Right-brained grandiosity and a garage door opener. Not a good combo.

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I’m not typically given over to grandiose plans, but a scheme I concocted to surprise my mom for her birthday was certainly that — and harebrained, as it turned out.

It was my sophomore year of college. Mom’s birthday, Oct. 13, was coming up, and that particular fall, with another cold Kansas winter in the offing, I was struck by an idea: surprise mom with a garage door opener.

Mom was working second-shift as a nurse at a hospital in a neighboring town. By the time she got home to our two-story ranch house after a shift, it was usually near midnight. To get inside our garage, she’d have to stop the car, walk to the garage door, manually lift it open, park, then get out of the car and close the garage door manually.

We lived on the edge of a tiny rural town. I was honestly more worried about coyotes or Bigfoot getting my mom than a human predator, but still: on Kansas winter nights, with wind chills that often dropped to 10 or 20 below, stepping out of a warm car at midnight is a brutal experience. Helping her feel comfy and safe was a worthy plan.

So I drove off campus after class at the University of Kansas one Friday afternoon, stopping on the way home at the Sears store in Manhattan, where I paid (as I remember) about $125 for a garage door opener. I then picked up some flowers at a florist shop and drove eagerly toward our house.

At some point soon afterward — it wasn’t until I opened the box and spread the parts out on the garage floor — it dawned on me: buying a garage door opener and installing a garage door opener were not even remotely related tasks. One simply required some cash. The other required mechanical ingenuity, and in that department, my account balance was just about at zero.

Sure, it was a great idea. And of course I envisioned using the new opener to lift the door electronically as my weary mom pulled in the driveway after her shift in the emergency room, a look of surprise and delight on her face.

But I failed to think about the 2nd act of this play: a right-brained, mechanically-challenged 19-year-old with few tools and no concept of how to use a power drill on a ladder somehow successfully installing — by himself, mind you — a garage-door opener pulled from a box with a “requires two people for installation” warning.

Thank goodness for Larry Claycamp.

Mom was surprised, all right, and elated with my intention. And she loved the flowers. But we both were equally thrilled later when our neighbor Larry came to the rescue and did the actual installation of the garage door.

Larry and Carol and their three children lived across the street from us. Larry worked at the Georgia-Pacific Gypsum mill in town, and when he wasn’t at the mill, he earned extra money taking loads of broken pallets and re-building them good as new in his own garage. So he was handy with a hammer — and like most Midwestern men of his generation, he could do, and fix, just about anything which required tools.

I made the call to Larry and, when he had a free afternoon the next week, he came over and installed the door. I was long back at school by then, and I don’t recall asking Mom about it later. But I’m quite sure Larry refused any offer of payment from Mom. It’s just what neighbors did, particularly when your neighbor — my mom — was the single mother of a son whose prowess swinging a golf club won him a state championship in high school but who knew diddly squat about swinging a hammer or turning a wrench.

Larry and I spoke on the phone this week; his wife of 64 years, Carol — as sweet a woman as I’ve ever known — died back in September. Like my mom, Carol suffered from dementia. Larry had read the column I wrote about mom’s death and called me afterward, and we commiserated about our losses.

During the call, I reminded him about the garage door endeavor.

He remembered it well. Larry told me Mom called on him from time to time to fix things around the house while I was in college and after I moved back to North Carolina — and even, on occasion, to kill one of the venomous brown recluse spiders that would find its way inside.


I gasped.

“I would have called you for that, too,” I told Larry.

Thank goodness for great neighbors.

Bill Horner III can be reached at bhorner3@chathamnr.com or @billthethird.


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