The Thunker - Sarah Donohoe

(Note: this column is written in honor of the 31st Annual Estes Park Rotary Duck Race, which takes place tomorrow, September 19.)

Just about everything needs fixing these days. The weather, the postal service, a certain virus that won’t go away. The patio umbrella, the kitchen sheers, my hair. The air we’re breathing, the water we’re drinking, and the tomatoes I’m growing. (They tend to split open before they’re ripe.)

What are we to do? How are we to make right all of these wrongs?

The answer? Duct tape. It’s the universal fix-it. Granted, it’s not going to make that virus go away, but it’s the best I can do under the circumstances. But I can duct tape my hair to my forehead as a guide when I cut my own bangs.

When hiking I’ve used it to tape boots back together, I’ve made broken hiking poles useable again, I’ve sealed up food containers with it, I’ve patched holes and tears, and it can be used as a bandage over a wound or to wrap a sprain (although I’ve never had to use it this way). To save space, I wind some around a water bottle and leave the rest of the big roll behind. Duct tape is the one thing besides food, water and warmth I am sure to take on a hike.

At home I’ve used duct tape on the bottom of table and chair legs to protect the floor, I’ve temporarily hemmed up pant legs with it, and it comes in handy when creating a costume. (My friend Frank went to a Halloween party one year as Duct Tape Man. He wrapped himself from neck to toe in the silver-gray stuff and looked a lot like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. I, on the other hand, stapled blown-up balloons to my clothing and went as a bubble gum machine. Neither one of us could sit down all night due to the potential of a costume malfunction.)

Funny thing is, duct tape—the “official,” silver-gray stuff that is amazingly strong yet can be ripped by hand (in a straight line, unlike masking tape that tears at cumbersome angles) —this duct tape isn’t effective in taping air ducts together. If it gets too hot it sort of melts and if it gets too cold it may become brittle. Either way, it leaks and becomes useless.

All this time when I heard people calling it “duck tape” I thought they either were 1) ill-informed or 2) slurring their words, possibly from drinking too much Cold Duck. The tape is called “duct” with a “t” not “duck” with a “k.” But it ends up I was the nincompoop, because it’s not one or the other, it’s both.

The original tape, developed 78 years ago, was made for use by the Army. It was crafted by coating strips of duck fabric (a strong canvas) with adhesive and it was used to seal boxes of rifle grenade cartridges during WWII. (The original duck tape was invented by a woman, I want to add.) This newfangled tape, which was the standard Army green (or the color of canned peas that have been in the cupboard far beyond their expiration date), was easy to apply and remove, and it became the go-to for repairing just about everything, even tanks.

When our soldiers returned after the war they brought duck tape with them. Hardware stores began selling duck tape for general household construction and repairs, including to seal ducts in the new homes going up in the post-war housing boom. When guys were looking for it at the hardware store to wrap air ducts, they asked for duct tape. Duck morphed into duct. The manufacturers began making the tape in a silver-gray color—to match the tin of ductwork.

But like I said, duct tape isn’t very good at sealing ducts. In fact, it’s illegal to use duct tape this way in California—because it can actually catch on fire. California has enough fires right now—it doesn’t need to concern itself with any smoldering duct tape.

So how do people keep their ducts from separating? These days ducts are taped with a foil-backed tape that withstands temperature changes. It’s called…ready for this? … HVAC tape. (Pronounced H-vack. It stands for heating, ventilation and air conditioning. It’s a rather tedious tape name, don’t you think?)

HVAC tape, this boring, one-use foil-backed tape hasn’t eliminated the use-it-for-everything duct tape we all have in our garage somewhere. Just ask anyone in Springfield, Missouri, the duct tape capital of the world. A Walmart store there sells more duct tape per person than any other place in the world.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But if it is broke (and in the year 2020, what isn’t?), consider using duct tape to repair it. If nothing else, it’ll make you feel good to rip a piece off the roll in a perfectly straight tear.

You may let The Thunker know what you think at her e-mail address,

© 2020 Sarah Donohoe

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