Archive for June, 2010


I Could Be Their Next Winner!

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality, Yesterday's Memories

Do you ever enter sweepstakes or contests? You know, the kind where you have a one-in-ten-zillion chance of winning but you do it anyway?

In my after-college years before the Internet became a part of daily life, I used to get tons of junk mail in my mailbox, mostly from companies that were trying to give away something, whether it was cash or some piece of merchandise – cars, boats, vacation trips, and electronics were the most popular items. All you had to do was fill out their forms and mail them back in, and “you could be the next winner!”

What is lost on a lot of people is the fact that these companies are not in the business of giving things away for nothing. There’s always a catch somewhere, whether it’s to get you on their mailing list (which they often sell to someone else), or they have a particular product they want you to buy. Case in point: perhaps the most infamous giveaways of all are the ones from Publisher’s Clearing House, or PCH as some like to call them. This part gets lost in all the advertising they mail out by the ton, but PCH is actually in the business of selling magazine subscriptions. Back in those pre-Internet days I used to subscribe to several magazines, and found PCH often offered them at very good discounts. It seemed like a good fit for me at the time, and as long as I didn’t stray away from that group of magazines, I could enter their contests and everything worked out okay. Once I got married, family life took the place of magazines, and one by one I let them all lapse. Of course, the mail didn’t stop; once you’re on their mailing lists, you pretty much have to die to get off of them…and even then it’s not certain. For a couple of years after my dad died in 1988, we continued to get contest mailers addressed to him.

These days these contests have mostly moved online, but their purposes haven’t changed. The companies are still trying to sell products, and use the contests to bring in potential new customers.

After many years of avoiding all the contests and sweeps, both in the mail and online, I finally succumbed a couple of months ago when the prizes were too good for me personally to pass up. I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that I like to collect wristwatches, and I’ve found two online stores that offer weekly contests to give away a free watch. All I have to do is re-register on their site each week, which puts me on their e-mail list to receive their advertising and special offers (something I was already doing anyway). That’s not as bad as having a mailbox filled with paper that gets thrown in the trash; and, if need be, I can simply delete the e-mails as they come in.

I haven’t won a free watch yet, but who knows? There’s always the chance that “I could be their next winner!”


Garden Tractor 4, Me 1 — But I Still Win!

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

Throughout the history of individual home ownership and maintenance, there is one never-ending conflict that tests the mettle of every homeowner – mowing the grass. For most folks who live in a subdivision or other such ‘burb, this usually means getting out with a push mower and spending an hour or less tidying up their postage-stamp-sized front yard. In the countryside where I live, we measure and mow our grass by the acre. Between the yard next to my house, the area around my barn, and the spaces in between, I estimate that I have between two and three acres to mow every other week. There’s no way a person with a push mower could do all that here in Texas and not collapse from heatstroke. So, what’s the solution? A riding mower, of course!

These days, zero-turn mowers are all the rage. These are the mowers that the professional landscapers use; they are highly maneuverable, and with their wide mower decks can make short work of a large acreage like mine. Unfortunately, I don’t have one of those mowers; we bought ours back in 2001, before the zero-turns were being offered to the general public. Our mower is a more “conventional” style known as a garden tractor. The difference between it and a regular riding mower is that the garden tractor is capable of doing light tractor work such as tilling a garden or pulling a box blade to level the soil. However, its first job is to mow grass, and in that capacity this tractor has lived up to the expectations we had for it. With regular maintenance, replacing blades and belts and so forth, it has served us well for the past nine years.

That is, until this week.

While cutting an area near our barn last Saturday, the mower clogged up with grass and I had to stop and clear it. Usually I leave the engine running while I do this, but when I found the clogging was going to take a while to clear I turned it off. After I finished clearing it, I hopped back into the driver’s seat and turned the key to start the engine up again.

Click…no engine starting.

Check all the switches to make sure they are set properly, then try it again.

Click…still no engine starting.

Hop off the mower, open the front hood, and check all the electrical connections. They all look tight, so get back on and try it again.

Silence this time…not even a click.

“Great, just great,” I thought. “Here I am only halfway through my mowing and now I can’t start the engine.” So, I stopped trying to turn the switch over and over, and began looking at all the possible points of failure. I found three – the keyswitch, the battery, and the start solenoid. The most obvious thing was the battery; it was four years old, and has been through a lot of wear and tear mowing this huge space…maybe it just needed to be charged up? So, I got my tools, pulled the battery, and put it on a charger. When the charger said it was done, I put it back in the tractor and turned the switch.

Silence. Score one for the tractor.

Okay, the next point was the keyswitch. It was original to the tractor, and was pretty well worn on the outside. Maybe it was finally worn out on the inside as well and wasn’t making contact any more. So, off to the store I went to purchase a replacement. I picked one up, brought it home, popped the old switch out, popped the new one in, and turned the switch.

Silence. Score another one for the tractor.

“Okay,” I said, “I replaced the start solenoid a few years back when the original failed, so perhaps something has gone bad in this one too.” I didn’t have a chance to go back to the store that day, so it had to wait until Sunday afternoon.

Sunday rolled in. I went to the store and picked up a new start solenoid. Brought it home, got my tools, disconnected and removed the old one, installed and connected the new one, and turned the switch.

Silence. The score’s now three for the tractor and zero for me.

I started to get a little nervous. The mower wasn’t showing any signs whatsoever that it was even getting power to the starter (there’s a gauge on the dash that is supposed to move when you turn the key, and it wasn’t moving). I had to go off and think about this one for a while.

That “while” led me to Wednesday afternoon, when I decided to pull the battery and try charging it once again. Unlike the previous time, this charging cycle didn’t end; it just kept going and going. Maybe the battery had gone bad after all? I loaded it up in my truck, headed to the store, and traded it in on a new one. Brought it home, installed it, and turned the switch.

Silence. Now it’s four to nothing.

At this point I was totally demoralized and lost for an explanation. I began to check every wire I could find, tracing lines from the switch to the solenoid to the starter and back again. Nothing seemed broken or out of place. Then I started tracing other wires, and found one buried deep under the steering column with a strange connector on the end of it. I wiped the grime off it, and found it was really a fuse holder with a 30-amp blade fuse in it.

“Since when did they start putting fuses on garden tractors?” I asked. I pulled the fuse out, took one look, and saw that it had blown. Could all of this trouble have been caused by a 25-cent fuse?  I went back to my truck to see if I had a spare, but didn’t. It was getting dark, so I decided to wait and pick up new fuses the next morning.

Which brings this story up to yesterday. I finally got to the store, picked up a package of 30-amp fuses (so I’d have a few extras), got home, installed a new fuse, and turned the switch.

Bingo! The engine started like it was brand new (and well it should, given all the new parts I’d just installed). Score one for me!

I took the tractor up to the house and parked it so I could look it over and make it ready to go back out and mow again. My work will be cut out for me, with an extra week’s growth to deal with over half the yard.

So, now I know what I’ll be doing this weekend. How about you?


A “Gripping” Adventure

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

Over the weekend, I proved to myself that I haven’t become “all thumbs” when it comes to fixing things. You may recall my earlier postings concerning all the tit-for-tat upgrades I’ve been making to my two sons’ computers, and all the troubles I’ve had with getting things right so that peace and order are maintained in my universe. After a long struggle, I think I’ve reached that point…for now. This time around, the “fixing” involved one of my own gadgets.

My 35mm film camera, the one I used to take all the photos I’ve been posting, is 17 years old. It’s still a very serviceable camera, and takes great pictures. However, it has developed one “cosmetic” problem in the last few years: the rubberized coating on its handgrip has deteriorated and become very sticky; when holding the camera, the grip “sticks” to my hand and is very uncomfortable.

I wondered if the manufacturer could still service the camera and replace the coating, so I called their customer service department on Thursday and talked with a representative. They no longer provide factory service for it, but they do have a list of independent service centers that could possibly do the work. I was given the name and number for the one closest to me (“close” is a relative term; they are actually six hours away). I called them and talked with one of their techs, and he understood exactly what I was explaining – considering how rare that seems to be these days, it felt very refreshing! He told me that the entire handgrip would need to be replaced, and said I could either send the camera to him to do the work, or he could send the part to me and do it myself.

“It’s easy,” the tech said. “You just remove the bottom plate and the front cover, and the grip comes right out.”

I agreed, so I gave him my address and payment information and he shipped the part out. I received it on Saturday, and it did indeed look like it would be an easy item to replace…once I got the front of the camera off. There’s where my first problem came up – I didn’t have a screwdriver tiny enough to remove all of the screws in the bottom plate. I had to make a run out to buy one; but, of course, no one sells just one…I ended up getting an entire set of electronics screwdrivers. Now, not only can I take my camera apart, but also just about any piece of electronics that has tiny screws holding it together.

Finally, with tools and spare part in hand, I sat down with the camera and started to work. Six screws out of the bottom plate, and the plate popped off. A couple more screws on a side bracket, then three more on the front cover, and it lifted right out as well. The next problem turned out to be the handgrip itself; after some searching, I discovered there were two screws inside it (inside a compartment that also holds the battery) that needed to come out. Once those were done, the old grip easily separated from the camera. I reversed the process to install the new part, and a few minutes later I was finished. No missing pieces, and nothing left over – looked like a success to me!

I picked up the camera and looked at it. From the front, it looked once again like it did when I purchased it back in 1993. I held it using the new handgrip and I played around with it for a few minutes, holding it in different positions and pretending to shoot. It felt very comfortable, as it used to be years ago when it was new – felt like a success to me!

The final test, of course, is to take it out and run a roll of film through it to make sure I didn’t damage something else in the process of replacing that part. I believe it will be okay, making my first camera repair a complete success. I’ll be sure to post a few pictures later.

Please don’t be getting any ideas – just because I fixed my own camera doesn’t mean I can fix anyone else’s…unless it’s exactly the same problem on exactly the same model – and I’m not telling you what that is!


A Day At The Zoo

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality

Last Sunday afternoon, my wife and I did something we haven’t done in several years – we went to the zoo.

The city of Gainesville, Texas is home to the Frank Buck Zoo, a small facility next door to a large city park just south of the city center. It is named after Frank Buck, a Gainesville native who specialized in collecting wild animals from Africa and putting them on display in zoos and in his own traveling stage show. His catchphrase was “bring ‘em back alive”, which at the time was in sharp contrast to the usual practice of Westerners traveling on safari and killing what they hunted to decorate their walls back home.

Once again, we grabbed my cameras to take a few pictures – my wife with the digital, and me with my trusty 35mm. We entered the park and were greeted by a huge carving depicting several of the animals species that are on display.

Following the carving was the first enclosure, which housed … wait for it … pink flamingoes!

The zoo has changed dramatically since we first visited it almost ten years ago. Back then admission was free and the number of animals on display was very small, consisting mostly of species native to the region such as owls, coyotes, bison, raccoons, roadrunners (yes, they really do exist), and bears. There was a petting area for the kids to visit and interact with goats, sheep, cows, and pigs, as well as a few exotics such as tamarinds and lemurs.

Since then the park has grown to several times its old size, charges a modest admission fee, and includes a large African Savannah enclosure housing zebras, antelopes, ostriches, and the showpiece of the park, a pair of giraffes.

A large elevated walkway was constructed across the savannah partly to give visitors a bird’s eye view of the animals in the enclosure, and partly to allow the giraffes to move from one side to the other without too much difficulty.

The zebras had a young foal scampering about with them.

The giraffes and ostriches, meanwhile, were taking advantage of the tall shaded feeding station to get out of the sun, which made the park extremely hot that afternoon.

Next door to the African exhibit was a small area representing Australia and housing their most famous native species, the red kangaroo. The zebras weren’t the only ones who had a new baby this spring; I caught a view of a female ‘roo with a joey in her pouch.

As I mentioned earlier, it was a very hot day. When we finished our tour and returned to the entrance, my wife couldn’t resist stopping in the gift shop and picking up an ice cream bar.

All in all, it was a very pleasant – if hot – day to go to the zoo. I’m not sure when we might return, and there’s no telling what will change between now and then!