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For Want of a Nail


A 14th-century proverb, later made familiar by Benjamin Franklin, advises us that:

“For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost …”

Although often associated with the death of King Richard III of England, the proverb really speaks to a cascade of unintended consequences from trivial beginnings. We have had something like that in our lives of late, all stemming from that modern-day nail in the horseshoe—the Internet.

We have a second home in rural Maine. Maine, with roughly 90 percent of its land area forested, is demonstrably rural. Many unincorporated townships do not even have electric power; we once visited a town that had 28 residents that held its annual town meeting in the first selectman’s kitchen.

Our home is not that rural. It sits about 500 feet back from a local thoroughfare, halfway between two modest-size towns but it is currently caught in the never-never land between DSL and fiber optic Internet service. DSL’s end is drawing near and fiber optics is still a glimmer on the horizon. I can virtually see the end of the fiber optic lines from our house but there is no plan this year or next for them to close the distance.

Meanwhile, the old system is flighty, to say the least. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and it seems to bear real animosity towards our home security system. The first “nail” was loosened by an “argument” between our router/modem and the security system. They both use the same phone line and cannot peacefully coexist. If we connect the security system, the internet goes out. If the Internet is working, the phone system is erratic.

We left the systems in their respective corners after a January visit and returned home, never anticipating the mayhem that was about to descend.

In March, we arrived early one evening, ready to settle into our cozy surroundings. To my relief, the router’s lights were blinkingly reassuringly and I anticipated watching a movie, using my computer and all the little conveniences of modern life. I did not know that the little assassin had staged a coup while we were away.

My husband went downstairs to turn on the water while I stored things in the refrigerator. Suddenly I was standing in a tropical rainforest. Water poured through the ceiling from the upstairs bathroom; flowed from the downstairs laundry and the refrigerator reeked of rotted food. It appears the router/modem had bound and gagged our security system while we were gone and, unable to access the phone line, it failed to alert us to a power outage. A Polar Vortex provided the coup de grace, freezing the pipes solid.

It took us three weekend visits to repair all the plumbing (We are heavier, less agile and more easily fatigued than when my husband built the house three decades ago. Crawl spaces have now become “slither spaces,” slowing our progress). With the work nearing its conclusion in July, I decided to give the place a good clean to clear away the last vestiges of “le deluge.”

In the downstairs bedroom, I discovered a coating of grit washed from the ceiling atop the chifforobe where the router sat. Knowing I was entering a danger zone, I nevertheless chanced moving the temperamental beast to dust under it. The Internet immediately went out, never to be resurrected.

I called our provider and was told that the DSL lines are in tatters, unlikely to be improved and that their repair man works only Wednesdays and Thursdays when we are never in residence. Home we went with no Internet. The little man in the box, as we call our security system, remained silent. Predictably, the power went out while we were gone. It was still out when we arrived last Friday evening, leaving us to enjoy a serene interlude in the silence of the Maine woods, in a world lit only by fire.

I was thrilled when the lights came on later that night and was only a little nonplussed the next morning when a power company employee arrived to change the meter. It would only take a second, he said, and was true to his word. But as his taillights disappeared down the drive, my husband said, “I don’t know what that noise is.”

There was, indeed, an ominous electric hum in the kitchen. I am afraid of electric noises, they make me very nervous. So out to the deck we went—the only place our cell phones get a signal—to call the power company. They directed my husband to try different circuit breakers until we located the source of noise. The only problem was, when he went into the house we lost the phone call.

As he flipped switches in the cellar and called up to me to determine when the noise disappeared, the ultimate irony unfolded. Our refurbished 1913 wall phone suddenly sprang to life with a return call from the power company—the only functional piece of technology in the house!

So, how did it end? We don’t really know yet. The noise was coming from the stove circuit. Somehow the oven door, which locks when you activate the self-clean cycle, had sealed itself shut and no amount of finagling could free it. I joked to my husband that he would never find a stove of the same size as the one that slides into our wrap-around counter. “You’ll have to replace the countertop and move the cabinets,” I said. “Then the linoleum won’t fit and you’ll have to redo the floor …”

Guess what? They don’t make 27-inch stoves anymore. By now, I calculate that our horse has lost all four shoes and our kingdom is tottering on the brink!