. Instead we looked at the large red metal box on two wheels and asked, “Is it difficult to use?”

The owner, a petite woman weighing no more that 100 pounds answered. “Oh no, it’s so easy. I simply wheel it outside that door, plug it in and it starts right up.”

I know what you’re thinking. Did you ask her to demonstrate it? Wrong again.

A few days before the sale was final the husband of the petite woman talked Rob and I through a series of steps to hook up the generator.

“Okay, now first you have to shut off the mains.”  He pointed to the circuit breaker.

“All of them?”

“Oh yeah, if you don’t shut this down you’re likely to blow up the place when the real power comes back on.”

“We wouldn’t want that,” I said.

“Then you wheel the generator out, fill it with six gallons of gas, but you better have extra tanks of gas on hand,” He said.

“Extra?”

“You wouldn’t want to run out.”

“Now after you plug it in, click this,” he moved his hand quickly past a small, black nondescript button. “Then adjust the choke, you gotta fiddle with it sometimes, then just pull the crank until it starts. Piece of cake.”

Again you would think we would have asked him to actually demonstrate it. I looked at Rob with a concerned face. “Do you understand this?”

The owner, a man we later always referred to as “the Strunz,” from the Italian “stronzo” made his own face. “Listen, my wife can do it,” he disparaged.

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©Robert Forlini

Exit “the Strunz” and return to that first winter. Long before a flake fell a strong wind blew down a power line and we rushed to get our generator running. Standing in the dark Jackson clutched a flashlight in the cold night air while I held the funnel in place and Rob sloshed in six gallons of gasoline.

“Shine the light here,” Rob shouted.

“Where? Here?”

“Just stand still.”

“Maybe we don’t need all that gas,” I suggested.

“Maybe you should shut up,” Rob barked as he tried to steady himself on an uneven walkway holding up six gallons of flammable liquid.

He finished and staggered back a little with the empty can.

“Can I go now?” Jack asked.

Rob grabbed the flashlight without answering and went to switch over the power. Jackson went back upstairs to play with his sister by candlelight.

“And don’t flush the toilet until I say it’s okay,” Rob called after him.

“Maybe we should just go out to eat or to the movies,” I said.

“Maybe you shouldn’t talk,” he said, nervously as he handed the light back to me. “Shine the light here while I set the choke.” Rob moved a small lever and stepped back ready to pull the crank. Which he did repeatedly until he had to sit down on a nearby lawn chair and catch his breath. I’m leaving out the string of curse words that filled in that span of time.

We regrouped and tried again and low and behold  the engine suggested it might start the way an old lawnmower sounds when it wants to help you out one last time. Encouraged, Rob took a deep breath, braced himself against the machine and pulled with every last article of strength he had left.

“F#*K!” Rob spat.

The little red generator roared. Rob beamed. He proudly turned on the alternate power circuit breaker and low and behold we had a smattering of lights come on in the house including the refrigerator and well pump. We were back in business.

Quinn came to the top of the basement steps and cried, “What’s that horrible noise?”

The sound sputtering from the generator was deafening but we had overlooked it in light of our recent success. We went inside and tried to shield ourselves from the din but it vibrated up through the walls and could not be ignored. Again I suggested we head out to the movies which was again rebuffed.

“We can’t leave the house with a running generator.”

And I hummed, “…we are all just prisoners here, of our own device.”

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©Robert Forlini

Jackson cupped his hands around the kitchen window and declared that all the houses across the lake had lights on. Either everyone had a generator or the regular power had been restored. Rob looked deflated as he turned off the motor reversed his steps and switched back over to the main line. But nothing could take away the fact that he had been able to make it work when needed. The cursing returned as he tried to figure out how to drain the generator of the remaining six gallons.

In the thirteen years that followed the little red engine that usually couldn’t sometimes came through in a pinch. The process never changed, Rob cursed his way through each encounter but he and little red began to get to know one another a little better. Each time Rob begins to switch over the lines he mimics the previous owner’s wife. “…it’s so easy. I simply wheel it outside that door, plug it in and it starts right up.”

When Superstorm Sandy hit last fall we had been prepared with a row of filled gas cans, gallons of drinking water, candles, lanterns, batteries, dry firewood and plenty of food in the fridge. True we still have to shout to be heard and Rob still curses but you can’t have it all. With life on the lake you sometimes find you get what you need.

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©Robert Forlini

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SAMUEL T. CATT: RESIDENT

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A few years after we moved into our lake house a cat showed up. He sat on the front steps and stared into our living room window. It was only later that we realized it was providence.

“That’s Sweetie,” Rob said. “She lives across the street.”

The neighbors were selling their house and after they had loaded up a moving van and were about to depart we went running over.

“Wait! Don’t forget Sweetie,” we exclaimed, holding the cat under the front paws as the rear legs dangled down.

“That’s not Sweetie,” the neighbor said, lifting up a different cat before our eyes. “This is Sweetie.”

Perplexed we dropped the cat and asked, “Then whose cat is this one?”

“Yours,” she said, as the van drove out of sight.

We walked back across the street and cat that wasn’t Sweetie was already sitting outside our front door by the time we reached it.

“Well at least nobody fed the cat,” Rob said.

Our son Jackson looked upward and shrugged. “Does a little tuna count?”

It felt like we were in the middle of a Leave it to Beaver episode.

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Cat out of the Bag

Our daughter Quinn told us the cat was named Sammy which was later changed to Samuel T. Catt: Resident.

“How do you know his name is Sammy?” I asked.

“He told me,” she said.

That was late summer and Rob began a battle of wits with the cat. It was clear that Sammy had no immediate plans to leave town. Each time the door opened he made a move to get inside and Rob pushed him back with his foot or a broom. The cat was undeterred. We started to trick the cat and run around the house to another door. He ran faster than us.

“No cat!” Rob yelled. “I’m allergic for God’s sake. We need to call the dog catcher.” He announced to anyone who would listen.

“It’s a cat.”

“Dog catchers catch cats.”

In truth they don’t. You have to call Just Strays and then they show up and catch the cat, spay them and then return them back to you. They don’t want them. Their mission is to reduce the population of feral cats. Additionally they ask you for a donation to cover the costs. Sammy wasn’t feral, he had a collar, seemed to like people and had a tattoo inside his left ear. When we researched the tattoo number with the cat registry it came up blank. His previous owners couldn’t have been too bright, they tortured the cat with a tattoo and then didn’t bother to list his number.

“Maybe he ran away from his owners because he’s still mad about the tattoo.” I suggested.

Rob took Sam’s photograph and we posted ‘Found Cat’ signs around town but nobody called. When we sat on the deck he sat with us. When we went to get the mail he went too. When we walked down to the dock he came along and watched us swim. When we pulled into the driveway he was sitting on the stone wall, waiting.

Finally it was decided that Sammy would be our outdoor pet and we took him to the vet and bought a plastic cat house for him to winter in. I laid towels down on the floor of the hut and put a water dish inside. Sammy never considered the hut but sat on the opposite side of the glass sliding door and stared into the kitchen and watched us. Even in the rain Sammy waited. He had a sad pathetic look that made the kids and I melt. This was sort of remarkable considering that I have never liked cats. Rob’s sister had five outdoor cats at one time and there’s a classic image Rob snapped of his father teaching us how to handle cats. I should have felt sorry for them but I didn’t. Sammy seemed different. When the temperature dropped I convinced Rob to let Sammy move into the basement.

“I wash my hands of this,” Rob shouted. “This is all on you and it better only be the basement.” The basement rule lasted one day before Sammy had the run of the first floor.

“That cat is not allowed in the bedrooms!” Rob shrieked.

“I agree,” I said and informed Jack and Quinn of the cat house rules. Cat house rules was an apt term for a cat that ruled the house. He spent parts of each day inside the kid’s bedrooms.

“If that cat so much as puts one paw on the stairs up to our room I cannot be held responsible for my actions,” Rob proclaimed.

“Noted,” I said.

Of course you know the rest of the story. Samuel T. Catt not only went up to the second floor but liked Rob best of all because he slept on his chest. It was as if Sam knew just the person he needed to win over, he was that smart. Rob and Sammy entered into a mutual admiration society. Rob trolled shops  for cat trinkets that resembled Sammy from refrigerator magnets to door stoppers and bought numerous cat toys that entertained him for less than a day. Because Sam still spent long portions of each day outside, Rob installed a cat door that only Sam could open with a magnetic key that hung from his neck so he was never left out in the cold again even when we were on vacation. Sam reciprocated by bringing in an assortment of small animals dead and alive as gifts. Rob had the job of removing all the animals as the rest of us ran to high ground screaming. He gave us a snake, numerous mice, birds that played dead and then came to life as Rob went to pick them up and they started to fly. One morning on my way to work Rob called me panicked.

“I can’t leave! Sammy brought a chipmunk in and its running around the living room.”

“Chipmunks are so cute,” I said thoughtlessly on the other end of the line.

“Not when their in the house!” he screamed.

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Sammy under the tree

After an hour long battle with the chipmunk Rob took the cat’s key away. It felt a lot like grounding a teenage child from driving the family car. Sam could let himself out but not in. We forced him to sit outside the kitchen door and wait to be let inside, always checking to be sure he wasn’t bearing gifts. If we knew it was going to rain we called his name and he came running. The benefit of having an outdoor cat was he didn’t use a litter pan and the house didn’t smell. One of the downsides was the dangers he encountered. He started to cost a lot of money as the vet tried to clear up one scrape after another. Towards the end he couldn’t fend off whatever animal was out to get him. Eventually the vet wanted to amputate his leg but offered no guarantee of survival and cautioned us.

“Of course if you opt to do this and he lives, he’ll have to stay inside the house forever.”

The idea of confining him to a 1500 square foot home with three legs was more than any of us could bear. Sam was in agony. I was away and Rob called to give me the prognosis before he and the kids went into the animal hospital to say good-bye.

“There just wasn’t enough time,” Rob wept.