Tuesday, December 08, 2015


Not my niece.

The phone rang, startling me, since it was barely light and I rarely get phone calls.  It was the post office.  “Do you know a person named  ___________?”  I did.  It was my niece. 

“We have a package here from this person and it’s leaking blood.”  I was still in pajamas, hadn’t had coffee yet.  My mind leaped to the CSI series I watch and I pictured some bloody human part, hopefully not my niece’s head.  Which enemy of mine had been so embittered and how had I offended them?

“I’ll be right down as soon as I pull on my britches.”  They weren’t open yet so I rang the back doorbell.  The crew that would soon go out across the country gravel roads was standing in front of their sorting tables, putting letters in pigeonholes, but they stopped to see what I looked like.  The postmaster, a woman, led me to the package which was indeed leaking blood.  I had to wait while she shot it with the bar code gun.  Then a few more moments while she explained why they called me and told about other interesting cases, like the post office in Florida where a package had unwrapped itself and was traveling around the room on its own: it was an alligator.

I offered to open the package where they could watch so they could be reassured that the contents were not human parts, but they just wanted me to take it and leave.  So I did.  My niece had sent a lovely assortment of food and included a few pounds of custom hamburger from her very own cows.  It had bacon ground into it. which did not make it less bloody.  She had included some freezer packs, but the Thanksgiving vacation had meant a four day delay, far exceeding the pack.  The hamburger was now cat food.  It had come straight from refrigeration, not frozen, and wasn’t in a secondary plastic sack.  She had packed during breakfast on the way to work so she could mail it in town and her littlest boy was in a state of distress over something unintelligible.  She’s a college professor but sometimes that doesn’t help.  (Her husband is in the timber industry.)

My father  and brother also took their MS at OSU.

She considers herself “rural” and lives on a little farmlet, but rural in the Willamette Valley while working at a university and operating her own bovine artificial insemination business is not the same as living in a collapsing Montana village on SSI, which many of us are in this town.  People where she lives have enough population to justify more generous hours and more specialized services.

This little incident was about like my whole previous week has gone, a mix of icky, funny, and pretty serious.  I was taking a shower when I realized the water was rising around my ankles instead of going down the drain.  Since there were tiny bits of TP in it, the deduction of where it came from was not reassuring.  I called Corky and we conspired to install a cleanout in my crawl space.  That worked for a day or two, then it didn’t.  So we unseated the toilet and ran a snake down the pipe.  Same results.  I was reading all YouTubed advice.  I now know that every p-trap must be accompanied by a vent.   I still don't know what's going on with my traps and vents.  What I like about living in an old house is that the problems are concrete, sometimes literally, though they’re still no less ambiguous than "what is the nature of beauty" or "can democracy ever really work."

Corky and I tried a thing that runs water from the city water lines under pressure through the sewer line.  Didn’t work or maybe it didn’t quite work well enough.

Finally, it was necessary to call for backup.  Cody came from Conrad the next day, got right to work, and was so big, so reassuring and calm that I felt better already, in spite of the news that the problem was in the main sewer line out to the street.  The house was the same age as the town, roughly a century, and at the time the infrastructure was laid, a popular material was orangeburg. This house was built in the Thirties.  The estimated useful life of orangeburg is a little more than sixty years. 

During the industrial age in the United States, a unique type of conduit evolved, one whose wall was made of ground cellulose (wood) fibres bound together with a special water resistant adhesive, and, thereafter, impregnated with liquefied coal tar pitch. The first known use of "fibre" pipe was for water transmission: a 1.5-mile pipeline in the Boston area, which stayed in service for 60+ years (1865-1927). Nothing more happened with the commercial manufacturing of this “pipe” until the late 1800s … when it was made, and used, exclusively as a “conduit” … not yet as a pipe.

It turns out that the big roto-rooter augers are likely to unravel the cellulose layers from inside, which complicates everything, esp. if the blockage is root-balls which are likely to have spiny bits.  So it didn’t work.  I called the town maintenance people -- now reduced to one person, Leo -- and they dug out half the line to the street.  It didn’t help.

We're getting smarter.  These are cleanouts.

So I called Jerry Sullivan, who was actually tied up reworking a village-wide water feed that had been installed by a major corporate contractor.  The town is south of us.  There were fourteen leaking connections and Jerry had fixed two so far, after a couple of days of work.  But he came to see about excavating the rest of my line.  Working from the street-side, he got things moving.  Jerry is an enormous pink-cheeked Irishman whose great-grandfather emigrated from Ireland in the time of revolution and famine.  With his two little sons, he came up on the steam boats from New Orleans, and made his living as a teamster on the Whoop-Up trail in its earliest days.  Jerry’s dad and Corky’s dad both drove school buses in Browning, a modern derivation of the same work.  The great-grandfather married the daughter of a ferryman and stayed.  He’s buried in Dupuyer on that little knoll just outside of town where the wild strawberries grow.  Jim Welch’s dad is buried in the same place.  Our history here is recent, not much older than our infrastructure.

When Jerry talks about plumbing, he illustrates everything with a kind of dancing sign-talk -- the water comes rushing in, the root-balls go tumbling, the progress is side-stepped across the room, all with a dynamic running narrative that had me gleefully laughing though clearly I’m going to have to borrow a thousand dollars somewhere and pee in a bucket for longer than is comfortable.

Service was restored and I came back to my keyboard thinking about big competent good-natured family men and how they create economic niches for themselves that families can depend upon, even as the times change, often receding as much as advancing.  None of these guys are college grads.  All of them have local roots. They own their own businesses and set their own hours, which means mostly sunup to sundown.   Their style is like escapees from a John Ford movie:  boisterous, effective, and protective.  They tell great stories.

I just wish that were true of my ancient orangeburg sewer pipes.  This morning the sewer was blocked again.

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