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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, April 28, 2011

Old house comes with subterranean woes

By Jo E. Prout

I have a little story to tell

     about a little septic tank.

It was sunk deeper than a well,

     a coffin that cost us the bank.

Easter dawned bright and sunny, and it was glorious! By the time worship ended, the sun had retreated and so had my luck. The rain began just after Easter dinner. That was when my husband, Robert, said he was going to dig.

We’ve lived here in our 140-year-old house for five years. We haven’t had the septic tank pumped yet, as we haven’t been able to find it. After the spring thaw, our noses —and the spongy ground leading from the driveway into the playground we call the backyard — let us know the time had come to begin looking for it.

“Why don’t you let the septic suckers dig?” I asked him as he pulled on his muck boots.

“They won’t do it if they can’t find the opening,” he said.

“Surely little old ladies don’t dig for their septic tanks,” I argued.

Never mind what he said back. He went out to dig.

Being a handy guy, with a knack for designing wastewater plants, he figured out where the vent came up from the ground, and where the pipe came out of the house. At the intersection of the two lines, he started digging.

I sat with him for a while in the light rain, wearing the winter coat that I seemingly won’t have to pack away at all this cold year, and avoiding the whining kids indoors who’d been home all week, fighting. Rain was OK.

After a bit, I noticed Robert wasn’t digging a hole, but a ditch.

“Just playing in the sand, like at the beach,” he said. “My hole was filling up and I couldn’t dig anymore.”

“Is that road run-off or the water line causing it to fill in like that,” I said, looking at a watery muck hole.


The ditch didn’t work well enough. He grabbed a long metal bar and kept poking the mud and muck, trying to find the tank.

“What do you call that thing?” I asked eloquently.

“A Metal Bar.” He thinks he’s funny. I didn’t have to dig, so I didn’t mind laughing.

I looked at his shovel and realized, too late, that it was my garden shovel. I had meant to spray paint it bright pink after it turned up under a snow bank earlier this spring, left out by some masculine borrower who could be either my husband or my son. I already label my gloves MOM, but my son has told people they say WOW when he’s swiped them. I thought the pink paint would take away all doubt.

No need for paint now. The shovel broke on Sunday, and so did my little garden spade. Robert quit playing in the mud and came inside, after stacking all the new slate rocks he found for my flowerbed borders. There are some nice, big ones, too. Big enough to break shovels.

On Monday, Robert called the local septic guy. Will came out that day. Robert was gone then, so I had to deal with Will. Out in the rain, of course.

Talking to septic sucking guys really isn’t one of my strengths, but I did all right. Besides being married to the sewer guy, I used to watch Red Green, so I knew all the lingo, like Metal Bar.

I showed him the line-up, the muck hole, and the pipe extending from the house. Will poked around for 10 minutes, looked in the basement, guessed that the tank was buried six feet under, and left, promising to bring an excavator Tuesday morning.

If our guesses were correct, they’d only need the excavator for one hour, and only charge us $150 on top of the tank work, he said. Oh, goody.

Now, I don’t know how you feel about home repairs, but I find that every six months I’m shelling out about $500 for some ridiculous repair of a piece of machinery I’d never heard of, and $150 plus sucking services did not round up to the $2,000 I was worried about. The bill might be painful, but it probably wouldn’t be deadly.

At least the rain stopped for a bit. The kids came home from school and my son asked if he could play in that great puddle in the backyard.

“No! Disgusting! It’s gray water,” I said.

“Oh,” he answered. You could see the wheels turning in his 12-year-old head. “Hey, Clara, d’you want to go jump in the puddle in the back?” he asked his younger sister.

“Go back to school,” I told him.

On Tuesday, Summer came, and the excavator followed. In the heat of July, Will and Joe got the excavator into position and started to dig. In three seconds, less than 12 inches below the surface, they hit concrete.

“It was easy with the excavator,” Joe told me later. Uh-huh.

I was watching from an upstairs window when they found it. I heard him say, “Freakin’ A,” or something similar. It might have been easy with a spoon, too, but the beauty of it was that they dug in the right spot — two feet from Robert’s muck hole.

“I was going in the right direction, then,” Robert said when he saw the hole they left open for him. Yes, dear.

Well, mission accomplished. Here’s your check. Thanks for letting us flush, again.

“We’re only half done, you know,” Robert said later.

“What do you mean?” That check drained part of our tax money, since we had to drain our vacation fund to pay for winter fuel oil and the home-repair fund leaks like a bad valve. That $2,000 number started floating in my head, again. So long, Sedona. Farewell, Fairfax.

“The hole is still filled with water. There’s a clog somewhere.”

By somewhere, he said when I threatened to bean him, he meant that there was a pipe, or three, and he could see one leading to a distribution box and others were supposed to flow from there to a leech field.

“Where’s the leech field?”

“Um, the backyard.” The playground.

“We still have to dig,” Robert said. He said, “We.” I didn’t laugh.

While he digs, I might start advertising a lovely country home, perfect for potential Beekman Boy wannabes. “Plenty already done, but plenty left to do.” One day at a time.

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