Undoing things that were never meant to come undone.

My wife and I prepared for some renovations this last weekend. Our son moved out recently, so we moved furniture out of the room and removed the old carpet. We’re going to paint the room and have laminate flooring installed. That’ll be our new hobby room, and the room we’ve been using as a hobby room and guest room will be purely a guest room.

This post isn’t about that.

While we were working, my sister wrote to me on WhatsApp, and asked me how to get into the attic of our mother’s house.

That was alarming for two reasons. One is that with a seven hour time zone difference, the time I got the message meant that my sister was up early - early calls are almost always bad news. The other is that my sister has no business in the attic of our mother’s house - at least, not that part of the attic where you have to ask how to get into it.

There’s a regular attic storage room in the house. Everybody knows how to get there - go up the stairs towards the upstairs bedroom and go through the door at the side of the stairs. It’s small and cramped with a low ceiling, but no hazard to your health.

The other attic, the one you have to ask how to get into, is unfinished. You have to carefully walk on the joists so as not to come crashing down through the ceiling somewhere. It is cramped, and low, and you’ll bash your head on the rafters and then crash through the ceiling if you aren’t careful.

With her bad back, my sister has no business in that attic at all.

I wrote back and asked what she was up to.

Her son was there, and she wanted him to install new ceiling fans in the living room of the house. She wrote early because they started early to beat the heat.

As long as she’s not going in there, well, you get into the unfinished attic by going into the upstairs bedroom and into the closet. In the side wall of the closet is a hinged panel that opens into the attic on the side of the house opposite the finished attic. From there, you can walk and crawl your way into the other parts of the unfinished attic.

My brother and I did just that over 30 years ago when we installed the two fans that now needed to be replaced.

My sister asked our Mom how we put those fans in. Mom said she didn’t know, only that it involved a lot of cussing.

Thinking back, I’m pretty sure there were copious amounts of cussing involved.

I was 17 years old and my brother was 14. Our family had just moved in to the house, and it was summer. A hot summer, and not a good year. We had moved to that house in south west Missouri from Houston, Texas. Mom and Dad had bought the house while we still lived in Houston, and we had moved some furniture up that spring on Easter break from school. The plan was to move at the end of the school year, which we did. After my older sister’s wedding, and after our father had a heart attack. Our family had moved so many times that the six of us were rather welded together - and here we’d “lost” one sister and damn near lost Dad.

The old house was solid, but needed a lot of work to be nice. It hadn’t been lived in for a few years, so there was damage from frost in the house itself. The folks who had owned it before were older, and hadn’t been able to take care of things in the years before they died.

It needed paint, and plaster work. It needed some wiring and plumbing work. It needed the yard cleaned up and all the bushes trimmed.

Dad had planned to do a lot of it himself, with my brother and I as helpers.

With Dad recovering from a heart attack, my brother and I ended up doing what renovations could be done. Dad couldn’t go back to work yet, so money was short. We fixed things under Dad’s direction, using what we could scrounge in the house itself or buy at garage sales or the weekly auctions.

The summer went on, and it got hotter.

The house didn’t have (and still doesn’t have) central air conditioning. It was built around 1916, and though it had electricity from the start the wiring would give a modern electrician the willies.

Dad found two big ceiling fans on sale somewhere. Big, fancy, heavy duty, brand new, brass ceiling fans. They were marked way down, far enough down that Dad bought them.

We got them home, and looked them over. I didn’t know much about hanging fans, but I knew those fans weren’t going to hang from a plaster and lath ceiling. They had to hang from the joists above the ceiling.

You can’t see the ceiling joists from below, so my brother and I wormed our way into the unfinished attic above the living room. From there we could get at the wiring for the ceiling light in the living room, and figure out which joists to use to hang the fans.

My brother and I looked it all over, and decided that the only thing we could trust to hold those big fans were bolts all the way through the joists.

These are not your average joists made of two by fours. These joists are the same as the ones that support the floors. Those are two by eights in that house. And not your modern one and a half inch by seven and a half inch “two by eights.” Nope these are ever lovin’ honest to god two inches thick and eight inches high.

There are no regular drill bits that long that will fit in a standard electric hand drill - or if there are, we didn’t have them.

In amongst the boxes of junk we had bought at garage sales and auctions for 25 cents a box, we found an old fashioned bit and brace drill. In another box, bought somewhere and somewhen else, we found a bit for that brace. Twelve inches long, 3/8 inch diameter - and rusty.

We found (or bought) four 3/8 inch carriage bolts, 10 inches long, and set to work.

Yes, carriage bolts. There wasn’t room in the bases of the fans for a nut on a regular bolt, or even just for the head of a regular bolt.

We took the fan base plates up in the attic, and marked three holes for each fan. Two holes for the bolts and a third for the wires.

We drilled those three holes right straight down through eight inches of joist. In the ceiling of the living room, those two sets of three holes came through spot on. All three holes lined up perfectly to fit the holes in the base plates of both fans.

Two kids in a hot, dark, dusty attic with a rusty old hand drill - and we nailed it. There were no “do overs” possible on this job. Either you got it right, or you ruined the acoustic tiles on the living room ceiling - and probably the joist as well.

We drove the bolts in from below - 3/8 inch bolts in 3/8 inch holes, eight darned inches. That took some convincing with a hammer.

We pulled the nuts tight, and I expect we put lock washers under them at the least. Loctite was already a thing back then, and if we had any I’m sure we used it.

Those bolts were not meant to come out.

For nearly 36 years, they did not come out.

I joined the Air Force and left home a few years later.

My brother joined the Army and left home.

Our younger sister got married and left home.

I married, and my wife and I built our own house in 1997.

A couple of years later, my brother died in a helicopter crash.

The fans stayed up, and we all went on.

A few years ago, Dad died. The fans (and the window air conditioners) weren’t enough to get his weak heart through another hot Missouri summer.

Thirty six years now, and the fans I hung with my brother on that hot summer day so long ago had to come down.

They were good fans, and they held up for a long time. I’m sure the pull chains on the switches broke and were fixed. I know they were getting loud the last time I was there, and it seems they’ve finally worn out.

The bolts have to come out. To get them out the way they went in, you’d have to climb up into the unfinished attic above the living room and remove the nuts.

My brother and I did it when we were kids. A few years later, he couldn’t have gotten to them any more. He grew up big - six feet tall, and broad in the shoulders. I was already as big as I was going to get - five feet, ten inches, but weedy. I could have gotten back in there for many years if I’d needed to, but I’ve gotten rounder as I’ve gotten older. I couldn’t do it now, even if I weren’t seven time zones away.

My sister’s son follows my brother’s mold - six feet tall, and broad. There’s no way he can get into that part of the attic.

As I said before, my sister has no business in the attic at all.

Mom’s not in any shape to be climbing around a hot attic in a Missouri summer, either.

We thought it over, and figured it out.

A drill got those bolts in there, and a drill can take them out.

My sister’s boy (snork he has a wife and daughter of his own, not exactly a kid) drilled the heads off the bolts, and drove them out from below. I expect they’re laying up there in the rock wool between the joists, now.

He put up a couple of new fans, using lag bolts in the holes my brother and I drilled by hand.

My brother and I didn’t intend for those old bolts to come out on their own, and they didn’t. They held their own and did their job until they were removed.

Heads of the old bolts
Heads of the old bolts
Drilled out bolt head
Drilled out bolt head

This is one of the fans my nephew put up:

New fan
New fan

As I sit here trying to recall the details of a long finished project from a long forgotten day, I can’t help but wonder what my nephew will remember of the hot summer day when he hung a pair of fans in his grandmother’s house - and what event in his own life may cause him to think back on it someday.