Friday, July 07, 2006

The sound of rushing waters

There were unexpected repercussions in the aftermath of a camping trip to South Carolina several years ago. Besides being scarred for life by the inability to find the common eastern towhee—rated as being little more than a trash bird due to its abundance—there was one other event that created ripples that still lap against my shores. If not for a pitiable reaction to what can only be considered a willful act of deprivation, my response would have been comic. As it is, I find myself once more repeating my absurd actions like some primitive man who stepped across the boundaries of time from the Ice Age to modern America, only to find himself dumbfounded, awestruck, and, most of all, delighted in that way known only to children or simpletons.

Obviously this admission creates a suspicion in the mind of the reader about which category the author falls under. In my defense let me say that I would much rather be known as one full of childlike wonder than a jaded, ill-tempered churl. And anyway, what’s so strange about opening and closing the refrigerator?

We had gone in the wake of a minor hurricane, which should have been a clue to what kind of trip it would become. Indeed, it was one of those vacations that linger in the memory not only for the good things that happened, like finding the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, slow food, delicious barbecue in shotgun shacks, sunsets over mosquito-infested swamps where alligators grinned toothy Southern-style greetings, but also in the not-so-good things, like taking off in a violent thunderstorm, hitting an air pocket at 30,000 feet, and having jet troubles that threatened the lives of every miserable, abject, cramped, sardine-like passenger of an airline that deserved to go out of business due to its ineptitude and, eventually, did just that.

Each night we slept in a different area, hoisting our little tent, rolling out our sleeping bags, dousing ourselves in bug juice and plugging in the electric coffee pot (roughing it only goes so far). Food was whatever we picked up at the grocery store or at local restaurants, stored on ice in a Styrofoam container with beer and pop. When the ice melted, we got more.

On our return to Denver, Lori caught me opening and closing the refrigerator. Not once, not twice, but many times, over and over, accompanied each time with a breathless “Woooow.” It was so neat to have cold beverages and food without having to lug around an unwieldy freezer and, even better, to have what amounted to an endless supply to choose from. Modern technology never seemed so fine and perfect, so ideal, something I’m sure that backpackers and other tent campers appreciate as well. Whether they become entranced by it is something for them to admit, or not.

If not for something that happened last week this would have remained merely an amusing anecdote for Lori to share with friends to prove what a goof her husband can be. But after six years of fighting the kitchen drain—as long as we’ve lived in this hundred-year-old house—the battle came to a head when the culprit refused to unclog. So fierce was the engagement that my plunger shattered, my drain snake twisted to a pretzel, an entire industrial-strength bottle of Drano shrugged off, and the P-trap below the sink blown away under my administrations. The kitchen was flooded with toxic waste. Conceding defeat, I called a plumber.

Getting a plumber is not an easy thing to do in rural Kansas. With the median age of pipes in rural homes being 89.4 years, and the average number of plumbing professionals around 1.7 per every 100,000 residents, it’s understandable that plumbers are in high demand. That I found one who was willing to look at my problem was something of a miracle; that he could arrive in less than a week was practically unheard of.

After washing dishes in the bathtub for three days, it was a relief to see Wayne Mitchell of Mitchell Plumbing pull into the drive. In the back of his truck was enough plastic pipe to outfit a high-rise apartment complex. I walked out to greet him but backed off when he yanked out a sawzall. In his eye was a feral gleam peculiar to men with large power tools with razor- sharp blades. After that, I left him alone and retreated to my back office. Sheba hid in her cage.

For a while there was a deep ripping sound, the clunk of falling metal pipes, banging and rustling and clanging, and then Wayne said he was done. He’d replaced the old steel pipe between the sink and the main drain in the basement. It was a beautiful job. It was a work of art.

When he was gone, I ran the faucet for a minute. There was no back up, no pooling. I plugged the sink, filled it up and let it out, watching as the level dropped rapidly until nothing was left. I almost wept with joy.

The next test was the bathroom. I flushed the toilet and listened for the telltale gurgling, guggling and burping that normally accompanied it from the sink and bathtub. Utter silence followed. Apparently the vent he installed took care of the musical pipes. Even the bathroom sink drained better. I filled it and watched it drain, and said in a long breathless drawl, “Woooowwww.”

When Lori got home I dragged her into the kitchen and showed her how fast the kitchen sink emptied. Then I repeated the process in the bathroom.

“But wait!” I told her as she turned to leave. “Listen!” And I flushed the toilet.

In her expression I realized I was back to opening and closing the refrigerator. It was South Carolina all over again.

Don’t get me wrong—she was happy to have the problem fixed. Me, I was dumbfounded, awestruck, and, most of all, delighted.


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