It's not what you think. (Is it ever, with me?)
This weekend I was back at Katie's cabin, helping her move some things; she's thinking of selling the cabin, and even if she keeps it there are some things that can be moved back to her house. Even this year, with its long hot summer and leisurely fall, winter will eventually come, and it's not likely that she'll need her canoe and her volleyball net for a while.
Up at the cabin it is colder - it usually is, the deeper you go into the Interior - and there is ice on some stretches of the road. We drive through any number of frozen-over puddles, crunching through inch-thick ice overlying 6 inches of water. In places the ice is muddy brown, but in others it's as clear and sparkling as chandelier crystal, rock-candying the margins of the puddles where others have gone through before us. The stream, in motion, has no ice at all yet, and even a fish lingering there in the chill current. There are deep red cranberries and rose hips still adorning the denuded and skeletal thickets, and a late lupin with purple blooms still clinging to the flower spike. Here and there in a protected lee, a deciduous plant still bears some green and gold.
At the cabin the view is glorious. The Mountain is out in all her glory, sharp against a blue sky. Off her right flank rises the sheer cliff of Moose's Tooth, catching the morning light across her face. The autumn sun shines silver at that hour, and the cliff face beckons, a smoky lavender-blue in the light, declivities and seams picked out clear, yet somehow still speaking of mystery. I turn away from this enticement with difficulty; we've had coffee on the way up, and more prosaic concerns intrude. It's time for a last memorial pee in the legendary Necessary House at Katie's cabin, and then on to practical matters.
Katie has her canoe stored keel-side-up on a little ridge. This allows it to drain and keeps it from filling up with rain water. It also, however, allows water to run down the hull and puddle under the gunwales, with the result that when we flip the canoe right side up, there are several 6-inch-wide platforms of frozen mud perched along the gunwales like little tabletops. Katie begins tugging at these, but they seem welded to the canoe, clinging stubbornly.
I tug at one myself, finding it hard as steel and unwilling to budge. Hmm. I glance around, looking for a tool of some kind. Ah, perfect: an oar.
"Hold her steady for a sec," I invite Katie, and I slide the blade of the oar under the ledge of ice across from me, seating it against the gunwale. Holding the oar shaft at the balance point with my left hand, I thump my right fist down sharply on my end of the oar. The oar blade pops up just as sharply, neatly levering the entire ice table off the gunwale.
"There. Just the tool for the job," I say with satisfaction, moving to the next ice table.
"Gimme that other oar!" says Katie with a gleam in her eye, and in a matter of seconds we have de-iced the canoe. We give each other a grin and slide the canoe into the bed of her truck, where Katie straps it in.
Here I will freely admit that I didn't magically develop the knack of MacGuyvering useful jury-rigged tools out of ordinary objects all by myself. No, the credit for this, I feel, must go to my friend Judi. Way back in the day, before my stints as racehorse groom and barn manager, Judi and I rode together at the barn that I eventually would manage. One day we were at the barn and I realized I'd locked my keys in my Karmann Ghia. It was a hot, muggy eastern day and I'd left the window cracked about 2 inches to prevent myself from being instantly parboiled on opening the car door. I tried reaching my arm through this gap to try to grab the door lock; it was a vintage car and had the little mushroom-capped lock stems that you never see any more, and I thought if I could juuuust get my arm far enough in.... But no such luck.
Judi exited the barn and sauntered over with her long-legged stride, eyeing my dilemma.
"I locked my keys in the car by accident," I said - rather unnecessarily, because who does it on purpose? - and withdrew my arm from the window, frowning at the car.
"Hm," she said, and without a moment's hesitation she stepped to the side of the car, slid her riding crop through the gapped window, hooked the little mushroom top of the lock stem with the loop at the end of the crop, and popped the lock.
"There," she said, with satisfaction. "Done."
My eyes sprang open wide for a moment, and then I laughed. "Man, are you a tool-user," I said with some admiration, shaking my head and retrieving my keys from the floorboard, where they had apparently fallen, unnoticed, when I'd gotten out of the car. "I'm pretty sure I've never even heard of anyone using a whip to jimmy a car door before, let alone seen it." Judi gave me a grin and a shrug, and sloped off leisurely to her own car.
I have to say I was rather impressed with that quickness of thought, the ability to see a solution to a problem - instantly, in this case - by applying novel uses to familiar objects. She didn't stop to think about it: It was immediately clear to her that she had in hand a tool that could be adapted from its original purpose to solve the problem at hand. That kind of stuck with me. And, following Judi's example, I've done a little MacGuyvering of my own, here and there, in the years since.
Once I was picking my mother up at Anchorage International. My mother suffers a bit from hypoglycemia, and knowing that airline food was unlikely to be much help with that, I'd come prepared with a bomber-sized bottle of Alaskan Amber. I knew from experience that beer was, for her, a quick fix for the hypoglycemia, and would hold her til we could get some real food into her. The problem was that I didn't have a bottle opener, nor was one available at the liquor store where I stopped to get the beer. I felt certain that at least one of the airport gift shops would have a bottle opener, but in that I was sorely mistaken. So there I am at my truck, with my hypoglycemic mother (looking a little pale around the edges), her luggage and a bottle of beer, and no way to get the beer into my mom.
But not for nothing did I know Judi. I set the crimped edge of the beer cap against the bumper of my truck, struck the top of the cap smartly with the heel of my hand, and popped the cap off the bottle.
"There," I said, in tribute to Judi. "Done." My mom laughed, but I think she just figured this was an Alaska thing: We ALL open our beers with our truck bumpers and repair our airplanes with duct tape, right?
The MacGuyver thing isn't just for Alaska, though. Back when I was in grad school, I was once taking care of a fellow grad student's dog while she went into the field. Nickie had an old collie with arthritic wrists and a ceaseless, cheerful grin. He needed fed and medicated twice daily, so I stayed at Nickie's house, driving her little VW Rabbit to and from school. Nickie, doing a little MacGuyvering herself, informed me that the screen door latch was broken, but she'd discovered that it could be opened from the inside by means of a spoon.
"Don't let it latch when you leave, though," she warned me. "You can only open it from INSIDE with a spoon. You can't open it from the outside at all."
"Okay," I said, and I was careful to pull the screen door to when I left, but to not allow it to latch.
Things went along swimmingly for a while, and then one day I returned from school to find that the door was latched tight. Crap. I was sure I'd been careful not to latch the screen door, but maybe the wind blew it shut or something. I could hear Nickie's dog inside, doing his "Welcome-home, I-really-need-out" bark. Poor dog. He needed his pain meds too, and his food supplements, and a good scritch. I looked around. Nickie had one half of a duplex, and the neighbor's back yard was divided from hers by a four-foot chain link... but the whole of both yards was surrounded by six and a half feet of solid cedar privacy fence.
I knocked on the neighbor's door, thinking they could let me into their back yard and I could hop the dividing fence and go in via Nickie's back door. Unhelpfully, the neighbors were not home. Crap. I went around to the side of the fence, where there was a gate. This had a latch on the inside, but it was padlocked shut. Even though I had a key, it had to be unlocked from the inside. I grasped the top of the fence, gave a little hop and tried to walk up the fence face, using the iron gate hinges as steps. Nope: Not enough purchase for my toes, and I was getting splinters in my hands. I gave that up and eyed the terrain. Maybe I could drive the Rabbit up the curb and get it near the fence, then stand on top of it... nope. There were two ornamental shrubs in the way, and I was fairly certain the property owner would not be happy to have his tenants - or their house-sitters - expensively destroying his landscaping. Not to mention what it might do to Nickie's car.
I looked at the hinges again. Maybe Nickie had something in her car that I could use to lever the pegs out of the hinges so I could just take the gate off. No such luck: she had no tool box in the back of her car. All she had was a thick wool blanket, a set of tire chains and a gallon jug of water -
A set of tire chains.
Suddenly I'm having a Judi moment.
I pull the chains out of the Rabbit and flip them over my shoulder, a little grin forming on my face as I carry them to the fence. This first set of chains I hang over the top of the fence, snugging them tight into the notches between the tops of the cedar boards and draping the chains down the fence. The second set I loop over the upper gate hinge, wedging a link into the crevice around the hinge as securely as I can make it go. I fold my jacket into a rectangle and flip it over the top of the fence to defeat the splinters. I put my toe into the stirrup of my lower tire chain, test it for slippage (none), and mount it like I'm mounting a horse. I grab the top of the fence - much nicer with the jacket over it - and, peering down between my knees for aim, step my right foot into the other tire chain. I step up onto that one, swing my left leg over the fence, toe it onto the latch so I can get my right leg over, and hop down into the yard.
I hurry to let Nickie's cheerful old collie out into the yard, then go around to the front door. There is a book between the door and the screen; evidently the postman put it there, as it was too big to fit in the mailbox, and shut the screen door tight to hold it in place. I open the screen door with a spoon, go around to the side yard, and deconstruct my improvised ladder, stashing the chains back in the Rabbit.
When Nickie gets back I tell her that the postman shut a book in her door, locking me out of the house. Her eyes go a little round.
"How did you get in?" she asks.
"Made a ladder out of your tire chains," I say, describing the method in case SHE ever gets locked out in a similar fashion. And what do you know, Nickie is as impressed with my improvisational tool-making skills as I was with Judi's.
It's a nice little legacy Judi left me: the knowledge that when something brings you up short, with no evident solution to hand, looking at things a little slantwise will often deliver you a solution with no more than you have to hand. Even if it looks like you're stuck, you can always bail yourself out... as long as you have whips and chains.