I installed a new toilet this past weekend. Not a complicated job, but it consumed most of the day and, after a leaky inaugural flush, most of the next morning. Some things never change, and it reminded me of one of the first newspaper columns I wrote more than three decades ag. It was about something from which I suffered then and continue to suffer now— mechanical retardation.

I’m not sure if that term is politically correct, but it has haunted me my entire life. That flaw was made even more painful by the fact that my father could do pretty much anything that required a mechanical aptitude. In fact, he was a mechanic at the old Karschner & Eaton Garage in Wyalusing as a young man and later rose to management level at the GTE-Sylvania plant due to, among other things, his mechanical skills. Fortunately, he was a kind, understanding man, and he made a valiant effort at teaching me the rudiments of plumbing, engine repair, carpentry and such pursuits. With Job-like patience, however, he ultimately accepted my ineptitude.

When I wrote that column years ago others guys, with the same disability, responded in gratitude for letting them know they were not alone in the world. They, too, had known from early in their boyhoods that they suffered from this affliction. The other boys worked on the bikes, changed tires and patched their tubes with ease. They even seemed to enjoy it. They could take things apart and, more amazingly, put them back together. Mechanically retarded people can’t put things back together that involve more than three components. Tools in their hands are more like weapons of massive destruction.

This is my Christmas gift to my fellow sufferers of this outrageous misfortune. Allow me to quote from that ancient essay when I was much younger but no wiser when it came to handymanliness:

I can never figure out which way to turn a screw to put it in to take it out. This applies to bolts, knobs, anything you have to turn to remove, tighten or loosen. … I go to remove a bolt, let’s say, and I start turning. If it doesn’t budge right away, I begin to wonder if I’m actually tightening instead of loosening. Normally, if you don’t move it on the first try, you turn it even harder. But when you’re filled with all those self-doubts about whether you’re twisting it the right way, you’re leery about twisting too hard. After all, you might tighten it so tight you’ll never get it off. Then you start twisting, just a bit, the other way just to make sure.

People who are mechanical never think about whether they’re turning a nut or bolt in the right direction. They’re not mechanically retarded. They know.

I was familiar with the righty-tighty, lefty-loosey rule and even that didn’t help. Let’s see. That’s clockwise to loosen, right?

There are actually people who do mechanical things, like working on cars and repairing electronics, because they think it is fun and relaxing. In my youth, all of my friends talked about cars and knew all about them… I remember when I was 15 and 16 and all my male peers talked about nothing but cars. Cars would roar by and somebody would chime, “Look at that GTO! Baby’s got four-on-the-floor, dual quads and a 389.”… To this day, I don’t do anything with cars except change the oil, fill it with gas and make sure there’s some windshield solution in the little plastic tank. The rest I trust to various mechanics. I still can’t tell one car from another. I’ve been known to ride great distances in somebody else’s car and not remember what kind of car it was…

The bottom line is cars were machines and appreciated by mechanical people. I appreciated that they got me where I wanted to go and that there were professionals around who knew how to fix them.

I guess cars and working on them aren’t as big a deal for young men as they used to be when I was a kid. They’ve become too complicated for anyone, except an engineering genius, to do much of anything with. Maybe I just grew up in the wrong time in history for someone who is mechanically retarded.

Some of us were meant to be born and live in a earlier era. It’s as if God had intended me to be a child of the 1860’s instead of the 1960’s. Somebody up there— possibly an apprentice archangel— pushed the wrong button and I was dropped into life a hundred years late. I wasn’t even supposed to be around GTOs, I tell you, or indoor plumbing, or electrical wiring, or engines, or circuit boards, or lawn mowers or any of this Industrial Age stuff.

During the time I wrote that column, I still had kids at home and it was still up to me to put together those presents you buy for kids so they will be ready to ride on or play with when they get their first look at what’s under the tree on Christmas morning. Of course, I’d be up all night and, when I finally crawled into bed for an hour of sleep, there was always a piece left over.

Those were the days.