Saturday, July 11, 2009

Operation Grill

Okay, so I inherited this grill when we bought our house in 2004. It’s this simple, utilitarian thing that’s screwed right into our deck, really just a big chamber for coals that’s heated up from the gas line that goes up into it. The line goes under the deck, under the ground, and into our basement laundry room, where it connects with the gas clothes dryer. It’s rusted, creaky, cobwebbed, and a mottled mixture of black and gray. It looks like it was smelted around the time Chester A. Arthur was president.

But it was a selling point for the house. A minor one, mind you, since I’ve never grilled nor am I a big hamburger-and-hot-dog guy, and we only eat red meat like twice a month. But we figured, hey, there’s a grill, and it’s screwed right into the deck. Can’t be bad, right?

Well, it worked the first summer we lived here. I used it twice. First time was cautiously optimistic. Made some burgers, and they came out all right. Feeling a bit cocky, I tried my hand at some chicken legs. The second time around, however, I was unable to get the darn things fully cooked. By the time I got the raw centers to a dull pink the outsides were a crusty charcoal black. Stubborn, I insisted on eating one and almost lost a tooth.

I was told after the fact that chicken legs should be boiled before grilled. Whether this is true or not I have not tested, as I am scarred when it comes to grilling chicken.

September with her crisp bite in the air came round, and my first daughter was born. I put the cover over the grill and forgot about it. Well, the cover was metaphorical; the grill sat exposed on my deck for the next nine months or so in rain, sleet, hail, snow, and sun.

Next summer I tried to grill and it wouldn’t fire up. What the heck? I remember scratching my head. Maybe I should throw another match in. I made sure the dial on the bottom was set to “HI” – not a greeting but a setting – and tossed another match in. Still nothing. What the heck? Oh wait, I already said that. A third match revealed to me what I already knew. The grill was dead.

Wait! Maybe I turned off the gas from that valve in the laundry room. I ran downstairs, saw the switch was off (it leaks slightly if left on – do you think I should call PSEG about that?) and turned it back on. Went back out, rubbing my hands briskly together, sniffed for gas around the grill, and tossed yet another match in.

Still nothing.

A month later, nothing again.

Oh well. I shut the hatch and forgot about it until the following summer.

Again, no response from the grill. Oh well. It’s now deck decoration. Occasionally guy friends would come over and, beers in hand, would walk over and discuss the grill. The way guys do. And I’d just shrug and say it doesn’t work.

I have two friends who regarded this as some kind of sacrilege to the male spirit. On coincidence they were just over my house the same day last month, and the grill became the focus of their attention. It could not survive their intense and overwhelming assault. First, the two beehive metropolises that were thriving on the inside of the iron lid were dosed heavily with insect napalm. Then the gas lines were inspected inscrutably. Soon it was disassembled, scrubbed with WD-40 and toothbrushes, spider webs and dead insect carcasses removed and everything put back together. Satisfied that everything was in order with the old girl, the dial was set to “HI” and a match tossed in.

It fired up!

I bought pizza and beer for the boys as a reward. No, we didn’t grill that night. Why not? Well, the thing was a disgusting mess. Masses of black goo caked the grill. Ash and things-I-don’t-want-to-know had been baked onto the charcoal and the sides. Flakes from paint, I guess, were hanging off the inside of the lid. Dirt – dirt! – there was so much dirt on the bottom of this metal tub that I expected a colony of mushrooms to be growing inside. So it needed a real thorough cleaning before we really used it.

I’ll get around to it, I told my wife. A month went by. The only thing that happened to the grill was that the wooden handle – literally a wooden handle: a nineteen-inch dowling that looked as if it was a cut part of a broom handle – thoroughly rotted by time and the elements, split in half when I raised the lid for an impromptu inspection.

Damn. Now I’d have to test my mettle. I’d have to replace that handle. The job was too minor to ask my buddies to help me out. No, this was something I had to do myself. I had to face myself, my fears, my insecurities. I had to be able to look at those hazel eyes in the mirror.

Hmm. The first thing I did was remove the withered remains of the old handle. Unfortunately, the four-inch screws holding it in had rusted shut, and broke apart during this stage of Operation Grill. Another setback. Fortunately, I am a pack rat and have in my garage a pail of something like six thousand old nails, screws, nuts, bolts, springs, outlets, outlet covers, etc, etc, etc. With the Little One my constant shadow (she being the H. W. to my Daniel Plainview during this whole project), we went to this pail and I was able to find two similarly rusted but intact screws that could replace the old ones. I found two nuts to match. Then I went to the kitchen sink and, careful not to drop them down the drain, washed screws, nuts, and these two one-inch tubes that keep the wooden handle from touching the hot grill. Okay. First phase accomplished.

Yesterday we went to Home Depot for another handle. I hate Home Depot. For one, I never know where to find anything. I always have to ask someone, and that makes me feel stupid ’cause half the time they ask me a follow-up question that I have no answer to. So I usually try to find a woman employee to direct my questions to. Ask me how that affects my male self-image. And try to get someone to help you at Home Depot – it’s like they’re trained to head the other way when you make eye contact with them from a distance. Or maybe it’s just me.

So I’m at Home Depot, hating every minute of it. H. W. is tailing me, and I’m trying to make sure she doesn’t slice a finger open on a power tool display or something. Luckily, I manage to find a pile of short small pieces of wood that might make a good handle. They’re rectangular, instead of broom-handle-shaped, and a little on the long side, but I think it just might work. Besides, I’ve been in the store all of ten minutes and I’m beginning to hyperventilate. So we buy the piece of wood and high-tail it out of there.

Get home. It’s a beautiful day, good for home repair, I note as I get out my tool box (which for some reason smells of baby vomit). I set up a tent for H. W. to play in, bring out a boom box and put on some Stevie Ray Vaughan. Now the first problem rears its head. The piece of wood I bought is twenty-six inches long. The old handle was nineteen. Hmm. It looked smaller in the store, perhaps it grew during the ride home? I weigh the option of having two inches of handle extend further past each side of the grill. Aesthetically displeasing, but still functional. I’d do it, but the wife won’t settle for it. I need to cut it.

I don’t have a saw.

I thought I did. Me and H. W. search the garage, the basement, then the garage and basement a second time. Nope. No saw. I weigh my options. Brother who’s a mechanic. Stepfather who has a wood shop in his basement. But really, like calling my two grill buddies, it’s such a minor thing I need to do this for myself. I’ll have to go back to the Mouth of Hell and buy a saw.

The rest of yesterday I spent cleaning the darn thing. Remembering how my buddies disassembled it (okay, that’s a lie, I wasn’t paying any attention back then so I’m winging it now), I take it apart, cleaning off each piece thoroughly, letting everything air dry, and putting everything back in its place. I test it out by turning it on to “HI” and tossing a match in. Nothing. Oh s***. Wait! Forgot to turn the gas line back on. Run downstairs, turn the switch, come back out on the deck, toss a match in, and it fires up! Yeah, I have no handle on it so I have to close it with a hammer and a wrench, but I manage to keep my fingers and my daughter unburnt. The family has burgers that night, and we eat out on the deck in the beautiful summer twilight.

Me and H. W. hit Home Depot again, early this morning. Panic rises in me as I circle the store once, twice, three times unable to find a simple hand saw. I can find everything else, including new grills. I resign myself to asking someone. The first three salespeople scurry away before I can get within vocal range. Frustrated, I’m about to flee – maybe the local town hardware store could give me more sympathetic help – but what do I see right in front of my eyes but saws! Hand saws! I buy the smallest one for $9.95 and run out of the store, H. W. firmly in tow.

We get home and I tease my wife saying it’ll be no problem because I know the old expression “Measure once, cut twice.” Surprisingly I’m able to saw the darn piece of wood in one shot. Good. Almost too good. I wait for someone’s other shoe to drop. Proceeding slowly, I measure where the screw holes in the grill correspond to the handle and screw them in. It looks like everything’s falling into place until I realize my new screws are something like a tenth of a millimeter too wide for the existing holes in the grill. Argh! But I don’t care at this point. I take a fat screw driver and wedge them into the grill’s screw holes, forcing the holes wider and wider, metal scrapings falling onto the charcoals. I’m amazed to see my desperate tactic worked. Five minutes later, the handle is in place.

Oh my gosh! I replaced the handle on my ancient grill, and did it all myself! I feel like those NASA technicians who figured out how to get Apollo 13 back from the moon.

I bring the wife and children out to marvel at my feat of engineering. They’re all smiles, very appreciative. The Little One, my H. W., says, shyly, “Daddy, you did a good job.” I’m still smiling as she walks back into the house, then slips and falls.

She’s soaked with water. The downstairs toilet overflowed.


[Note: the grill pictured at the beginning of this post is NOT my grill, though it’s just about as dirty as mine was …]

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