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Spare Parts: Right on the nose

By Ernie Copper

Many of us are spending more time in the garage this time of year. For some, more time in the garage could mean more exposure to tools—for others it just means a different place to drink beer. Let’s assume you can relate to the tool-bearing garage-o-phile.

Recently it’s occurred to me that the more general a tool is in its nature, the more diverse the injuries it can cause. Conversely, the more specific a tool is in its intended purpose, the more specific the damage it can cause tends to be. For example, a utility knife is pretty specific in its purpose: To cut something—be it fuel line, a box top, or a piece of rope. Therefore the injuries caused when using a utility knife tend to be cuts of varying severity. I doubt anyone has ever been knocked out by a utility knife, or broken a finger with one.

A sledgehammer can be a different story altogether. A sledge can be used to break things loose or to bend, drive and flatten things. It can be misdirected to cause unintended damage across a wide spectrum. Broken bones, bent parts, broken parts and collateral damage are all well within the domain of the average sledgehammer, not to mention feats of strength. My uncles were fond of holding a sledge at arm’s length, then controlling it with their wrist/forearm strength to lower it slowly to touch their nose, then raise it upright again. Don’t come cryin’ to me if you attempt this and end up with a broken nose.

The reason I began to ponder the damage potential of various tools was due to a very specific and unforeseen self-inflicted injury. But first, some background. At an early age I was taught to solder wire. Twisting them together was OK for testing, but for a long-lasting mechanical and electrical connection and a quality job, wires needed to be soldered. The tool used for this was fairly specific: A Weller electric soldering gun. Before Radio Shack invented the “Third Hand,” useful for keeping both wires together while you tried to solder them, I served as a human third hand for my father’s soldering projects. With smoke wafting from the Weller, just fractions of an inch from my prepubescent fingers, I learned to respect the soldering iron.

Many soldering projects took place at our kitchen table. Occasionally molten solder would drop onto the table’s Formica top, but if it was brushed away quickly enough, it didn’t burn the table or your fingers. Molten solder always reminded me of the mercury we played with in grade school that came from broken thermometers—except it was hot! Side note: Yes, we really played with mercury barehanded in grade school in the ’60s and, when we were finished, some lucky kid got to take it home or we tossed it in the wastepaper basket.

As an adult, while doing my own soldering I took bigger risks, occasionally paying the price with a burnt finger. The molten solder droplets are typically very small, so the burns don’t tend to be too bad—more of an annoyance and a cost of doing business as opposed to a real health threat.

Recently, I was lying on my back in the garage, soldering a rear marker light wire. What happened next was unanticipated, but predictable in hindsight. I’d like to tell you I saw it coming—that somehow I was prepared, but that would be a lie. Midway through the job, as I was tinning wire number two, a rivulet of molten solder dripped from my overhead connection, freefalling to its final destination—the inside of my right nostril! It was roughly 10 times more painful than a bee sting, leaving a small burn that lasted about 10 days. For the morbidly curious, there was no sizzle and no smell; just pure pain. If solder snorting were an NBA event, this one would have been nothin’ but net!

The safety-conscientious reader can rest assured that I do wear safety goggles when soldering on my back, but adding nose plugs never crossed my mind. Maybe it should have, but when you grow up playing with mercury you tend to have a different reality. Be careful during those long hours in the garage this winter. Strange things can happen there. Some of them you can even laugh about later.


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