Of all the construction disciplines, plumbing is my favorite. It’s quiet–contemplative even. There aren’t so many power tools whining. There isn’t a lot of pounding or hammering. It’s not as quiet as painting, but it’s more cerebral–just the right amount of figuring and measuring without being overly technical.
Plumbers spend their days dealing with issues that the rest of us don’t want to have to deal with. If you aren’t grateful for plumbers, you ought to be.

I spent one summer working for a plumbing company. That summer with the plumbers yielded more anecdotes than five years here in the leafy suburbs. Some of the best anecdotes can’t even be sufficiently sanitized for use in this forum. They involve a running feud with a tribe of roofers who refused to accord plumbers the respect they deserved. I would say “use your imagination,” but your imagination is probably no match for these roofers or these plumbers. Or, I should say, your imaginative energies are differently directed than these guys’. I hope they are, anyway.

There is a hierarchy among plumbers. Those who have paid their dues get to do the new construction. It’s clean work. Pleasant work. You run brand new pipe in fresh-dug trenches and into spanking new houses that smell of sawdust and sheetrock. The gleaming toilets might as well be great porcelain soup tureens.

But those plumbers who are still paying their dues find themselves on the service crew. Anything can happen on the service crew. When disaster strikes and things that should have been in the sewer end up in your house, it’s the service guys who get the call. The new construction crew stay warm in their beds, dreaming the dreams of the blessed.

On our service crew there was a man named Rusty. He was like a Navy Seal of plumbers. You could drop Rusty into the hottest spot imaginable, and he would do whatever it took to compete his mission. Whatever it took. As a service crew plumber, one learns to quiet the squeamishness that might keep a person from doing what has to be done. But even by those standards, Rusty was something special. I have seen Rusty lie flat in the mud beside a sewer access and thrust his whole arm–fingertip to shoulder–into the foaming, gurgling, sloshing stew. Whatever it took. I have seen the dark waters recede again thanks to Rusty’s resourcefulness and skill and iron stomach. Whatever it took.

And yet when Rusty wasn’t plunging his arm into raw sewage, he was the most fastidious person I had ever known. He was forever washing his hands and fixing his hair. If he ever walked past a mirror without stopping and checking his look, I wasn’t there to see it. He kept his beard neatly trimmed, and he rolled up the short sleeves of his plumber’s shirt just so.

One day Rusty found himself peering into a deep hole leading into a sewer. It was too dark down there to see what he needed to see. His flashlight was in his tool pouch, and his tool pouch was back at the truck. So he felt around in his pockets and found his lighter.

If you know much about sewers, you are probably saying, “Nooooo, Rusty! Not the lighter!” But Rusty can’t hear you. He has pulled the lighter out of his pocket, and he knows as well as you do that sewers give off methane gas and that methane gas is flammable–explosive, even–but for some reason he’s not thinking, and he holds the lighter right next to his face and flicks it to life. There is a pop and a flash. Rusty staggers backwards. His hair is mostly singed off in front. His eyebrows are gone. His beard isn’t looking so hot either.

Rusty took the rest of the day off to go to the hairdresser, who did wonders for him. He submitted his hairdressers’ receipt to the owner of the plumbing company, who reimbursed it as a work-related expense. “It was all in the line of duty,” he said.

13 Comments
  • Jess
    3:57 PM, 17 February 2011

    There are no words to express how hard I am laughing. Reminds me of the time when we had plumbing problems (should I say, the YEAR we had plumbing problems?). The basement flooded a couple of times, and the toilets were never working (and, since I was only about eight at the time, and since I was/am not a plumber, I don’t have much of an idea what the problem was). And we had plumbers over like this was their favorite place to party. One pair I remember in particular. One of them was an old fellow who, er, shall we say, really smelled like a plumber. He had greasy gray hair that flapped down to his earlobes, and brownish teeth that stuck out every which way. On a side note, we also had mice problems, and this fellow came across one, stomped on it, and then brought it to my mom holding it proudly by the tail. No exaggerating. And the second fellow was a young guy with lion-ish blond hair. I distinctly remember thinking he was the nicest looking person in the world. Well, one of the days they were working on our house, the old fellow came to us grinning a big grin and stinking a big stink and telling us we had better go outside for a bit. We did so. I wondered why. I also wondered why my mom seemed to be pressing herself against the back fence like a lion was about to come charging out of the house after us. And one did. Well, the young lion-ish fellow did. I have never seen anyone run so fast since. He was gagging and holding his nose and he brought with him quite the stink. I wrinkled up my nose and understood all things. The old fellow strolled out the screen door, laughing breathily and saying, “Can’t stand the smell? Heh heh.” I noticed my dad laughing, too, so I joined in. The lion-ish fellow looked embarrassed, and said, “Can’t we light a match or SOMETHING?” And there my memory fails me. Anyway, that is a young outsider’s look on the life of a plumber. 😉

    • Jonathan Rogers
      5:26 PM, 17 February 2011

      A young leonine plumber. Nice detail, Jess. I like it. I must say, however, I don’t quite understand what happened at your house that day. Could you explain further without being too…indelicate? Given the tender sensibilities of this blog’s readers, I realize that you may have said all you can say.

  • Steve S
    5:39 PM, 17 February 2011

    Early in my working career I was a property claims adjuster for an insurance company. They had an extensive training program to help us white-collar youngsters get a rudimentary understanding of all the different systems in a house (plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc.). The discussion on plumbing systems included the trainer’s apocryphal story of the Most Disturbing Claims Scene Ever. As you will recall from your own experience, in a plumbing system there is a soil stack, which is the pipe directly connected to the toilet, and there is a vent stack, which is a pipe or series of pipes connected to the sewer line but sticking up vertically through the roof of the house. The vent stack does not carry solid or liquid waste but simply functions to provide air to the system of sewer pipes so that atmospheric air pressure is maintained through the system, thereby permitting the flow of waste. Now these systems are almost exclusively made of PVC, but they used to be made of iron, which is Key Fact Number One. Key Fact Number Two is that methane gas from the sewer system travels up the vent stack to the outside. So in the trainer’s story, a rather obese woman was seated on her porcelain commode in her vintage, iron-vent-stack-equipped home. Nothing unusual about that, except this was during a lightning storm. Yep. You can see where this is headed. Well, sure enough, lightning hit the vent stack and ignited the methane gas, which in turn exploded the toilet and sent the woman to the hospital for an emergency porcelain shard-ectomy. I’ll leave it to the gentle reader to imagine the other details of the scene. All of us listening to this questioned the legitimacy of the story but the guy swore up and down it actually happened. When my kids are gone and I have time, I’m going to submit it to Mythbusters and see if they can reproduce this. In the meantime, best to move quickly if nature calls when you’re in an old house during a lightning storm.

  • Jess
    6:03 PM, 17 February 2011

    Oh my goodness, Steve. Not liking to think about that. 😉 Botheration, Mr. Rogers, you HAD to ask that. 😉 Very vague stuff floats around in my mind. Methinks the sump pump (not even sure if that’s how you spell it) was broken and our drainage wasn’t working properly or something like that. Basically there was a big basin of what my dad called (close your eyes if you can’t handle the imagery) “poop soup” under where the toilet sat. And that needed to be fixed. And it didn’t stink until it was being fixed. The plumbing wasn’t done correctly the first time is all I can really say with certainty, because, like I said, that was 7 years ago, I was young, and I’m not a plumber. 😉 Oh, by the way, thank you for mentioning “leonine”. THAT was the word I was looking for. I was afraid I was going to be up all night with that one. And sorry if I was being too indelicate in my explanation. 😀

  • Jonathan Rogers
    12:03 AM, 18 February 2011

    Well, Steve, that is truly a spectacular story. But I suspect your doubt is well-founded. If that sort of thing happened once, it probably would have happened dozens of time, don’t you think?
    I’m thinking “Audience Participation Friday: Scatalogical Stories.”

    Not really.

  • Lawrence Alligood
    3:27 AM, 18 February 2011

    A surgeon had a plumbing problem in his house and called in a plumber. The plumber arrived promptly and, hearing a description of the problem, set to work. In not too long a time he had diagnosed the cause of the problem and had fixed it. After satisfying himself that everything was set to rights and working properly, he itemized his bill and presented it to the surgeon. The surgeon’s eyes bugged out when he saw the bill and he exclaimed, ” Why I don’t make this kind of money, and I’m a doctor!”
    After a moments reflection, the plumber said, ” You are right. I didn’t make this kind of money when I was a doctor either.”

    End of that story and here’s a couplet I have composed:

    Plumbers do more than poets can
    to elevate the life of man

    A final note: the word plumber comes from the Latin word for lead “plumbium” as all pipes used to be made of lead. Atomic symbol for lead is PB. Also, plum bob.

    • Jonathan Rogers
      4:40 AM, 18 February 2011

      Lawrence, one suspects that you have drunk deeply of Samuel Johnson. Welcome to the blog and thanks for raising the literary (and moral) tone.

  • sally apokedak
    3:24 PM, 18 February 2011

    If I may lower the tone once again…I mean, come on…you all have been having an Audience Participation Thursday here without notifying everyone.
    So Lawrence’s couplet reminded me of a lovely little ditty my father taught me that illustrates how easy life was before lead pipes, iron pipes, PVC, or porcelain.

    In days of old when knights were bold and toilets weren’t invented,
    they left their load in the middle of the road and went away contented.

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andrew Mackay, Jonathan Rogers. Jonathan Rogers said: "The gleaming toilets might as well be great porcelain soup tureens." http://ow.ly/3YhaC […]

  • Jess
    3:54 PM, 18 February 2011

    I’m sorry, Sally, I started it. 🙁 😉

  • Aaron Roughton
    6:02 PM, 18 February 2011

    I cannot vouch for Steve, but I can provide a similar story that a friend of mine experienced. He was the youngest of nine on a farm in Kansas. The only bathroom in the farmhouse was right off the kitchen, and it had a plywood door that you had to hold closed for privacy. Awkward in every sense. One day he was in the bathroom during an electrical storm, and his mother was in the kitchen cooking a large pot of beans. She took the beans off the stove and set the pot in the sink underneath the kitchen window, where it was struck moments later by lightning. The beans exploded all over the kitchen, and my friend was lifted off of the toilet by the force of 75 years of farmhouse pipes exploding.

    • Jonathan Rogers
      6:20 AM, 19 February 2011

      Aaron, are you sure it was a friend and not a friend of a friend? It is the friend of a friend, after all, who is the source of 90% of the best anecdotes…close enough to sound like the teller knows what he talks about, but not close enough for the listener to be able to track him down to verify the truth of the story.

  • speedfit pipe
    10:00 PM, 19 August 2012

    It is the force of gravity that makes the weighted string of the plumb bob hang completely straight so that the point can indicate the plumb vertical line. Different weights of plumb bobs are available such as 6 ounces , 8 ounces  and 12 ounces.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Get a Quote