Within the first two years of settling on Hemp Hill, I had moved my two plastic 50-gallon water drums up to our sleeping loft. This was the highest point in our $800 dream home.
From the roof I collected a dark brew of cedar tannin, wood ash, bird poop, bat droppings, meteorite dust, owl pellets, probably some skink tails and other such from my gutter collection system. There also was some rainwater in the concoction.
Offering guests refreshment from our tap was like serving toilet from punch bowl. Even I, of cast-iron digestion, wouldn’t touch that brew straight up.
But we had hot and cold running sludge! The first improvement I had acquired for the homestead was a wood stove fashioned out of an old water tank fabricated by Melvin King.
He had built it to my instruction including a generous copper coil in the stem of the chimney. For a hot water reservoir, I set up a salvaged propane water heater at the same level as my Melvin King.
We bathed in a large claw foot tub that may have come out of the same dump as the water heater. This is a thermo-siphon system: Hot water rises in the coil so by running hot water from the top of the coil to the top of the tank and having the coil draw from the drain spigot on the bottom, we had 30 hot gallons of hot Nature’s toilet. We adjusted our idea of purity and enjoyed long soaks.
Against this backdrop, I struggled to read the instructions on lighting the old propane tank that served our thermo-siphon system.
I balked at a fire in August just for a hot bath even though this was winter. I had succeeded in getting the pilot going and was getting ready to ignite the heating element.
My wife, who was a veteran of several of my failed plumbing experiments, was begging me not to activate the propane. I pointed out that if I was going to blow us up with propane, we would already be dead. I had plumbed the propane refrigerator a year ago. The pressure relief valve on the water tank would go off if things got out of control. I assured her, my plumbing would give up long before pressure could build to explosion.
I ignited the burner and everything looked good. When we had 30 gallons of hot-what-ever, it shut off. By then, my wife and I had more-or-less stopped arguing. We left to catch the relatively recent release: “Alien” with Sigourney Weaver.
Stand with me in line to get our tickets to Olympic Theater’s 1980 presentation of “Alien” here in Forks. That’s Estene Fletcher, the owner, behind the glass booth. She is wearing the same mink, biting a tail it caught 50 years ago. That’s my friend, Dean, selling popcorn.
A few months from now in 1980, the popcorn hopper will fall and almost knock Dean’s foot off. In the main room of the theater, there is the inverted map of the Olympic Peninsula on the western wall.
My friend Louis leans out from a slit in the projection booth and pears at the screen through thick corrective lenses trying to focus the picture as the screen is struck by the first of many projectiles hurled at it by a riotous crowd.
But “Alien” pretty much scared the mischief out of us. My wife and I forgot about our disagreements. We held each other’s hand coming into the darkened house and finding our way back to the safety of our bed. Safe until a little after 2 in the morning.
Somehow the Alien had followed us home from the theater and set up shop in one or both of my 50-gallon water tanks! Water sloshed around madly.
Something much larger than salmon was swimming in our plumbing. “Get up and see what it is,” hissed my wife under the covers where she already was seeking sanctuary. “You check what it is!” I hissed back from under the covers, ever the egalitarian.
I suppose it’s the mark of a coward, when sense of toilet is higher than protection of homeland from Aliens. I had to get up to micturate.
That’s when I felt the hot breath of the Beast on my skin. And the Beast was My Own Ignorance come back to haunt me. I had installed no check valve to keep the hot water from back flowing into cold water supply.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics and Chaos theory, expressed for laymen as “Murphy’s Law,” dictate that a random gurgling will develop into a convective chimney and, given a chance, create 100 gallons of scalding hot water at its high point supported by a cheap polypipe system designed for cold water only. (Well, I may have stoked the odds of catastrophe a bit.)
But the laws of probability did not support me being chased back to bed by an Alien issuing from my plumbing. Instead, I faced a whole night of I-told-you-so’s to escape 100 gallons of scalding water.
It melted every shred of plumbing in our cabin and flowed through two floors and steamed out into the night. But the Beast of my Ignorance would return for me in my future engineering.
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