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Author: Thomas McIntyre
In a real sense most of life is jury rigging. This is not to be confused with jury tampering, a practice favored by members of certain fraternal organizations when the F.B.I. has them on tape. The tradition of jury rigging harkens back to the great heroes of mythology who were forever splinting the broken masts of their ships or to the protagonists of boy's adventure stories who lashed their jackknives to the ends of tree branches to fend off pumas.
Jury rigging implies that something was done right once, and we are able to cannibalize off that effort in ingenious ways that make it possible for us not to have to run out and start all over again. So a broken lace has a knot which, if strategically positioned between eyelets, allows us to continue to cinch up the boot without having to actually replace the old lace. Or a fishing rod with the last guide missing is kept in service by trimming the tip back to the next-to-last guide. Even the essential tools of jury rigging look as if they were jury rigged themselves: the paper clip, the wooden kitchen match, the band of inner-tube rubber, and always duct tape, ironically having been elevated now to an icon of homeland security. And beyond jury rigging things, we more often than not also jury rig our jobs, our social relationships, our families, all to avoid having to try to begin from scratch, which is generally, as we know, the most dubious of battles.
One of the most poetic depictions of classic jury rigging comes from the Russian author Mikhail Prishvin in his book, Nature's Diary: "I enjoy these village hunting parties occasionally, but I always keep a little apart from the rest, because someone's weapon is sure to blow up. Well, no wonder, since the flashing patches of metal brazed to the barrels could be seen with the naked eye. One gun even had its hammer tied down with a piece of string. After a shot, the hammer would fly into the air and dangle on the string, but this did not worry anybody, they did not even mind missing all the time. The main thing was the bang!"
To emphasize once more, something can be jury-rigged only if it was made correctly: You can't jury rig pot metal; pot metal would be what you would use to jury rig something else with. In order to make or do something properly, you have to know what you're doing before you commence, and sometimes that means either appraising the situation rationally, or if that fails, reading the directions. Here are two examples of what I mean.
Some years ago, my friend Charley S- (to follow the convention of Russian novels for concealing the true identities of the characters) and I found ourselves hiking in the rain forest on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. We had our spinning rods and planned to shelter in the backpacker's huts that were set along the trail. By the time we reached the first hut several miles in, we understood that "rain forest" was not to be taken as a euphemism. To make matters worse, previous backpackers (you know, those worshippers of old-growth trees and woodland creatures) had jury rigged the hut by using all but two of the slats from each bunk for firewood, and then apparently had torn off shingles to stoke the flames, creating an environment more conducive to pearl diving than spin fishing. With water squishing in our boots and our wool shirts smelling like old wet sheep, we concurred that a forced march back to the trailhead before dark would be preferable to hypothermia.
We reached the car and started down the road, after a short way spotting two rows of old, but seemingly dry rental cabins. One of them would do us for the night, and after paying something like $5, we moved in. Along with a bare bulb dangling from the ceiling, two sagging mattresses on two iron bedsteads, and a square heavily painted table with two straight-back chairs, the cabin also contained a sturdy-looking wood stove, and Charley and I decided that a fire would be in order, the night's rent having included a stack of split wood. The trouble was, neither Charley nor I had ever used a wood stove, but neither of us was willing to concede that, either. We both hovered around the stove, nonchalantly lifting covers and opening doors until we discovered the fire grate. Whistling merry tunes, we prepared a bed of kindling, then nested a couple of good-sized sticks of wood on the kindling and fired it up. Within minutes thick gray smoke had driven us outside to the porch where we stood, watching the smudge rolling out the front door.
In the cabin across from us, a man-who looked as if he were enjoying a logger's holiday in the woods-was moving in his family. He saw the smoke and us standing on the porch, Charley and I wondering how we were supposed to get back into the cabin.
"Got a problem?" he called with a wave.
"Kinda smoky," we replied.
"Yeah," he said, "those stoves can be finicky sometimes. Give me a few minutes, and I'll come over to help."
We nodded, but by then the smoke had died down enough for us to reenter the structure. We approached the stove, certain that we had simply been unable to get the fire to draw. So we added some paper, a little more kindling, touched her off again and blew on the fire and fanned it with our hats until the billowing smoke drove us once more into the fresh air. By the time the logger came over, the smoke had subsided again. He walked briskly to the stove and just as we had, began lifting covers and opening doors-all of them except the door behind which we had built the fire. He stepped back, genuinely puzzled, then tentatively opened the door to the box in which we had built the fire. He stared at the smoldering wood for several seconds, then leaving the door open, lifted a cover off the stove and pointed down into the actual firebox.
"You put the wood in here," he pointed, the words choking a little as he tried to get them out. "Where you put it was in the oven." And then he was gone, frog marching back to his cabin where he had the decency to wait until he was behind its closed, though embarrassingly thin, door before bursting out in gales of laughter. Charley and I looked blankly at the stove, wondering who would be the first to meet the other's eyes.
Another time when instructions were not followed was several years later, and it was, thankfully (sort of), my turn to watch bemusedly. My friends Fred F-, George P-, and Louie D-, and I pitched a white wall tent one August on a wide river well above the Arctic Circle in Alaska and hunted barren-ground caribou and moose. We had purchased much new gear and hadn't really gotten into half of it; but by the middle of the second week in camp, a certain boredom was setting in and idle curiosity was one of the few outlets. One of the items we had purchased was a single-burner backpacker's gas stove (backpackers, fire-a theme seems to be emerging).
Before I set out to hunt with George one morning, I went off several yards away to where we had dug a slit trench behind a low alder bush. As I squatted, I had a clear view of the tent; and Fred and Louie, who would be staying back in camp to flesh hides, could be heard inside, removing the gas stove from its wrapper. Southern boys used to building fires from the oil-drum-sized stumps of hackberries or cooking over a barbecue, neither had operated such an apparatus before; and I could hear their fiddling and exchanging concepts, and the occasional condescending flipping of the instruction booklet's pages. Finally the instructions were cast aside and somebody got the white gas while the other monkeyed with the pump and a squeaky valve. I thought about calling something out; but before I could, there was the sound of a match being struck.
The interval between the lighting of the match and the reaction probably seemed far longer than it was, because it could only have been a portion of a second later that an enormous incendiary whoosh first consumed all the oxygen inside the tent, then replaced it with a frightening ball of orange candescence that filled out the canvas tent walls like the fabric of an ascending hot-air balloon. Two sets of feet rushed to the flap, which was securely tied. Bouncing off the heavy fabric, one managed to tear open the ties with brute strength and hold back the flap while the other hurled the carbureting gas stove out the opening, the yellow ball of flame, not so big as the sun, arcing through the air and coming to earth like a meteor crashing. Louie came out quickly behind it, carrying a bucket of water, and dashed it over the fiery remnants with a steaming sizzle. Fred's head emerged through the tent flap, and both he and Louie turned slowly to look at me, lopsided, but very, very relieved Mortimer Snerd grins on their faces.
Jury rigging may be a noble art, but not knowing what you are doing before you try to do it, is not. It is only a recipe for possible disaster and ignominy. It cannot, therefore, be said enough, When all else fails, take cover by the latrine.
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