Waiting like most summer mornings for my friend to finish chores, I sat in the dirt under his cottage watching his father assemble a septic line. Hunched and filthy, the father grinned. With a level to the pipe, he pointed at the bubble and said, “Remember boys: it don’t flow up.”
At 11, I had little use for this lesson. I saw the brass toilet flange poking through the floor, the sections of new PVC, the fresh dirt where the line disappeared. I saw the product of his work, the outside of the pipe. I’d heard tell of the old pipe’s recent and catastrophic failure and knew this grinning, level-wielding man had dealt with that, sans audience. But only in a detached way did I understand that in there actual crap would flow. That he had made it so. I wanted a bike ride and hanging around during chores was part of the deal. The real excitement under the cottage was the novelty of sanctioned swearing; the real lesson, a confirmation that fathers were a strange breed—this one especially. His enjoyment, his amusement, were beyond me. In my experience, the stuff to flow in that pipe was gone the moment the toilet flushed.
This was, of course, why the man had grinned. Some quality-time under the house to show his son how it really was. How nobody above the floorboards gave a crap, so long as they could. Translated, “Remember boys, it don’t flow up,” meant “just wait ‘til it’s your turn.”
At 24, the lesson landed. Most instructional, it turned out, was the spray. The ancient vent pipe I’d tapped to install a second bathroom in the old house I had just bought was completely backed up. Here I was, liberal arts degree complete, fleeing books and papers to put hands to work, to learn by experience. I’d done the bathroom myself. People even paid me for such work. So, when the sink stopped and sewage washed into the tub, I knew I could fix it. I was experienced.
After failing with the plunger, snake, Drano, and (in messy defiance of the lesson in gravity on which this essay is based) the shop-vac, I found the cause. The house’s drain pipe had a bend, or jog, or elbow-type thing where it passed through the first floor into the basement. Above, my new bathroom had washed a century of rust into that jog, blocking transmission of further effluence. It neither flowed up, nor down. Above the jog, eight long feet of 4-inch pipe filled with “it.”
My father knew. Not specifically. He didn’t see the problem with the rust; I did. I was experienced. But he knew when the house was gutted six months earlier that removing all the old pipes was smart, or as he put it, “What I’d do if I were you.” To a 24-year-old with experience, such words are anathema. Neither plumber nor remodeler, what did he know? He’d only owned dozens of buildings in his life. I had cut out most of the old plumbing, but left the culprit section precisely for the reason it later failed: that jog made it a nightmare to get out. I left it in the wall, remodeled the old bathroom, and installed my new one above.
So, the spray. Unclogging attempts exhausted, I accepted that the pipe would have to come out. I opened the fresh Sheetrock, put Saws-All to pipe-steel, and pressed the button. Out it came. With fire-hose force, sewage streamed against walls, floor and ceiling, and, of course, against me, standing with one foot braced on the toilet lid against the saw’s reciprocations. Behind, out of range, my father grinned. The blade went deeper, the saw got heavier, the wads of paper shooting from the cut-open steel thwacked my glasses harder. He grinned more. And after I cut through, pried loose the still-full pieces and wrestled them out the window, I stood panting, dripping, and he laughed right at me. Then he put on gloves, loaded the pieces on a truck and took them away.
He still likes to tell this story, particularly at Thanksgiving dinner. Some smile uncomfortably or ignore him. But the fathers love it. “Ha! Welcome to the club,” they say, before telling their own story. And remember: it don’t flow up.
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