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Tuesday, June 19, 2007


A common feature of kitchens in older Montana houses is a trapdoor in the floor. This is not because of Indians or cyclones, but because one needs access to the plumbing and most older houses are built on crawl spaces. (More modern houses might either have basements or be built on slabs.) The door is in the kitchen because that floor is generally not carpeted and, I suppose, that’s most likely where there was earliest plumbing.

This house has crawlspace but also what I call “stoop space,” that is, a hole under the kitchen deep enough to accommodate the water heater and the floor furnace, which help to keep that space warm in winter. Digging that hole was a bit of a disaster, since it’s clear that it caused a shift in the ground that sank the kitchen sills in spite of their foundations and cracked the slab floor of the attached garage as well as caving some of the driveway along the house.

Gumbo or caleche dirt as we have here has the unfortunate quality of expanding and contracting, depending on how wet it is. Houses have a hard time staying square so that doors don’t fit their trapezoidal frames most of the time. When the weather conditions are exactly the same as they were when the door was installed, everything works like a charm. Otherwise, it binds here and gapes there. When it is dry, it is like cement, but when it is wet it’s like sticky pudding.

This house was flooded twice from underneath because of frozen broken pipes, the last time just a while before I bought it. Everything stored down in that hole was floated around: paint cans, lampshades, storm windows -- the people who have lived here were likely to be old ranch wives who found “under the house” a good place for storage. (One local man, cleaning out his long-deceased father’s house, found his grandfather’s historic business papers by the barrel-full under there.)

The old lady who lived here the last time went down into the crawl space for some reason (it had a ceiling light) but the trapdoor fell down. It was too heavy for her to push up so she just stayed down there, without panic. It was late in the day when her children became worried and finally figured out where she was.

I was going up and down once and the cats followed me down the hole. There are steep narrow stairs, which is better than any trapdoor access I ever had before, and they were very interested to see what all was down there, even in the remotest dark corners. Preoccupied, I didn’t “count cats” (there are two) before I shut the trapdoor. After an hour or so, I wondered where they were and pulled up the door. There they sat, side-by-side, at the bottom of the stairs, calmly waiting just like that old lady, but their eyes were big and round.

The east side of this house once had a tree growing next to it, so close that eventually it began to crowd and collapse the foundation on that side. It might have been at that point that the wall was rebuilt and reinforced, eliminating a door but adding a picture window which is one of the assets of this place, though I would like to eventually replace it with French doors, which are more practical with modern insulation, esp. if I can built a sun porch into the angle of house and garage, though it will be more of a shade porch for summer. The stoop space had evidently been intended to become a full cellar, but ran into the root system of that tree, whose roots suddenly began to sprout after the flooding!

After Bob divorced me, I lived in a two story yellow house in East Glacier that belonged to the woman who now lives just east of me here in Valier. It had always had sewer problems, even though it had a cement root cellar accessed through the kitchen floor trapdoor. But it was dry while I was there and I cleaned it all out. That first winter there was a cold snap and my plumbing froze. I went down to Browning and borrowed the plumber’s pot that Bob used to boil out bear skulls. If I ran it a while in the evening, that kept the root cellar warm enough to protect the pipes. But I had to be cautious about carbon monoxide. At the little house I lived in before I married Bob, the crawl space was just that and I lowered an electric heater with an extension cord into it when the pipes began to get too cold.

Late last week the pilot light on my water heater went out. I just left it out, testing to see whether I could get by for the summer without gas. I could. Just like camping, heat the dish water on the stove. Take cold showers. Ignore the need to wash anything else. (I take my clothes to the laundromat.) It worked fine. Then we had a very cold and rainy day and I wished for a hot shower, so I went down with a box of kitchen matches, read the directions about three times, and failed to get it lit. Had to call the gas man, who came promptly and thought it was a great atrocity not to have hot water! He’s the guy who’s building the huge house on the SW corner of town and he told me all about it. “Only 2,000 square feet,” he said, and when I forecast many strong winds, he assured me that he grew up in Fairfield on a ranch so windy that they had to put in power poles to tie their young windbreak trees upright, or they blew flat. He’s a young, cheerful, energetic, intelligent guy who longs for the day his wife can move up from Fairfield to live with him in the new house. He sold the ranch.

What the gas man didn’t know is that hot water heaters are one of the major bugaboos of my life. When I was young, our Portland house had the old fashioned kind of water heater with a gas-heated copper spiral next to a tank. One lit the water heater with a match -- no pilot light. I always got the order wrong, so there was a bit of gas buildup -- which would horrify today’s people -- and once I exploded my bangs off. Luckily, I wear glasses. I was terrified, convinced that I almost died. But my mother didn’t like having to run down to the basement to turn the thing on and off (it was a proper basement) and, anyway, she felt that being afraid was NOT acceptable. So when I refused to light the heater, she smacked me with a yardstick, following me all the way down, until I did it. (It’s part of my counter-phobic syndrome: that is, going towards anything that scares me, which serves me well.) I expect that’s the real reason I was thinking about doing without hot water for the summer. One’s subconscious is quite cunning. A kind of crawl space.


Peter said...

A now-deceased aunt of mine had a house (built by my father) with a crawlspace, and once she asked me to go down into it to get something. For reasons I can't quite explain, I found it creepy and was very happy to leave. And I'm not normally claustrophobic. There's just something not quite right about crawlspaces.

Mary said...

Twice now I've read about murderers finally caught in crawl spaces under houses. But more times than that, I've read about them apprehended in attics or that funny space left above a false ceiling. Secret places... Who knows what's up there or down there? I once knew a guy who often repaired electric connections in hanging ceilings by pushing up the acoustic tiles and working above the grid. He bought small plastic dinosaurs and left them up there when he was through, just to freak out the next guy.

Prairie Mary