Appliance Lover Chuck Diehl Takes a Spin-Dry on Memory Lane

updated 03/06/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/06/1989 01:00AM

Chuck Diehl's great obsession began when he was 5 years old. It came upon him like a revelation, one of those laser-bright moments that are usually reserved for religious conversion or falling in love or choosing political running mates. It happened in front of a washing machine at his Aunt Margaret's house in Baltimore.

Diehl remembers being a hyperactive child who took medication to control his wild behavior. "Aunt Margaret saw that I was getting in everybody's way," he says, "and she took me back there and she hooked up her washing machine. She had a Frigidaire semiautomatic, and it had a pulsating agitator. She put a lot of clothes in it and said, 'Now Chuck, you just sit and watch these clothes do somersaults—like they're tumbling teddy bears.' "

At that moment Diehl's life changed. "It was just so amazing," he says. "The power of that agitator! It just turned me on completely. I was into washers! And, after that day, anytime anybody did any laundry, I'd have to watch it."

Today, 27 years after discovering his deus ex washing machina, Diehl is still pursuing his obsession. His large, two-bedroom apartment is a shrine to the washing machine—and to dryers, vacuum cleaners, irons and dishwashers. One bedroom holds the Charles William Diehl Jr. Museum of Appliances, the only one of its kind in the world. There, either Diehl or his very understanding roommate, Brian Lyles, proudly shows off part of a collection of two dozen appliances from the '40s and '50s (the Golden Age, according to Diehl). Viewings are by appointment only, and Diehl says he gets about a dozen visitors every week.

While the machines whirl and clatter, Diehl positively glows. "That's my baby," he cries, pointing to the 1947 Frigidaire Unimatic Transmission Washer. "Twelve hundred rpm dry spin. I just love the way it works. It's just like my Aunt Margaret's."

Speaking of Aunt Margaret gets Diehl reminiscing again. After his Frigidaire epiphany, he says, "I started going around the neighborhood, knocking on doors and asking the ladies if I could watch them do their washing. Mrs. Bennett had a Westinghouse front-loader. A light would go on, and you could watch what was going on inside there."

Soon, Diehl was spending all his free time studying the innards of household appliances. While the other kids were playing tag, he was playing Maytag; when they dived into the swimming pool, he delved into the mysteries of Whirlpool. "They thought I was pretty weird," he says. "And my father really couldn't understand. He didn't see the art, the design, the architecture! All he saw was a piece of junk sitting in the backyard after I started bringing those old washers home to work on them."

Charles Sr., who is an engineer with a Baltimore concrete company, does admit that he found Chuck's hobby "a little unusual. I used to raise the devil with him, but most of the time he just ignored me."

As with all visionaries, there were those few who did understand. A high school teacher allowed Diehl to repair old machines in shop class. And Chuck became friendly with Clarence Rudolf, who operates a big appliance store in Parkville, a Baltimore suburb. "He was probably only 12 years old when he first started coming in here," says Rudolf, now 63. "He'd ask me if he could watch the machine being repaired, or if he could have an old one to work on. I saw he was having a tough time—kinda got bounced around—so I tried to help him."

Last year Diehl left his $14,000-a-year job as an X-ray technician to become a free-lance "appliance consultant." He expects to earn about $30,000 a year soon from trades and sales, and by helping people choose the proper new machine or to locate wanted antiques (mostly in junkyards). Like all collectors, he has his own wish list of classics that he would love to find: the Youngstown Kitchen sink-dishwasher of 1951-52; the Thor washing machine-dishwasher from the same era (the only device that could wash both your dirty socks and your pots and pans), a classic Westinghouse washer-dryer of 1956. But his grand plan, his Holy Grail of appliancedom, is to reassemble the 1958 Frigidaire kitchen. "I'm talking about the entire kitchen—the range, the washer, the dryer, the refrigerator...and even a matching freezer, frost-free!" he says, eyes gleaming. "I want it all in turquoise, of course."

—Michael Neill, and Tom Nugent in Baltimore

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