The legacy lamp

About 35, or maybe even 40 years ago, my dad went through a phase. Or perhaps I should say a craze–he made lamps out of anything that didn’t move. And I’m sure if anyone had pointed that out to him, he would have made a lamp out of something that did, just to prove them wrong. Then, at some point, he stopped. I don’t know why and I never asked him. He kept one on his bedside table, and a couple in the room in the basement where he watched football. But it’s funny. I associate his lamps with him more than probably anything else, but I can’t recall ever watching him make one.

A number of years ago, I asked Mom if any of Dad’s old lamps were still around, and she gave me two of them. They both happened to be made of pieces of wood that he probably found somewhere.


Dad’s lamps had a number of trademarks. The most obvious one was that he outfitted them with the most hideous lampshades known to mankind. I don’t know if he just bought the cheapest shades he could find, or if he took some sort of bizarre pride in finding the most obnoxious lampshades in town. His flagship shade was white with pleats in it, and they sell one similar to it at Target even today, with one notable difference. Dad’s shade was accented liberally with what I can best describe as bits of metallic faux gold pipe cleaner material.

The second was that he always made a base out of dark hardwood and emptied every can of polyurethane in the house on it–one coat at a time, of course.

I used those two lamps in college and in my bachelor days, but eventually the lamps got relegated to basement duty, a familiar role for them. I kept the hideous lampshades in use for a while as some kind of weird tribute, but eventually the shades fell apart, so those are lost to the ages now. I replaced them with the most ordinary, nondescript shades I could find. I figured one way to avoid being tacky is to be ordinary.

But a couple of years ago, I had to retire one of the lamps at least temporarily. I found that when I went to turn the lamp off, I usually received an electrical shock. So I unplugged the lamp, removed the bulb, and resolved to investigate someday. Someday finally came this past Sunday afternoon. I took the lamp apart to investigate.

I said before that Dad’s lamps had a number of trademarks. The rest of them deal with workmanship.

Dad used a lamp-making kit like you can find at any hardware store, and although the parts are made half a world away now, little else about them has changed over the decades. I pried the lamp socket apart and immediately found the problem. When wrapping the wire around the screws, a number of strands went in all directions–not at all unlike Farquhar bed-head–and some of them were shorting against the base of the socket. That explained where my shocks were coming from. So I removed the screws, looped the wire more carefully, and replaced them. Then for good measure, I put a piece of electrical tape over each screw terminal. Then, since I had extra, I put a second piece over each. There’s a cardboard sleeve in the socket that should have kept the wires from being able to touch the side, but over time I guess it had migrated. The electrical tape would protect against that happening again.

Examining the electrical plug, I thought I saw a couple of stray bits of wire. So I pried open the plug and saw the same treatment. This time, I straightened the wires completely, twisted the strands together, then re-looped them, replaced the wires, and replaced the screws. I never used to do that when working on electrical projects, and always ran into problems–usually problems getting the wires to stay on the screws. Like son, like father, as it turns out.

Sometimes my wife asks if looking at our two sons is like looking at me. The answer? So much it’s eerie. But I guess it goes the other way too. Taking this lamp apart and looking at it was like taking apart and looking at my own work. Now I know why Dad knew I always rushed projects, even when he wasn’t watching. I don’t know how many times I heard Dad say I didn’t waste any time building that model. He was right; I never wasted a minute building a model. And Dad didn’t waste a minute wiring that lamp.

So I double- and triple-checked everything and carefully put it all back together. Slowly and carefully. Yes, I forced myself. I plugged in the lamp and turned the switch. Light! So then I reached over with one finger and gingerly touched the base of the socket. No charge. So I grabbed the base of the socket. Still no charge.

Then I unplugged the lamp and cleaned it up with some Murphy’s Oil Soap. Now, aside from some patina on the metal, it probably looks pretty much like it did on the day Dad made it. Aside from the lampshade that single-handedly summed up everything that ever was wrong with the 1970s, that is.

Dad and I never made a lamp together while he was alive. But now I guess you could say we have.

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