The call came at 7:30 am, the earliest polite time to call in Beyonder, even if you know people are up. It had the sound of trouble. The thermometer had dipped to forty below the night before, the temperature at which pipes freeze, engines won't start, and oil tanks run dry.
It was Hadley, the young woman who rents a house from me. My instincts were right. The pipes had frozen.
My initial reaction was anger. Hadn't she remembered all the tips I gave her when she rented the house-leave the cabinet doors open under the kitchen sink, let a little water drip, run the hot water before going to bed? But I stifled it, knowing full well that the frozen pipe was not the result of negligence, but rather what happens when a long run of pipe goes through an uninsulated crawl space on a night when Vermont is unsuitable for creatures without fur.
"I'll be right there," I said, already wearing my game face. I took a last sip of hot coffee and went upstairs to dress. There would be no fashion statement today. I put on long johns, then sweatpants, then jeans, then my woolies from Johnson Woolen Mills. For once, I didn't care if I looked 40 pounds overweight. I topped off the outfit with a coat that would not be ruined by rolling around in the dirt, because I had already ruined it by rolling around in the dirt.
I waddled down cellar to gather my tools-propane torch, lighter, and a little board that I've improvised for holding the torch at odd angles. I know the drill.
Outside the sun was bright, but ineffective against the chill of the blue norther that had swept down from Hudson's Bay. Each step in the snow produced a loud, dry crunch. I pulled myself clumsily into the cab of my truck, said a prayer to the god of DieHards, and turned the ignition. My engine moaned like teenager being roused from a warm bed. I cranked it again and got it to scream "It hurts! It hurts! It hurts!" I tried swearing at the engine, and threatening to stomp on the gas pedal. The engine responded by sputtering a metallic "okmaybemaybemaybe." I gave it thirty seconds to think the situation over, then another crank. Fearful of my wrath, it started.
By the time I reached the house my forehead was beaded with sweat from the eighteen layers of clothing. Hadley was a little sheepish, but I said "no big deal" because I had transformed from landlord mode to most-competent-male-of-the-species mode. There was no mountain too high, no valley too deep, no pipe too frozen that I couldn't conquer it.
Underneath the kitchen ell, in the crawlspace, I lit the propane torch, then tried to guess which pipe was frozen and the best place to apply the heat. With the outside temperature hovering at minus twenty-five, the problem was getting worse by the minute.
To make a long story short, for the next six hours, I lay on my back and watched the little blue flame lick the copper pipes. I stopped only to pee and to change cylinders. (Thank goodness I brought extras.) The readers of Livin' might wonder what goes through one's mind during such an ordeal. To share the experience, I suggest read the next few paragraphs aloud for six hours straight while lying on your back … outside … during January.
C'mon, Baby. C'mon, Baby. Come to Papa. You can do it, Baby. Just relax and feel the soothing heat of the propane. Oh, feels good, doesn't it? Makes you want to release that frigid water and let it flow. C'mon, Baby. Hey, batterbatterbatter.
I cannot believe I am doing this. I mean, I'm a grown-up. I have grey hair. I'm clean and very polite. I'm nice to animals, so why am I lying on my back in a cramped, dusty crawl space beneath an old farmhouse. What did I do wrong? OK, that, but what else?
Are the Patriots playing tomorrow? Is today Saturday? Where are the Patriots in the standings? Have the playoffs started yet? What are the teams in the Eastern Division? What was the lineup for the 1975 Red Sox?
C'mon you miserable piece of copper, friggin' scumbag pipe. Gimme a gurgle, just a little gurgle so I know something's going on in there. Are you freezing up on me as fast as I thaw you? You wouldn't do that, would you? No you wouldn't, because that would make me very angry, and I will start banging on you with a crescent wrench just to cause you pain.
So why didn't I hire a plumber who knows what he is doing? Why? Because I am stupid, because I am stubborn, because I am cheap, and because I am a guy, and guys are supposed to be competent in matters of the house. What kind of man can't thaw the pipes in his own house?
Please let me hear a gurgle. Just a little one. C'mon one little gurgle for Papa. Please?
Let's be rational. If I can't get the pipes thawed, they will burst. My stupidity and stubbornness will cost me ten times what it costs to do things right. I am so stupid. I am so stupid. I'm stupid to be living in this stupid state where stupid water freezes in stupid pipes.
The sweetest sound in the world is, at first, imperceptible, a baby's burp. It is followed by a sucking sound, then a gasp for air. Then slurping, sweet slurping. Upstairs, the first spurts of rusty water are coming out of the tap. Water. The essence of life. Restored to the home. We are saved. Hallelujah!
I yell to open all the faucets. I crawl triumphantly (if that's possible) out into the sunlight. Inside, the taps are gushing-the kitchen sink, the bathtub, the shower, the bathroom sink. There's a symphony of flowing water. The theme music from Rocky wells in the background.
It was, I say with the right stuff, a little harder than anticipated. I turn off my torch with a ceremonial puff, tip my hat, and head back to the truck, each step producing a loud scrunch. There's a noticeable swagger to my waddle. I showed those damn pipes who was boss.
One Step Consulting
100 Gilead Brook Road
Randolph, Vermont 05060
updated 29 November 2004 : 9:53 (m) Caspar (Pacific) time
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