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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Unsettled Chapter 34b: "Just Below the Surface" Part II

When we pulled up to the site on that last Saturday morning, the place looked sad to me. The school was gone but for the low foundation wall marking where it had been. The sky was gray but not the cold gray that had brought the snow on Monday. It was a good twenty degrees warmer now—warm enough to work without gloves. Michigan is like that in April when the ground is soggy and the air feels clean as damp sheets hung on the line. The only thing missing was some sunshine. Searching the sky for a break in the clouds, I felt just the slightest spit of rain.

“Did you feel that?” I asked, holding my palm toward the sky.

“What? Rain?” Dave said.

“It’s not going to rain,” Dad said, passing out tools, “That’s just dew.”

“Dew from dark clouds,” Dave added.

“Looks to me like it could rain,” I said as we stepped over the block wall.

The fact is it didn't matter what kind of weather was in store. It was the last day to finish this job, and Dave and I were eager to be done with it. Dad was upbeat as ever.

“Well, boys what do you want to do first the wall or the soil pipe?”

“Let’s do the wall first so we don’t have to lift the pipe over it.” Dave said.

“Good thinking, Dave," Dad said, "That’s usin’ the ol’ noggin.’”

Dad was not one to heap praise, but in the morning, on the front-end of work when spirits were high, he'd take lighthearted note whenever a good idea spilled from our noggins. Likewise if we did or said something dumb, he may jokingly call us knuckleheads, but either remark would be shared in good humor and we took it as such. But at the tale-end of a hard day's work, our noggin-to-knucklehead ratio seemed to get worse and worse, and Dad's less jovial side lurked just below the surface. Because of this, we did our best listen as Dad took the wrecking bar and demonstrated how to gently dismantle the wall.

"Take the bar and stick it down in the hole like this. Then pull it toward you without breaking the block.”

To our surprise the blocks that had held firm for all those years broke easily out of place now that the weight above was gone. Sometimes two or three blocks would break free at a time, but a tap on the mortar joints with a masonry hammer broke them free and snapped off the clumps of hard mortar.

After weeks of pulling nails, this was fast and rewarding work, and in no time we were loading blocks onto the trailer. Cement block was, of course, much heavier than lumber, and with just two layers loaded, the tires on the trailer were beginning to bulge. Dad sent Dave alone to empty the first load while he and I stayed back and finished pulling down the last corner of the wall.

Before Dave returned, we moved on to the task of pulling apart the cast iron soil pipe. With a hammer and chisel, Dad worked out the poured lead ring that sealed the inside bell of the first joint. Then he dug our the old oakum packed below the surface of the lead. (Oakum is an ancient fiber made of jute bark originally used to seal joints between planks in the wooden ship-building process.)

“Tom, bring over that five-gallon bucket to put the scraps of lead in and toss the oakum in the trash pile. We’ll melt this down and use it again when we lay this pipe under the house, but we can't reuse the oakum.”

“You mean we’re going to use these pipes again?," I asked. "That's kinda gross.”

“It’s just soil pipe. Perfectly good shape. Hold that end,”

He pulled the sections apart and looked inside, then leaned the opening toward my face for a peek. It was empty of whatever I feared and didn't even smell bad."

“See perfectly good to reuse. If the toilet tank is doin’ its job it takes everything all the way to the street with each flush."

“Still. I didn’t think we'd reuse this stuff.” I said again.

“Do you know how much soil pipe runs at the lumber yard?” Dad asked.

I could not begin to guess how much it cost. (To this day, I couldn’t guess because everything soon went to PVC. The pipe in this picture pretty much replaced the cast iron soil pipe used for centuries.) The only time I ever worked with cast iron pipe (other than repairs) was this day with Dad and the day we re-laid the same pipe under our house.) But whatever the cost was is was higher than elbow grease which was the price of the pipe in hand. There was well over a hundred feet of it configured just above the ground around us. We kept talking as we took it apart length by length.

“Is it called soil pipe because it runs along the ground?” I asked.

“No. It’s called soil pipe even when it’s vertical and no where near the dirt.”

“I figured… you know soil… as in dirt.

“More like dog dirt.” Dad laughed, and indeed, “dog dirt” is term Mom always used when we had to scoop up Duke’s messes in the yard (when he was still alive). Then Dad asked abruptly, “Haven’t you ever heard someone say, ‘He soiled his pants.’?”

“No, but if I did, I’d think it meant like he got his knees dirty crawling in the garden.”

“No. It’s not that kind of soil. ‘Soiled your pants’ means you had an accident in them.”

“Like a baby diaper?”

“Yes, but you wouldn’t say it about a baby ‘cause that’s not an accident—that’s planned. This is when you almost make it to the john but not quite. Hasn’t that ever happened to you?”

“No. Not that end, but sometimes walking home from school I’d get all the way to our driveway without even thinking I had to pee, and then between the sidewalk and the porch I had to go so bad I’d barely make it to the toilet. Why is that?”

”It’s all in the head, a mental impulse. We can control it to a certain extent all the time, but sometimes if you’re overdue the slightest thought of it flips the switch too soon. That has happened to everybody, but that is not nearly as bad as when it happens the other way.” He paused and shook his head at a thought somewhere deep in his mind that narrowed his eyes. “I was in 3rd grade, sitting in the second row four desks back, and the last bell of the day was about to ring. The teacher had a rule that no one could go to the bathroom after last recess, but I went up to her desk to ask if I could go and she said ‘no.’ I whispered it again, pleading with my eyes, and she said, ‘If you go now, I’ll hold you after school for a half hour.’ Well, I didn’t want to tell her it was number two and I didn’t want to stay after school, so I went back to my desk and clenched my butt like a vice as I watched the clock.”

“Squirmin’?” I asked.

“Afraid to squirm,” he said shaking his head. “Afraid to relax at all. I was sweating bullets. Well, the bell rang and I got up slow and walked out the door, trying to look natural but moving my legs only below the knees, holding everything else tight. The bathroom was downstairs by the boiler room, and I made it down a few steps, but I had to raise my knees and thighs to go down ‘em and once my thighs moved, my clenched cheeks let loose a little. I was losing a battle I couldn't even see, and by the bottom step it was all over but the clean up. I was so mad at that lady. Now really, how could a teacher not know to make an exception when a kid obviously has to go? Well, anyway... that’s what they mean by 'soiling your pants'.”

It was a story I'd never heard. People understandably don't talk about such things, but in light of the work at hand it was an oddly educational conversation between a father and son as they wrestled with heavy old pipe. I remembered it years later as a teacher whenever a student approached me with an earnest plea to take care of urgent business. [Urgent being the key word, as in urge from the Latin urgēre meaning to push.]

Pulling out another ring of lead and oakum, we broke apart another section of pipe.

“So that’s why they call it soil pipe?” I said quite seriously.

“That’s why they call it soil pipe,” he replied.

Some conversations simply lead to nothing else to say and we worked in silence for quite a while until Dave pulled up with the pick-up and empty trailer. His wipers were on but until that moment I did not notice that the dark sky was spitting again. It began raining a little harder as we hooked heavy blocks in our curled fingers and walked with ape arms stretched toward the ground to the front of the trailer then stacked the blocks carefully into place. We were far from being done, but it was the beginning of the end, the start of what would surely be our final load.
Part III of "Just Below the Surface" coming Wednesday.


Anonymous quilly said...

As a teacher I tell my students, "This is my bathroom policy ..." Then I tell them that I cannot read minds. If their problem is urgent, they need to say so. That's all -- just "urgent". I also tell them that if they abuse the word, it will cease to have meaning. In 10 years of teaching I hear it maybe once a year.

Btw, I read all of your posts, I just don't always comment.

24/10/09 3:32 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

That is an excellent way to explain and maintain the meaning of your policy. I know as teachers, we are sometimes concerned that kids will take advantage, etc. But those are patterns that can be dealt with soon enough. But I really like your approach and may just pass it on to my staff. =)

Thanks for reading here, Quilly.

24/10/09 6:12 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I always "revise and tweak" after posting and if you'll re-read the second to the last paragraph, you'll see how you helped me say better what I'd originally written. Thanks!

24/10/09 6:22 PM  
Blogger the walking man said...

It's easy to see you all were never herded as students by nuns...and that is all that needs be said about that.

25/10/09 6:46 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I'm laughing because I can imagine what you mean by this (and I appreciate your not spelling it out), but I have heard the legends about the cruel nuns from your frind Bill O'Reiley (ha ha, I'm joking about him being your friend, but he also went to school with nuns). I am not opposed to well-disciplined classrooms, but when it comes to "really having to go" I think there needs to be a way to signal an exception to the rule or there will be stories like my dad's.

25/10/09 8:52 AM  

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