A writer is one who obsessively tells, who can’t help sharing personal details, who reveals secrets, who tattles, spills, babbles, blabs without regard to (or more accurately), in spite of the potential consequences.
So yeah, on one level, even while I was typing the post below, I knew I was tempting Fate by implying that, however inconvenient our current South Texas cold snap might be, it was small potatoes compared with arctic blasts of yesteryear.
While I was crawling around under the house this morning at 5:30 it began to sink in that I’d unnecessarily irritated the spirits, and I was immediately and still remain sorry about that. I re-acknowledge their mighty powers and promise not to diss them in future screeds until this all blows over and I temporarily forget it happened.
The good thing about this morning is that it gives me the opportunity to extol the virtues of a two-year-old Christmas present from my father-in-law, whose virtues I have long been wanting to extol. It’s a little flat plastic gizmo with three tiny but amazingly bright lights on one end, a switch and a strong clip that fastens to the underside of your baseball cap. I laughed when I received it, but stopped laughing and started admiring once its benefits during nighttime barbecuing became obvious. Or fishing.
Or crawling around under a house in 20-degree pre-dawn darkness with a hair dryer in one hand, gauging the relative coldness of various water pipes with the other. This hat-light gizmo is perfect for that. The hair dryer was a Christmas gift, too, but at first we mistakenly thought Santa just got it for my wife.
Here’s the thing: Past history indicates the mercury only dips down to 20 degrees about once every 10 years or so in our present geographic location some 30 miles south-southwest of Houston. So when certain people build or remodel houses or undertake homemade plumbing projects, they like to think that once in 10 years means the odds are that a particular event might not ever occur again.
These are the kind of people with whom you like to play poker.
For some reason, 20 degrees is just about the exact threshold at which water pipes will burst if precautions aren’t taken. Theoretically, they ought to be able to freeze eventually even at 30 degrees, but they don’t. Knowing bad cold weather was coming, I made a recent visit to a couple of local retail establishments with thoughts of pipe insulation and a couple of space heaters dancing in my head, but all they had left was a couple of space heaters.
I wasn’t entirely bummed about not being able to get the insulation. My 95-year-old house has endured many owners, at least half of whom have apparently felt it necessary to add their particular signature to the Rube Goldberg array of water pipes criss-crossing, emerging and disappearing between the piers and beams. To enclose all of that pipe would require so many tens of yards of insulation that one might conclude it probably won’t ever get down to 20 degrees around here again anyway.
Besides, you can always drip the faucets. See, no matter how cold it gets, your pipes won’t burst as long as each faucet is dripping, however slowly. One catch is that if your sink or tub has both a hot and cold water faucet, both have to contribute to the drip or one of them still could freeze and burst.
So if you’re a cheap bastard who’s always thinking about how big the city water bill will be next time and you try to absolutely minimize the drips before you go to bed, it turns out that when you get up early the next morning to make a pot of coffee, the cold-side faucet quit dripping. You turn it on all the way. Nothing. Son of a bitch!
So it is that you find yourself out in the still of winter under a house with your Christmas hat-light and hair dryer, shooting hot air along a three-foot length of old, very cold cast iron pipe and occasionally shooting some down where your belly has become exposed during the vigorous crawl that brought you to this particular place at this particular time. You’re making a lot of noise whooshing the dryer and grunting and bumping your head and swearing a little, but that’s OK because maybe it’ll wake your wife or your boy and they’ll come out to see what’s going on and then you can ask them if cold water is coming out the faucet yet. But they refuse to wake up, so you stay under the house until you notice that your feet are pretty cold even though nothing else is, and your hat-light reveals you’re just wearing crocks because it was early and you forgot to put on real shoes.
When I got back inside to find real shoes, I could hear the cold water running. Eureka! Score one for the hair dryer.
It was time to bask in the glory of my home-remedy plumbing knowledge, and get that coffee pot going. While it was brewing, I clumped around the house checking the dripology of the rest of the faucets, including those upstairs where the residents still stubbornly refused to awaken.
I went back down, thinking about how wise I was to remember that, when dripping your faucets, you have to drip all of them, both hot and cold. Which is when I remembered the washing machine. Faucets are attached to the back of it, but how the hell do you drip a washing machine? You figure it’ll probably never get cold enough around here for a washing machine to need to be dripped, that’s how.
I prepared to run a large load of no clothes, using cold water only. Check, here came the water. Now a hot load. Nothing, not even a drip. Son of a bitch!
This time it took two extension cords from the garage in order to reach the offending frozen pipe with the right tool for the job. About 7 feet of hot-water pipe was perfectly exposed to the frigid wind that had been howling up under the house for the past day and a half, and now that length of pipe felt like ice. Could Santa’s magic hair dryer overcome all odds and bring happiness to the washing machine before the pipe burst and showered angry ice over all my beautiful wickedness?
It could. And did, after a good 20 minutes of blow-drying. I felt warmth in the pipe within my grasp, then crawled backwards on my belly, gingerly so as not to squash my cell phone, and emerged, weary and webbed with cobs but triumphant, just as the first pink sign of sun made its mark upon the eastern horizon. I went inside and enjoyed the best damn cup of coffee I have ever had. Then I washed several loads of clothes to keep the pipes from freezing up again.
There are 8 million stories in the Texas Outback; this has been one of them.