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Why I Never Became a Plumber

Michael Hillman

emergency plumber in northern beaches

After reviewing the results of my first attempt at brazing a plumbing fixture, my father smiled and offered me some rather sound advice: "The solder is supposed to be on the pipe, not the window. Maybe you should forget becoming a plumber. Have you ever consider the field of nuclear engineering?" It wasnít until the mass marketing of PVC piping that guys like me could once again feel comfortable in discussing plumbing issues with fathers who could braze snow to ice over new Persian rugs without dripping a drop of solder. With the advent of PVC piping, all one has to do to become a plumber is be able to cut, smear some blue stuff, and then smear some glue - according to Mark Zurgable, that is.

One of the first jobs that had to be tackled on the farm after we bought it was to gut the barn and turn it into a stable. The first task was to move the existing water supply twenty-five feet from the center of the barn to the tack room in which our saddles, supplies, sink and bathroom were to be placed. No problem, I thought. Iíd just dig a trench from the base of the existing freeze dry hydrant to the planned tack room. As I would soon learn, many things are easier said than done on a farm and moving the water supply was no exception. At times during the excavation, I seriously considered dynamiting my way through the rock-hard clay that formed the floor of the barn. Three days, two pick axes and eight blisters later, the trench for the new pipe was finally completed. Then the real fun began.

Because the original line had been covered by concrete, I had to tunnel underneath it to get to the base of the faucet and its PVC water supply pipe. In spite of my best efforts, the tunnel turned out to be too small for the saw I intended to use to cut the pipe. After an hour of fruitless attempts at cutting the pipe, I reached the limits of my patience. Racked with pain from bleeding knuckles and an aching back, I grabbing the digging bar and quickly tore the tunnel open wide enough to wedge in my circular saw. With a click of the sawís trigger, the pipe was cut. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to turn the water off.

Dropping the saw, I ran to the house to look for the shutoff valve for the barnís water supply. Having not been turned in years, the valve was rusted in place and just as I realized that a wrench would be necessary to turn it, the lights in the house went off, a result of the still-plugged-in saw shorting out in what by now was a water-filled trench. Needless to say, my wife, Audrey, was not very pleased. The power interruption and resultant loss of water pressure came just as she had stepped into the shower and was shampooing her hair. As I fumbled in the dark for the circuit breaker, I was greeted by a rather chilly "Congratulations! Youíve really outdone yourself this time. Weíve owned the farm for only two weeks, and youíve already managed not only to lose power, but water pressure as well."

My thought that things couldnít get worse was proven wrong the next morning when I was greeted by the sight of a now frozen trench, the offending saw fully visible under two feet of ice. Two weeks, eight space heaters and twenty-four propane bottles later, the trench was once again free of ice and efforts resumed to run the water line to the tack room. Much to my chagrin, in spite of following all the directions given to me by Paul and Mark - Mr. "Sure Anyone Can Do Plumbing" - Zurgable, the junction of the old and new piping leaked when the water was turned back on.

Remembering to turn the water off first [Contrary to the rumors Audrey is spreading, I may be a neophyte but I can learn new tricks.] I re-cut the line, dried it and re-glued it, all to no avail. It seemed the more pipe I cut and re-glued, the more it leaked. Before I knew it, my sixteen-foot pipe had been whittled down to ten feet. Finally, out of desperation [read: I was running out of pipe, and the trench was filling with cold water from the leaks, thus beginning to refreeze], I grabbed a roll of duct tape and wrapped the pipe until the leak had slowed to a trickle. Before I could regain my sanity, I had refilled the trench and was headed off for a well-deserved gin and tonic.

Now, moving the water supply to where the tack room would be was only the beginning. Determined to regain my technical credibility with Audrey, I spent days designing how all the valves and pipes for the hot water heater, sink, toilet, and hot and cold faucets for the horsesí wash stall should be arranged. Drawing upon my expert nuclear engineering background, I set about putting together a first-class system. For every valve, I had a backup valve; that way, if the first failed, the second could be used to shut off the water supply. For every valve I had a bypass valve, so if the first got stuck shut, the bypass could be opened to allow water to flow. My system was so good, I could even run hot water to warm the toilet in the winter!

By the time I was finished, the entire wall was covered with valves and piping going every which way you could imagine. Standing back and admiring my work, it occurred to me that I probably had the only nuclear-grade barn plumbing system in Emmitsburg. Audrey, however, had another opinion. "What is that?! Did you really have to buy every valve Zurgable Brothers had? This is supposed to be a tack room, not a nuclear submarine!"

My highly logical explanation as to why I did what I did fell on deaf ears and the hot toilet water didnít move her much either. Most galling of all was her pointing out the fact that when the sink and water heater were installed, most of the valves would be unreachable and, therefore, unusable. "Didnít think about that, did you Mr. Nuclear Engineer?"

Hmm ... I hadnít thought about that, but Iíd be damned if I was going to admit it. It did, however, occur to me that, being smaller then I, Audrey could reach the valves if she could learn to contort her body and lost a little weight. Discretion fortunately got the better of me and I kept these thoughts to myself and ceded the argument while I was still alive.

Since fixing water problems in the barn always gets top billing on Audreyís "Honey do" list, Iíve found "creating" problems with the barnís water supply a good method of getting around my Zurgable Brotherís allowance. When I find my Zurgable allowance for a month Ďmaxed outí, but still have things to buy, all I have to do is realign the valves so hot water comes out of the cold faucet and vice versa. Since anything out of order drives Audrey crazy, all I have to do is say that the repairs will require some spare parts from Zurgablesí and my allowance ceiling is waved for that month. After purchasing what I really wanted, I realign the valves, once again pronounce the systems fixed and everyone is happy. Although, after she reads this, Iíll never be able to use this ploy again.

Much to my surprise, the water system in the barn has worked pretty well over the years, though in the back of my mind Iíve always dreaded the day the duct-taped joint, now under two feet of concrete, would give way. Many a night Iíve awakened, dripping with sweat from nightmares of the effects of years of dripping water underneath the barn floor. I convinced myself that one day, a hole big enough to swallow me will form as punishment for not taking the time to glue it right. Needless to say, when Audrey informed me one day last winter that we had lost water pressure in the barn for a few minutes, I was convinced that my worst fears were about to become reality.

"What do you mean you lost water pressure?"

"What do you think I mean? One minute water was coming out of the hose, the next it wasnít. The water pump must be going bad."

Unwilling to admit to her my true fear, I wanted to ask her if there was any possibility that she could have absently turned the water off without knowing it, but thought the better of it. "It was probably just a fluke. Letís wait and see if it happens again." And happen it did, repeatedly over the next several weeks, though only to Audrey. Each time, she insisted that the water pump was the culprit, and each time I replied that she was only being paranoid.

"We live on a farm. Things like this happen on farms. Besides, Iím the nuclear engineer, and water pumps donít stop and go, when they go, they go!" Then it happened to me on Christmas day.

I was watering the horses when the water suddenly stopped. After verifying that the hose was not kinked, I headed off to the basement to check out the water pump controller. No sooner had I reached the basement than I heard the pump turn on. I was lazily checking over the system when I suddenly remembered that I had never shut off the hose in the barn. Running quickly back to the barn, I was greeted by the sight of the hose wildly whipping around, like a cobra out of control. It was dousing everything in sight, and before I could subdue it, it sprayed right into an electrical outlet. The resulting short circuit once again left me wet, cold, and in the dark.

Needless to say, Audrey was not amused. "Merry Christmas, Mr. Nuclear Engineer. Now will you please call a plumber and get the water pump checked out?"

The following morning I was up bright and earlyówell early for me at leastóand began a thorough check of the farmís water supply. First on the agenda was to figure out whether the well was going dry. My flashlight was pretty useless, since it only illuminated the top ten feet of the pipe. Instead, I resorted to dropping stones down the well pipe. After dropping my 17th stone and hearing no "ker-plunk," I made the bold assumption that the well had to be okay and turned my attention to the piping system. Although I was in the vicinity of the system itself for only fifteen minutes, I nevertheless somehow managed to break off the pressure-sending unit and the handles on three valves as well as crack one solder joint. A rather productive morning, if I must say so myself.

After checking out everything imaginable, and with the pump now cycling on and off every thirty seconds, I finally conceded defeat and called Reckleyís Plumbing to the rescue. Within an hour, Joe Reckley was examining the scene of the crime. Nodding knowingly as I explained what had transpired, Joe smiled and pronounced the water pump as the culprit.

"All the signs point to it, but being a nuclear engineer, you must have already figured that out, right?" I confirmed that I, too, had suspected the water pump all along, but Audrey had doubted me. "I donít want to rub it in that I was right and she was wrong, so letís not tell her the pump was the problem. Weíll replace it anyway, only as a matter of Ďformí, since, weíll say, itís old and we already had it out of the well anyway."

The failure of the water pump blew one of my last illusions of the farm. Over the years, one of the treats of having well water had been the illusion that it was free. Now I had to pay the piper, or should I say - the plumber. Showing his years of experience, Joe quickly opened the top of the well and began the long, arduous task of pulling the pump out of the well. My offer to help pull out the pump was politely refused.

"You drive a desk donít you? ... This is manís, uh .. eer, heavy work, and Iíd hate to see you hurt yourself." So while Joe and his helper got the glory of pulling the pump, I had to settle for the menial task of struggling with the hose. By the time the 200-foot marker had been reached, however, the hose was becoming rather heavy. I was moving so slowly that PJ, my trusty Jack Russell, had given up watching me and went off to play a game of chase the cat. By the 300-foot marker, I began to thank my lucky stars that Joe had considered me a weakling and swore that I would never again complain about having a desk job.

An hour after his arrival, Joe had the offending pump lying on the ground and a new one was being lowered back into the well.

"Do you have kids?"

"No, why?"

"Well, the top of the old pump was covered with stones. Iíve found from past experience that stones on top of pumps come either from kids throwing them down for the fun of it or from morons trying to figure out if their well is dry or not." Fortunately for me, PJ chose that moment to sprint by with Tony, our Siamese whatever, hot on his tail, so I was able to evade Joeís question. As I went off to PJís rescue, Joe went about fixing all the damage I had done that morning, as well several other items that had been on Audreyís "Honey Do" list for years.

Several days later, we received a nice thank you note from Reckleyís and a bill about 1/5 of what I expected.

"Wow! Michael, Reckleyís was really cheap. At these prices, why donít we get the pump replaced more often." A quick examination of the bill revealed that Reckleyís had failed to bill us for the pump, which I mistakenly pointed out to Audrey. Audrey ignored my sinister suggestion that we wait and see if they would bill us for it next month and, after lecturing me on how cheap I was, she called to find the price of the pump and added it to the bill. I meanwhile returned to writing my paper on business ethics.

With the water supply now restored, things quickly returned to normal around the farm. However, as I have learned over the years, when one part of a system is replaced, the next weakest component will usually fail. So now every time I turn on the hose and feel the gush of water pressure, I cast an apprehensive glance towards the barn floor, under which lies a duct-taped water joint, which is dripping, dripping, dripping . . .

Michael lives with his wife Audrey on their farm south east of Emmitsburg, and there is no truth to the rumor he is spreading that after the ladder he was using to paint the chimney fell, she left him dangling until she checked to see if his life insurance was paid up and had him swear never to make light of her in any future stories.

Read other Humor stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman