I was putting a jar of salad dressing on the cashier's conveyor belt when I first saw the news. There, among the headlines trumpeting the end of the world and the threat of aliens in high places, was a piece of information that grabbed me by the throat.

"1 in 9 HOSPITAL BABIES SWITCHED"

Six words that explained a lot.

I ruminated on shoddy infant inventories all the way home. By the time I unloaded my groceries, one thing was painfully clear. The man and woman who had nurtured me so lovingly were not my real parents. Rather, somewhere out there was an entire family just like me--a clan of klutzes.

One of the chronic ego deflators of my life has been that, when it comes to building and fixing things, I'm next to useless. This has spawned a real identity problem, because when I survey the neighborhood, it's obvious guys do three things. They drink beer, follow sports, and fix things. Even with points for identifying the starting lineup of the 1960 Pirates, I rate a meager 33 percent on the Male-O-Meter.

Not being able to tackle the big jobs doesn't bother me. I figure it carries no stigma to farm out building a deck. And the really simple things--like putting a closet door back on track or changing a light bulb--I can handle. It's that vast array of projects in the middle that leave me staring blankly--things like hanging a door, changing a lock, or installing a curtain rod so it won't come down.

And I know that my "Dad" is not my real father because he is Mr. Fix-it. When we were growing up, Dad was forever repairing or remodeling the house. He was the kind of guy who would get up from the supper table, slap the kitchen wall and say, "Well, this has to come out." We would look at him and say, "Dad! You're the one who put that in, just two years ago." "Well," he would say, "it has to come out. Do you think I do these things for fun?"

To his credit, Dad tried his best to pass along his skills to me and my older brother, Frank. Whenever he was fixing or changing something, he would gather us around and explain the process.

Frank (the real son) must have actually been paying attention, because he eventually became good with his hands. But I was a tougher nut to crack. Dad would be lecturing us on the intricacies of a level or a sander, and I would be thinking something like, "Now what would happen if King Kong and Godzilla came over the backyard hill at the same time? What would we do?"

Eventually, I worked up enough courage to say to my parents, "Look, I just don't think I have an aptitude for this sort of thing." Instead of being upset, as I expected, they just gave me a kind of Zen-like smile and offered a piece of advice they would often repeat: "Just wait until you get a house; then you'll learn."

After a while, I began to believe that all I needed to become good with my hands was . . . a mortgage!

Well, we've had a mortgage for 14 years now, and I think our experience can best be summed up in the words of my wife, who, as she snuggles close to me, says in her reassuring tones: "Daniel . . . someday . . . this house . . . is going to fall down around us."

She's exaggerating of course. I know it's not a showplace, but I think we do all right, with a lot of aid from our brother-in-law. Even Dad, who's 81 now, will occasionally drive down from Pittsburgh to pitch in, and I do what I can to help him. Usually I hold the ladder.

I used to feel very embarrassed by all this, but in the past year or so I've begun to rethink things. With the recent advances in gene research, I've decided it's not my fault. I've concluded that in the development of every male fetus, there comes a time when each guy-in-the-works gets one of two genes.

The first gene is the one to build and fix things. Those who somehow miss that piece of genetic information get the other one, which is the gene to be . . . an English major.

Yes, I am an English major, and I'm taking the position that I don't care who knows it. If pressed, I will diagram a sentence on the spot.

Additionally, I now wring some small comfort from knowing that, somewhere out there, there's a perfectly decent family that for years has been unable to get their son to lay down his hammer long enough . . . to quit fixing up the basement long enough . . . to stop building the darn deck long enough to join the folks in a rousing crossword puzzle.