Geek On The Hill

In the End, I Owe it All to Nick

The post I published about how I connected a portable generator to power my house got me to thinking about Nick, who was the person who first got me interested in electronics.

Nick was an old man who lived in the apartment house next door to me when I was a child growing up in Brooklyn. He was a grandfatherly sort of man, and one especially well-suited to grandfathering boys because he had that rare ability to be kind, gentle, firm, and gruff all at the same time.

Nick was a retired television repairman — yeah, people actually fixed televisions back then in horse-and-buggy days — and he still did that work on the side after he retired. Because he lived next door, he was also a convenient babysitter; and I spent many happy hours siting on Nick’s lap while he taught me about the mysterious inner workings of televisions.

One notable occasion came early in my apprenticeship, when I was 6 years old. Nick got up to use the bathroom, and sternly warned me not to touch anything while he was gone. “Whatever you do, don’t touch that thing right there,” he warned me, pointing a finger at the flyback transformer.

Needless to say, as soon as Nick was out of the room, I did what most little boys would do and touched the flyback transformer. It was a shocking experience.

The flyback transformer in old-school televisions supplied high voltage — as in tens of thousands of volts — to the second anode of the CRT (the “picture tube”). As soon as I touched it, I was thrown back against the wall in the chair. My head made a solid “thump” as it hit the kitchen wall, which was followed by the racket of the chair sliding out from under me, and then by the more muffled thump of my little ass hitting the floor.

“I told you not to touch that,” Nick called out from the bathroom in a matter-of-fact tone that was neither angry nor sympathetic, yet managed to clearly imply the trailing term “you little dumb ass” that he was too kind to verbalize.

When Nick came back into the room, he picked up the chair, sat down, and sat me back in his lap; and then he proceeded to calmly explain to me what a flyback transformer was and why it was important. But that was actually the third lesson of the day. The first lesson was to respect electricity; and the second was to respect people who told me things for my own good, even if they didn’t explain why.

As time went on, I started doing actual repairs under Nick’s watchful eye. He taught me which tubes were most likely to cause particular problems and how to test them using the machine at the electronics store; how to clean tuners (they were mechanical back then and the contacts needed to be cleaned from time to time); how to adjust the coils, potentiometers, and capacitors that wrangled the electrons flowing through the chassis into submission; how to align the guns and set the color and gamma levels in color televisions; how to use a multimeter and an oscilloscope; and many other secrets of the trade of an electronics technician.

By the time I was 8 or 9, adults in the neighborhood were bringing me televisions and other electronic devices to fix. Nick didn’t mind. He was in poor health by then, and even sitting at the kitchen table for long periods of time was getting to be a strain for him. He passed away a few years later.

I still miss him.

My love affair with “anything with wires,” as my father put it, continued into adulthood, and it served me well. I became an aircraft mechanic and avionics technician with licenses from both the FAA and the FCC; and when personal computers became popular, I migrated into and became certified in various disciplines related to computers, computer electronics, and networking. Eventually I started my own computer-repair business that at the height of its success served five Downstate New York counties.

And I owe it all to Nick.

When the prices of computers started to fall, I foresaw a time when people wouldn’t bother fixing them anymore; so I started studying Web development. It was very simple back then and it didn’t take me long to become proficient. Eventually I was doing more Web design than computer repairs, which was pretty much how I’d planned it out.

I kept running both the computer-repair and web-design businesses until the old lady and I split, at which time I sold the computer-repair side of the business and moved to the country before she changed her mind. I knew she wouldn’t follow me. She’s a city gal, and she hates rural life. So when she split, I split. Now I live comfortably in the country, working until about noon on an average day, and goofing off the rest of the time.

And I owe it all to Nick.

In addition to having supported myself with electrons in some manner or form for most of my life, I don’t remember the last time I had to hire an electrician. I have enough background in electricity that a few hours checking the codes is usually all I need to do to prepare myself for almost any electrical job. I’ve had licensed electricians compliment me on my work, and no electrical job I’ve done has ever failed inspection.

In short, electricity in some form or another has been both a job and a hobby for me for most of my life. It still fascinates me just as much as I did when I first sat on Nick’s lap and viewed the mysterious inner workings of a television. I can do all the math in my head, know exactly what sizes and kinds of wires and equipment I need to do nearly any electrical job, and have enjoyed the sense of satisfaction that came with the completion of many jobs well-done.

And I owe it all to Nick.

I don’t know if Nick actually wanted to teach me electronics at first. I suspect that he simply had work to do when my mother asked him to babysit me, and he figured that sitting me on his lap while he worked was the easiest way to prevent my hyper little self from getting into mischief. But as time went on, we developed a mentor / protege relationship in which his pride in my achievements reinforced my learning.

But I was also a little kid, and like all little kids, I enjoyed just being held and cared for by a grandfatherly-type who seemed happy to have me around. One of my grandfathers died before I was born, and the other was only part of my life for a very short time. So for most of my childhood, I didn’t really have a grandfather in my life. Nick filled the void quite nicely.

In retrospect, I supposed I filled a void for Nick, too, since he had no grandchildren of his own. He certainly seemed as happy to have me around as I was to be with him. So maybe I don’t owe it all to Nick after all. Maybe I’ve already paid him back by being the grandson he never had and helping to make his later years a little happier and more meaningful.

I certainly hope I did.



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