The Polarity of the Penguins

December 10, 2008

Last Sunday, I helped fix a holiday emergency. It seems that the inflatable penguins that my girlfriend set up the other night had mysteriously deflated. Have you seen the penguins yet? If you travel through Mosier, you can’t miss them. They’re right on the corner between the new 10 Speed Coffee and the old gas station. It’s really cute. There’s a giant one with a scarf, and there’s one that keeps bobbing up and down out of an igloo.

In order to plug in the inflatable penguins, we had to run about 300 ft of “extension cords” to the nearest available outlet. Let’s call this the “main transmission line.” I say “extension cords” because the main “extension cord” is actually a “homemade extension cord” made of the kind of wire you use to wire a house with. The other extension cords consisted of one that looked like your average orange heavy duty extension cord, but in reality it was only for 2-pronged things, not three. The main transmission line also had some fairly normal extension cords in the mix. We used duct tape and plastic bags to tie them together, and hopefully keep any water out.

At the end of these cords, were, among other things, more extension cords. There were even more extension cords wrapped up in bags, in fact, they were nicer looking than some of the cords that were being used for the main transmission line. And finally, there was an indoor use only power strip, fully loaded and piggy-backed with plugs from penguins, two lighted deer, a season’s greeting sign and 15 strands of regular holiday lights.

Surely, this would be enough to overload any circuit.

You see, my girlfriend had set all these holiday decorations up the other day, and everything was working fine, until one day, mysteriously, there was no power to the penguins. She started talking about extension cords, and “funky” extension cords, and “outlets” and “funky outlets.” She mentioned that when she finally plugged everything in, the lights in the utility room went on. How weird is that?

So when the report came in about the deflated penguins, something deep down inside registered – something that must be genetically ingrained in the male population.

“I have a tool that can help us figure this out.”

It’s something that I bought a few years ago, but never really used. It’s one of those “outlet testers,” you know, the three pronged plug with multi-colored lights on the front that tells you if your “neutral” is reversed with your “ground” or if your “positive” is confused with your “open negative.” Granted, I’m not an electrician, and I don’t think I would go tearing up an electrical system if this device told me that the electrical outlet was wired wrong, but it would be nice to at least be able to verify that an outlet is wired correctly.

So down the hill we go, to check out the penguins. We even bring a plug-in light to test if we have power. I bring my handy outlet tester. We trace the main transmission line back to the outlet, and lo and behold, it’s not plugged in. That’s strange. Is it as simple as plugging it back in? Well, we plug it back in, and sure enough, the lights to the room come on. In all my years, I’ve never seen that happen.

But there’s still no power to the penguins. Well, that wasn’t completely true. There seemed to be some faint power going to the lighted deer. Did that “season’s greetings” sign flicker? Is it a fuse? One of ten extension cords? The funky extension cord? The power strip? This could take all day. It’s time for the outlet tester.

So we head back to the power source of the main transmission line. And I plug in the outlet tester. This is exciting, I’ve never used this before. The outlet I need to test is about chest-high. So you know that for a 3-pronged outlet, some have the third plug “Up” and some are “Down.” I’m not sure which is correct, but when I plug my tester in, it’s upside down, and I can’t read it. So now I’ve got to arrange my body half-way upside down to read the thing. Upside down. Backwards. Whatever. I count off the little lights and compare it to the polarity chart on the tester. And lo and behold, whatever the reading was, it was not correct. Something was amiss. By golly, the first outlet I tested is wired wrong.

The mystery of the room lights coming on when something is plugged in may be solved. We find a correctly wired outlet. The penguins start to inflate. A little girl and her mom are already enjoying the town’s decorations. And Christmas has been saved.

I go home and test more outlets.

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Parkdale third graders sing "12 Disaster Days of Christmas"

Welcome to your sing-able Christmas gift list. What follows is an emergency rendition of “12 Days of Christmas” – for outfitting your home or car in case of snow storm, earthquake, flood or other emergency. Read it as a simple list, or sing it to the tune of “12 Days” – you know, as in “ … and a partridge in a pear tree…” Not to make light of it, but the song is a familiar framework for a set of gift ideas that you could consider gathering together, even if the recipient already owns items such as a bunch of coats, tire chains and flashlights. Stores throughout the Gorge are stocked up on all these items. Buying all 12 days might be prohibitive, but here are three ideas for checking any of the dozen off your list (notations follow, 1-12.) The gift items needed to stay warm, dry and safe are also coded to suggest items in your abode (A) in your car (C) or both (B). 12 Gallons of Water (A) 11 Family meals (B) 10 Cans of propane (A) 9 Hygiene bags (B) 8 Packs of batteries (A) 7 Spare coats (B) 6 Bright red flares (C) 5 Cozy blankets (B) 4 Tire chains (C) 3 Flashlights (B) 2 cell phone chargers (B) 1 And a crush-proof first aid kit (B) Price ranges? Here’s a few quotes for days Three, Two, Four and Nine: n A family gift of flashlights (three will run $15-30, Hood River Supply, Tum-A-Lum) n Cell phone chargers (two will run $30-60) n Tire chains (basic set, $30, Les Schwab, returnable if unused for the winter) n Family meals ($100 or so should cover the basics for three or four reasonably well-fed days) n The home kit should be kept in a handy place near an exit, and remember that water needs to be replenished every few months. If you have a solid first aid kit already, switch out the gift idea with “and-a-sto-o-u-t- tub-for it-all …” Otherwise, it’s a case of assembling your home or car kits and making sure all members of the family know what the resources are and how to use them (ie flares and propane). Emergency situations are at worst life-threatening, at best deeply uncomfortable if you and your family are left without power for an extended period, or traveling and find yourself in a situation where you need to wait out a storm, lengthy traffic delay, or other crisis. Notes on the 12 gift ideas: 12 – Gallons of water: that’s one per person in a four-member family to last for three days, the recommended minimum to be prepared for utility outages. 11 – Easy-open packaged goods, energy bars, dried food and nuts are good things to include for nutrition. Think of what your family of four needs for three days to stay fortified and hydrated (see number 12). Can-opener also recommended 10 – If you have a propane camping stove, keep extra fuel handy. 9 – Hygiene bags: put packaged moistened towelettes, toilet paper, and plastic ties in large garbage bags (for personal sanitation) Resource list courtesy of Hood River County Emergency Management, Barbara Ayers, manager/ 541-386-1213. The county also reminds residents to Get a Kit, Make A Plan to connect your family if separated, and Stay Informed. See to opt-in for citizen alerts. Enlarge

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