What Would McGyver Do?

By October 14, 2012April 11th, 2014Other Writing, Selected Essays

 From the book edited by Brendan Vaughan

When you look at him, at the manicured beard and well-shorn, though balding, head, the Italian leather shoes and smart-cut suit, it’s no longer so easy to recognize Jonathan for the geek he truly is. Mostly you can see it in his hazel eyes, now that he’s learned to clean his glasses so they are no longer covered with a grimy film. There are still lots of “ums” and “ahs” that punctuate the cadence of his sentences, but he’s gotten better at getting to the point. That Jonathan is a successful academic doctor who is invited to speak all over the world will surprise no one who meets him; that he is responsible for millions of dollars of research grants and heads up a clinic at one of the best university hospitals in the country seems perfectly appropriate. This is clearly an accomplished individual. However, he’s changed a lot in the decade and a half we’ve known each other. 

We were originally set up by well-intentioned friends. When I first saw Jonathan I thought I should be more careful in choosing my friends. His pants were about three sizes too big, his glasses were cobbled together with duct tape, and there were traces of his last meal on his tie. On the way to dinner, Jonathan drove with his arm out the car window. Not in the casual way that men have, one arm resting lightly outside the car while steering confidently with the other hand; no, the door didn’t close properly and Jonathan had to hold it shut lest it fly open.

But Jonathan’s deftness soon became apparent. Not because he fixed his TV by tipping it forward at a precipitous angle which made watching it, for me, a chore but delighted Jonathan because he had been able to rescue the device from the dump. Not because he once spent countless days and hundreds of dollars designing an insulated house for his pet pig that had a separate “furnace” room, thermostat, and window. Not because if you give him a problem he won’t stop until he’s solved it, often in inspired and creative ways. It’s that Jonathan brings things to the brink of disaster and then, through ingenuity and quickness, though intellectual agility and physical prowess, he pulls off a spectacular save.

We were moving in together, Jonathan and I, and had leased a large, luxurious house in a snooty neighborhood. Jonathan had been responsible for finding the movers. He’d set up the date, and on the day of the move, we sat at our individual houses atop our packed boxes and waited. The movers were instructed to go first to my place, load up, move on to Jonathan’s, load up, and then unload at our new love nest. Everything was all set.

Except that they never showed. It got later and later and when we finally called, they had no record of our move.

Naturally, Jonathan and I had both waited until the very end of our leases, and we had to be out that night. At the last possible moment, dangerously near closing time, we rented a gigantic truck, and, with the help of our mutual friend, Mary, and my less-than-athletic brother, Mark, we worked until the early hours moving ourselves.

The next morning, Jonathan and Mark took my dog, Hannah, for a walk to survey the grounds. Our new home was nestled at the top of a long, uphill driveway. The moving truck was conveniently parked close to the house, facing down.

They had been walking on the street and, for who knows what reason, had looked back, at just the right moment, to admire the house. I believe that my brother, when he closes his eyes at night, can still see it: the big truck was rolling down the driveway, headed for the posh home of one of our new neighbors. Jonathan had forgotten to set the emergency brake.

My brother, a lawyer, mentally ran through all of the possible outcomes.

“Oh shit!” he said, his body locked in panic.

“Oops,” said Jonathan.

With superhuman speed, Jonathan sprinted up the driveway. The massive truck was gaining velocity by the second; Jonathan knew too well the formula for momentum. He jumped onto the running board along the side the door, but there was nothing to hold onto. He grabbed the side-view mirror, which swung in his hand, and tried to balance himself, surfing toward the neighbor’s home.

Then Jonathan realized that he’d locked the door to the truck.

With one hand he clawed the roof of the truck; with the other, he fumbled in his pants for the keys.

Reaching deep into his pockets he came out with a handful of change and the key to the new house. So he opened the truck with a paperclip—just kidding. He dug in once again and this time found the right one, then jammed in the key and tried to open the door. But his body was in the way. The house across the street loomed closer. Jonathan maneuvered himself behind the door as my brother gazed on at a scene straight out of some kind of twisted indy action flick: our bearded, balding, hero attached to a rolling truck en route to a colossal moment of destruction.

Jonathan got the door open. He swung into the driver’s seat. In one swift motion he pulled hard—on the windshield wiper lever.

“Oops,” Jonathan said.

He grabbed again, and this time he got the emergency break.

The truck squealed angrily to a halt, having crossed the street, the front wheels stopping just before the golf-course-green grass of the neighbor’s lawn.

“Oops,” said Jonathan.