My son Bob, known to most people by now as Robert, had been preparing his house for sale over the last few months. He had taken down all of his wall posters of Jimi Hendrix and his former step-daughter’s grade school art, spackled holes in the walls, and painted. At the time of this August visit, his house looked sharper than it ever had over the decade he has owned it. The final thing that obviously needed to be done inside was to remove the heavy Everlast punching bag that he had hanging by two heavy chains from his living room ceiling. Bob said that would be the last thing he would fix before putting his house on the market.
Shortly after our in-house tour, Bob said he wanted to cook breakfast for us rather than go out, a fine idea from our point of view. As we ate a sumptuous breakfast of migas, refried beans, and all the rest he told Ellen and me of his plans for wrapping up the repairs and getting his house on the market after the first of the year.
For several years he has had a dream of moving to Chicago to immerse himself in the blues scene. He had a girlfriend there for a year or so, and he liked taking the train up from Champaign to crash with her and her roommate, hang out with her and his guitar at Buddy Guy’s Legends, and play there on occasion during open-mike night. Once he played there while Buddy Guy was sitting at the bar talking to some of his friends or fans, but Bob was disappointed that Guy wasn’t paying attention to his playing.
My wife Ellen and I had been encouraging Bob to move to Austin and become part of the Texas blues tradition, with its heart at Antone’s, and he still thought at times that it would be good to live near family. Austin’s public transportation system lags far behind Chicago’s, but Chicago’s winters lag far behind Austin’s, where we never have to shovel abundant sunshine. But we acknowledge that Chicago is a great city by almost any standard and that Bob would have a chance to live his dream there.
As we were winding down breakfast, we told Bob we that we were at his disposal to do anything we could to help get his house ready for sale. Bob was well aware that it would be dangerous to give us a paint brush or roller, knowing that when we had attempted such projects in the past that our work was amateurish at best or that we created new problems at worst. Wisely he said,
“I need your help outside. Could you help me put mulch down around the foundation of the house, around the landscape plants and especially around the trunks and over the roots of the large shade trees?”
We eagerly agreed to that, washed the dishes, and headed out to buy mulch. As good fortune would have it, we had rented a small SUV at O’Hare the day before, not knowing that we would be using it to haul two loads—a total of sixteen bags—of mulch. As we finished the project in late morning, Bob’s house looked extra sharp, like it was ready for showing. . . except for one thing.
As we walked slowly all around the house, checking for any needed fine tuning, I noticed that his front storm door, facing north, was corroded on the lower panel near the hinge in an area about a foot in diameter. Some of the corrosion was mildewed but in places small holes had appeared in the outer layer of aluminum. I walked out to the street and the blemish was easily visible from there—not a good way to make a favorable first impression on a realtor or a prospective buyer.
Before leaving for breakfast the next day with friends from our years in Champaign-Urbana, Bob got his tape measure and we measured the storm door. We first got the width, thirty-five and a half inches. Bob clipped the tab on the end of the tape at the top of the door, and we both leaned over to read the tape—sixty-eight inches, we both agreed.
After breakfast with our friends, we headed to Lowe’s to buy a new storm door. The dimensions of the door would require a special order, meaning it would take longer to get the door installed than we had hoped.
Soon it was time for us to head back to Chicago to visit members of Ellen’s family and some new friends we had made on our recent China trip. We were also eager to savor favorite places such as the Art Institute, Millennium Park, the opulence of Michigan Avenue’s Magnificent Mile, and a return visit to Café Spiaggia where we had gone for lunch on our first date nearly twenty-five years ago.
After lunch on Saturday, we were walking down Michigan Avenue in front of Crate and Barrel when I was hit by a mental lightning bolt! I said in amazement to Ellen,
“I’m seventy-four inches tall!”
“What in the world are you talking about?”
I dropped my head in disbelief, instantly in shame, and explained that Bob and I had measured his door as sixty-eight inches tall the day before, that I could stand in his front door with inches to spare above my head, and that we had ordered the wrong sized storm door for Bob’s house. I was just dumbfounded. He and I both had looked at the tape when we came up with sixty-eight inches, but I was the one who called out the number first and Bob accepted it.
I called Bob knowing he might be teaching a guitar lesson and left a message on his voice mail, taking full blame for the error. About an hour later Bob called back, laughing in a type of bewilderment and disbelief, and generously claimed that it was his error, too. He had just remembered that he is sixty-eight inches tall himself, so the measurement we took had to be wrong. But he had not given it a second thought. He said he’d call the store and take care of it. By the end of the conversation we were laughing hysterically at the goofy error we had made–together!
We flew back to Austin on Tuesday and I called Bob when we got home. He had cancelled the special order on the door and had gone back to Lowe’s to talk face-to-face with the guy who had taken the door order on Friday. As Bob explained the error, the guy shook his head and said he thought a sixty-eight inch tall storm door was very unusual, but we seemed pretty sure of ourselves and he didn’t question us.
Bob recounted that first conversation with the salesman, telling him that he himself had worked at a building supply store a couple of summers where he and other sales staff would tell stories of customers coming in with measurements that were just as outlandish as ours. He capped off his explanation to the salesman by saying that I had been on the faculty across town at the University of Illinois for many years and that he had become a musician. He said to the salesman, while leaning over to hold onto the counter in convulsive laughter,
“When a musician and an academic measure a door, you’d better watch out!”
The two of them howled in waves of laughter as this story blended into their combined experiences in the building materials business.
I finally figured out how it happened and explained it to Bob. The tape had run out eight inches from the bottom of the storm door and Bob put his thumbnail there to mark the spot. Then we measured the final eight inches. In my head I had convinced myself it was a five-foot tape, or sixty inches long. Sixty plus eight is sixty-eight. But it was actually a six-foot tape, or seventy-two inches long. Seventy-two plus eight is eighty. We were off exactly a foot! But he saw it a different way. He said,
“I was the one reading the tape on limited sleep and caffeine, in my last defense. The looks on the guys’ faces at Lowe’s were the highlight of the story.”
But I still think it was my error, not Bob’s. He had just repeated and accepted my pronouncement of sixty-eight inches as the height.
Now I am left to live with the knowledge that I have already lived long enough to become a problem to my children. They no doubt came to this realization many years before I did. Now they might as well get used to it.
Thanks to my son, Robert Russell, for reviewing and commenting on a draft of this story. He is a musician, a singer/songwriter, and a guitar teacher living in Urbana, Illinois. His specialties are blues and jazz, but he also plays a mean solo rendition of Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne” that gives me goose bumps.