The soil pipe from the old school was not stacked beside the barn but rather arranged side by side like dozens of pencils in a kitchen junk drawer. The summer months held the assortment in place with grass and weeds; autumn buried it in leaves that were pressed flat under the weight of winter snow. By the sunny days of spring, the pipes lie hidden beneath a mat of dried leaf-mâché
in the shape of the iron beneath it.
The matted leaves peeled off in sheets the day we lifted the pipes from where they’d settled slightly in the earth. Feeling their cold weight brought a vague sense of déjà vu. It had been over a year since that rainy night when Dave and Dad and I unloaded the pipes beside the barn. Now Dad and I were carrying them length by length from the barn to the foundation we had poured in the fall. Winter had brought no progress to the house, but Dad had high hopes for the five months ahead.
Inside that concrete border, beginning in the east corner, we laid the pipe out like giant Tinker Toys
stretching to imaginary places, connected loosely with iron couplers of various shapes and angles..
“This is where the bathroom will be,” Dad explained, “Right inside the back door so we won’t track up the house when we come in from outside.”.
“What back door?” I asked..
“Right here. This is the back door.” Dad stood outside the foundation and pretended to open a door to our walk-out basement, then stepped over the foundation, closed the imaginary door and opened another one to the right. “And this is the door to the bathroom. This pipe here goes to the stool but it needs to “Y” over here to the laundry room sink . Then we’re going to “T” off that for the vent stack sink and shower.”.
“Shower? There’s a shower in here.” I asked, surprised because it was not a very large space and our basement bathroom in Roseville had no shower..
“Yep. Gotta have a shower down here. Right here in the corner.” Dad smiled as he pretended to step into a shower and demonstrate that there was ample room..
I did not know it at the time, but the “Gotta have a shower down here” line foreshadowed
plans Dad had not yet shared with the family..
We continued to lay-out pipe from that east bathroom corner to the center of the south-east wall where more junctions were loosely connected then the route turned toward the west corner of the foundation, but we ran out of pipe. All that remained were a few odds and ends with no place to go in the configuration. Dad took a small notebook from his shirt pocket and sketched out the pipe layout from start to finish, and on a second page he jotted down whatever fittings and lengths were still needed. At the bottom of the page he wrote “20 lbs lead and oakum.”.
“Aren’t we going to use the lead we kept from the school?” I asked..
“Sure, but we’ve got more joints to fill than we took apart at the school. ”.
The hardware store was a few miles east on 23 Mile Road. This was many years before national home improvement chains had sprung up in every market. There was no Home Depot
, just local hardware stores and lumberyards that were Dad’s favorite place to wander aisles. But on this day we did no wandering. We got the items on the list—threw in an extra bell-and-spigot reducer for good measure, and headed back to the site..
Our first order of business was building a fire to melt the lead. In time, bon fires at fall and winter gatherings near the barn would became a tradition, but in the first several years of settling the land, the only fires we built were for burning stumps, brush, etc. Likewise, this day’s fire was for work, but it was not so much an open fire as it was a little foundry that Dad made out of old cement block and cast iron grates from the school. The grate was high enough to stoke several logs beneath it while holding a black kettle on top. The kettle looked like a small witch’s caldron especially as it began to melt the scraps of lead we dropped inside.
From a corner in the barn, Dad brought out an old wooden box full of tongs, and hand-hammered ladles, and chisel-like tools for tamping down the oakum..
“These were your Great Grandpa Collinge’s
,” Dad explained. “You remember he was a plumber by trade.”.
“I remember a picture of him at Grandma’s house. He was standing with a bunch of plumbers in front of old trucks.”
“That was a company picture taken back in the Thirties.”
“It was tacked to a beam above the bottom step a few feet from the furnace in the basement.” I said.
But Dad had drifted off in thought as he watched the lead melt in the kettle, and I drifted off, too.
I began thinking about Grandma's basement where that picture hung and how scary it was to go down that old stairway. The soft wood of each step had been gently carved out by the traffic of half a century, worn round under foot the way an ox yoke
shapes to the rhythm and friction of shoulder-hide.
I remembered standing on the last step above which the picture was tacked. From there I’d study the dark recesses of that low-ceilinged space in the dim light of the one bare bulb that came on by the switch at the top of the stair. The other light bulbs had to be pulled 'on' by a string.
There was only one reason I ever considered going downstairs by myself: the toilet in the corner. Being a plumber, Grandpa Collinge had added the luxury of a second stool in the basement when they built the place in 1910. This was not a bathroom
, mind you; there was no wall or door--just an old toilet and wall-mount sink primarily for the men of the house (or for Grandma on laundry day if she didn’t want to run all the way up to the second floor). Sometimes if the upstairs bathroom was locked, we boys went down to use that corner toilet in the basement. But if I was alone, I’d stand there on that bottom step, trying to decide if I wanted to go further. The bare cement floor was swept clean but blackened by coal dust and the soles of Grandpa’s brogans
through the years.
That was why I knew that old photograph so well. It had sometimes given me the courage to step beyond it to that far corner with the white porcelain stool. As I grew older, I sometimes ventured into the other dark corners of that musty space. There was a coal bin beside the furnace, an old wash tub under the steps where Grandpa kept the gold fish from his garden pond through the winter; the name “Bud” carved into a floor joist (from my great Uncle, Grandma Spencer’s brother). I even remembered seeing some of these very tools on a bench along the far wall, but I didn’t know what they were.
“I think that picture is still tacked to that beam,” Dad said.
“It is. I saw it there this summer.” I mused out loud, then took a deep breath and said to Dad, “Hard to believe it’s been two years since Grandpa Collinge died.”
“Has it been two years?” Dad asked. “I guess it has.... It was just before that, the last time he was out here, that he gave me these tools. At the time, I didn’t know whether or not I’d need them. They’re pretty old-school. Everything is going to PVC and even the cast iron soil pipe now has neoprene compression fittings. Don’t have to use lead anymore.”
“Did you know that the symbol for lead on the periodic table
of elements is Pb
?” I asked.
“I did,” Dad replied. [Though he had never gone beyond Junior College, he had been an excellent student, and in his adult life had continued taking many classes in math and science as he worked his way up the ranks at Bell.]
“I learned this is Latin class not science," I clarified. "The Pb
stands for plumbum
and that’s where we get the word for plumbing. It’s also why we say 'plumb bob' for the tool we use to make sure a door is plumb
—from the lead weight at the end of the string.”
“I did not know that.” said Dad, “But it makes sense. See, you are learning something in Latin after all."
[I had complained about having to take two years of Latin. Actually, the requirement was two years of any language for college-bound students, but I had already taken a year of Spanish in 9th grade and I wanted to try something else. My two years in Latin were an interesting introduction to language and etymology and ancient history, but at the time, I had no plans to be a teacher—much less an English teacher—and I saw no practical use for the class.]
"The Romans were known for their lead plumbing," I continued. "They used it make wine kettles and to run water to the rich people's houses. Mr. Young [my Latin teacher] says it was lead poisoning
that prompted the fall of the Roman Empire."
"Well I'll be.
Never heard that before. But there's no need to worry about that here. This is all soil
pipe. None of it supplies water, and besides the lead never touches the inside of this pipe. The oakum holds it back. The lead merely solders the fittings to hold them snug.
[Dad and Mom both said "Well I'll be" in astonishment. By rising the inflection on "I'll" and dropping in on "be," the three words expressed a complete thought like "You don't say." In all the years of hearing them say "Well I'll be," it never struck me as an abbreviated version of WIBD.]
In the hours to come, I learned the basics of a very old trade
. We tapped oakum in the joints to seal the gap and stop the molten lead from going through. Waited the lead to cool and form a solid joint then move on to the next junction in the pipe that stretched across the sandy soil beneath what would someday be the basement floor. All the while we trenched out slightly more and more beneath the pipe to achieve the grade Dad had calculated to allow gravity and water to do their work.
Only one mistake was made that day. Dad had miscalculated a bend in the pipe under the bathroom. I had suggested we simply add another elbow to correct it. “After all,” I foolishly suggested, “Nobody will ever see this work. What difference does it make?”
“I don’t care if nobody will ever see it, Tom. I’ll know it’s there whether it’s seen or not. Every time I step over this spot I’ll know it’s there.”
And with that, we had to carry the whole heavy configuration back to the fire to melt the joint and start that section over again, putting in the proper angle that allowed for perfect flow.
We talked less the rest of that day. This was not a bad thing. There is a rhythm in work that sometimes needs no verbal cadence. But when Dad extended a piece of the new pipe from the middle of the center of the south-east wall back half-way toward the well, I had to ask him why..
"This is for the kitchen sink,” he said.
“I thought you said the kitchen was going to be over the corner bathroom.”
“It is. This is for the basement
kitchen,” he smiled.
“Yep,” Dad grunted as he dropped a heavy pipe in place. “There’ll be a kitchen upstairs, too, but it’ll be handy having one down here.” In the “L” of the center foundation he described the room. “The fridge will go here. Stove here. Then the counter and cupboards will form a corner here and the sink will go right here. Hand me another elbow, Tom.”
Like the shower, this talk of a basement kitchen foreshadowed a chapter of our lives I did not yet comprehend. In fact, I gave it little thought. After all, what house couldn’t use a handy second kitchen for parties or a houseful of holiday company?
As we finished up our work that day, there was nothing but a foundation and black cast-iron pipe laid out on the ground, but for the first time I could see the house Dad had drawn in his head: the corner bathroom, the laundry room, the kitchen, the drains, and all the stubs that would eventually reach upstairs to the plumbing above. But only Dad knew how much time would likely lapse before all this was done—only he understood why he was building two houses inside of one.7427