Saturday, January 3, 2009

Pipes Filled with Ice

I had to thaw a pipe beneath our kitchen sink two days ago. And so began the winter of our discontent. Chapter three.

Our first winter here, during the 2006-2007 campaign against the cold, was my induction into a special fraternity shared with Maine homeowners. A special breed we are, I learned quickly.

When we bought the house earlier that summer I was told by those with knowledge of such things, that I was destined to have problems with my pipes. I passed off these comments the same way you shrug off someone who tells you to change the oil in your car every 3,000 miles. You hear it passively, more excited about your shiny new car than to hear advice on how to avoid running it into the ground. Hubris, I think it's called.

Well, we had a shiny new house - built in 1850, mind you - but shiny new to someone like me, who had never owned a house. I was more excited about finding a three-hole privy in our barn than about the possibility of frozen pipes, the danger from which was months away.

"Dude, people used to actually shit in these things? Cooool."

Yes, I certainly gave passing thought to the idea of pipes when I went into the basement, but nothing more. I mean, the basement was not a place I ventured to very often. And when I did, it was a cool, musty place that made me sneeze and where pregnant spiders liked to hang out and ensnare my face with their webs.

I certainly remember seeing pipes down there, running along the wall in pairs, joining with others in dark corners, crawling up into the floorboards above or disappearing through walls. There were fat pipes too, but I had no clue what those were. And a lot of valves that appeared as if they had not been turned for years.

So, knowing my luck with machinery and things made of metal, I ignored the pipes altogether, chalking them up as necessary but mysterious workings beyond my small understanding. Like, you know, Slim Jims. Or ships in a bottle.

And so it came to pass that summer turned to fall, the leaves changed and then fell. The ground turned hard and the grass stopped needing mowing. And on a particularly nasty day in late November, I got THE CALL.

Corrine, downstairs, yelped and I came running.

"There's no water in the bathroom!"

And, with my acute sense of awareness and a striking ability to face an emergency clear-mindedly, I said, "Huh?" And I cocked my head to the side the way a dog does when you ask him if he wants a beer.

"The pipes are frozen!"

This sets a man in motion if nothing else does. When you are told that the pipes are frozen, the first thing that springs to mind is Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure wading waist deep, the seawater surging higher, frantically looking for a way out of the doomed ship. You are sure this is your fate.

Your hand grabs the doorknob to the door leading down into the spider incubator and you wonder "Shit, if I have to step into water will I get electrocuted from the furnace?"

Seriously. It brings to mind a CNN crew on your front yard interviewing your neighbors.

"He was a great guy. I mean, I just talked to him yesterday when he was pouring K1 into his oil tank."

Anyway, I ripped the door open, despite the imminent drowning that awaited me, and I dashed down the stairs. There wasn't a drop of water anywhere, of course. I hurried to the general area of the bathroom, which is to say I had to stop and draw a picture in my head of the first floor, and then trace my steps to that spot. Of course, had I just, you know, FOLLOWED THE FUCKING PIPES ABOVE MY HEAD I would have gotten there quicker.

I knew somehow that thawing
the pipes meant using a blow dryer. (Technically, if you're from Maine, it would be "unthawing", the same way we call a driveway a dooryard. Or foot riggin for shoes. We get it if the rest of the world doesn't) .

Now, mind you, I am still in 911 mode, thinking that at any moment all of the pipes within the house would explode. So I am rushing, my breath puffing white clouds, my fingers aching, assured that this is how people were found dead from hypothermia. I raced upstairs and did the best ER impression ever, pulling Nurse Corrine aside by her arm. She was standing at the head of the stairs, obviously listening for the sound of me drowning or burning up from electrocution.

"Are you mad, woman? Find the space heaters. Stat!"

I found the hair dryer and plummeted down into the freezing bowels of our house once more. I hurried to beneath the bathroom and found the outlet in a corner. I plugged it in and turned it on. My eyes fell upon the place where the pipes turned 90 degrees and up into the floorboards of the bathroom.

I went to it in a rush and yanked the cord right out of the wall.

"Heinous Mother of the Invisible Bile Monkeys!" I shouted.

I needed an extension cord. And I knew, I JUST KNEW, that I was using all the extension cords in our house because every room only comes with ONE OUTLET.

I raced back upstairs nevertheless, found a cord in our bedroom and nearly destroyed the lamp into which it was plugged.

"To hell with light! Save the basement!"

Nurse Corrine was hovering in the bathroom door. I pointed and shouted, just before disappearing back into the basement, "Stand guard and check the water every three minutes!"

Not sure where I got three minutes. In the heat of the moment, in instances of high drama, it is best to shout important-sounding things to put at ease the harried minds of the women folk.

Corrine scowled but nodded in affirmation. She is my rock, I'm telling you.

I plummeted again, straining my ears for the telltale eruption of metal, the crushing wave of water I was certain would come down upon me at any moment.

I plugged the blow dryer into the cord, the cord into the wall, turned the power on high and aimed it at anything that looked cold or frozen or long and filled with water.

I brushed the hot air onto the pipes as if I were painting. I focused it on the bent places that I was later informed were called "joints." It's important to know the technical details of these things, I find.

My arm started to get tired. My legs ached from dancing in place to get circulation of blood to the toes. The cobwebs were dotted with dead spiders and blew lazily from the frantic waving of the blow dryer.

Corrine called down, three minutes to the mark.


"Damn the copper gods!"

I trained the blow dryer more intently, the nozzle barely off the cold pipes. I waved more crazily, thinking that a greater exertion of my energy would transfer into the blow dryer and out of the nozzle.

Three minutes later, "Nuthin!"

"Hyperbole of Saint Ignatius Toad Kissers!" I roared.

And then a horrifying realization. As I looked at the parallel pipes, it dawned on me that there are cold water pipes and hot water pipes and that I hadn't a clue which was not working.

"Which pipes aren't working?!" I shouted at the ceiling approximately where Corrine's feet would be.

"The bathroom pipes!"

"No shit! Which faucet won't turn on?!"

"The one to the sink!"


There was a pause. I heard the tinkling of water and hope rose suddenly.

"The COLD!"

So the hot water was working, then, I told myself and then aimed the blow dryer. But then quickly lowered it.

"Left or right?!" I harangued.

"What the hell does that mean?!"


"Oh. Cold is on the right!"

I had been warming the hot water pipes for the last 10 minutes.

So, needless to say, after a furious assault on the other pipes for a few minutes, I heard the magical words from above.

"Got it!"

I turned the blow dryer off. I unplugged everything. I trudged back upstairs.

That night, after a day in which the stress of potential more frozen pipes that meant checking the water every three minutes, Corrine and I slunk upstairs tired and beaten. We turned the corner and Corrine made her way around to her side of the bed.


Yes?" I said, and yawned, absently scratching the small patch of dead skin on my frostbitten fingers.

"You forgot the extension cord to the light."

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