Attack of the Sewer Beast
WARNING: This post contains profanity. A lot of profanity. If you’re the sort of person who gets wound up about that sort of thing, then you should probably go read something else.
The odds are good that 90% of the people reading this have never given a lot of thought to sewer systems. You make a deposit, presumably in a toilet, and you pull down on a little chrome handle and your deposit goes away, and that’s probably where your knowledge of the process goes away too – so you’re going to have to trust me on this one. There’s a big pipe that comes out of the bottom of the toilet, and that big pipe connects to an enormously complicated underground system that transfers your deposit to a central location, subjects your deposit to all sorts of horrific chemical processes, and eventually returns your deposit to Mother Nature in a much less objectionable form than the abomination you created. Fortunately, you don’t have to do anything to keep this system functioning except pay your water and sewer bill.
But it hasn’t always been that simple. In rural parts of the country, it wasn’t that long ago that people would just dig a hole in the ground and shit in it. Then privacy was invented and people built little houses over the hole so they could take a crap without everyone in the neighborhood watching them do it. Then pipes were invented, and people started putting toilets inside their house, which was a huge improvement because you could use the toilet without having to brave the elements, and also because you could make your current deposit without having to sit on a big hole full of your previous deposits, which (believe me) is every bit as unpleasant as it sounds. Unfortunately, all this business with the pipes brought up the somewhat thorny issue of figuring out where the pipes (and therefore the deposits) should go.
Back in the days when nobody gave a rat’s ass about the planet, there was a pretty easy and obvious answer to that. You just ran the pipe downhill to the nearest creek, river, pond, or ocean, and let gravity handle it. This was a great idea, and worked really well, except for the minor problems that it made all the water smell like crap, killed most of the things living in it, and hampered people’s enjoyment of the great outdoors when every swimming trip became the equivalent of bobbing for turds.
Then some genius invented the septic tank, presumably naming it “septic” because “barrel full of crap” wouldn’t have sold as well. So then you had a toilet in the house, and pipe coming out of the toilet, running across the yard, and going into a big tank buried out there somewhere.
And that sets the background for our story…
It was the summer before I joined the Army, so I was probably 17 years old. Beard, hair down past my shoulders, the whole nine yards. I don’t think I was more irritating and obnoxious than your average 17-year old, but let’s face it – given the usual state of boys that age I’m setting a pretty low bar there. The usual smartass mouth, the usual know-it-all attitude, and the usual ignorance so profound I couldn’t find my own asshole with both hands and a flashlight.
My family had a house, and that house had a toilet, and that toilet had a pipe, and that pipe went to a septic tank. Unfortunately, the whole thing had stopped working. We’d pull down on the little handle, and our deposits would move around in little circles for awhile, but they just didn’t go anywhere. In order to make them go somewhere, we’d use a plunger and pretty much force everything down the hole, and therefore into the pipe. What we didn’t know was that the pipe had collapsed about halfway out to the septic tank. With no outlet on the downstream end, every time we went to work with the plunger, we were unknowingly packing that pipe full of crap.
This went on for quite awhile, until eventually the inevitable happened and the pipe filled up. Keep in mind here, we didn’t know the pipe had filled up. We didn’t know the pipe had collapsed. We just knew that you could work that plunger situation all day long, and the intended result just wasn’t achieved. This was clearly an unpleasant and untenable situation, so one day my Dad and I set out to address it.
Our assumption was that the pipe was clogged up with something. This is a pretty common problem with pipes, so our assumption made sense. In fact, it happens so often that they make a tool specifically for this eventuality, which is called a snake. A snake is a long metal ribbon that you slide into the toilet and down the pipe, in hopes of dislodging the blockage. Dad and I worked the hell out of that snake, with nothing to show for it at all. After an hour or two of fruitless snake action, we eventually decided that having this big-ass porcelain toilet in the way was preventing us from getting the kind of access we needed, so we removed the toilet from the floor (and set it in the bathtub) so we could get directly at the pipe.
Removing the toilet required us to turn off the water supply line to the house, which you may want to remember because it plays a small role later in the story. So now we’ve got the water turned off, the toilet in the bathtub, and a big metal pipe sticking an inch or two up out of the bathroom floor, full to the rim with crap. More work with the snake. No success with the snake.
At the time, my Dad was working the night shift, so after another hour or two of fruitless snake action, Dad had to go to work.
I was 17 years old, and I knew everything, and I was pretty pissed off about spending an entire Saturday in a smelly bathroom slamming a metal ribbon around with nothing to show for it, and nothing in the world would have made me happier than to come up with a clever solution to this whole problem and fix it myself while my Dad was gone. So I started burning brain cells.
“The snake just isn’t long enough” I thought, “so the only thing that connects this end of the pipe to the blockage” (remember I still thought we were dealing with a blockage) “is the crap in the pipe itself.” I concluded that by somehow increasing the pressure on the crap on my end of the pipe, it would apply pressure to the blockage, and eventually force it out into the septic tank. Problem solved. This was an utterly brilliant idea, which was flawed only because it had no relationship whatsoever to the reality of the situation.
So I measured my end of the pipe, and I started wandering around looking for things to fit the pipe, and eventually I found an old mop. The head of the mop, as it turned out, was a perfect fit for the inside of the pipe. Even better, it had a long wooden handle that made it perfect for applying pressure. Two minutes later, I was in the bathroom, with the head of that mop stuck in the open end of the pipe, and I was applying a whole hell of a lot of pressure. I pushed, I shoved, I leaned. I may have even jumped on it a little bit. Every inch that I pushed that mop head down, was another inch of increasing pressure inside of that pipe.
And now we need to pause a moment to talk about diameter. See, among the many oversights and gaps in my knowledge was the critical fact that the pipe wasn’t consistent in terms of diameter. 2 or 3 feet below the level of the floor, the pipe got bigger. About an inch bigger all the way around, as a matter of fact. So once I’d applied 2 or 3 feet of pressure, my precisely calibrated mophead suddenly failed to completely fill the pipe.
To simplify that for you? I’d applied a lot of pressure to a lot of crap, and I had suffered a breach of containment in fairly sudden and dramatic fashion.
A geyser of shit.
A goddamned shit grenade.
Shot in the face with a 12-gauge shitgun.
Still gripping that stupid mop, I went to my knees, and the shit literally went to the ceiling. There was shit on the walls, shit on the curtains, shit in the sink, shit on the light fixture overhead. More to the point, there was shit on me. A lot of shit on me. There was shit in my hair, shit in my beard, shit on my clothing, you name it. There was shit on the inside of my glasses.
My first thought? “Oh shit.”
My second thought? “I have got to get this taste out of my mouth.”
And while we’re on that subject, let me go ahead and answer the question I’m always asked when I get to this part of the story: Just like it smells.
I staggered to my feet, unable to articulate any actual words, I was flailing around and roaring at the top of my lungs with some indescribable blend of horror, rage, and overwhelming disgust. My Mom and my two younger sisters, who had been in the living room watching TV when the catastrophe occurred, came running to see what was wrong. As soon as they witnessed the half-blind shit-covered beast stomping out of the bathroom, the youngest one started screaming, the middle sister started puking, and my mother was laughing so hard she couldn’t breathe.
Did I mention that the water to the house was turned off? Yes. Yes, I think I did.
Still fighting with the whole ‘taste’ issue, I made it to the kitchen, leaving brown footprints all the way, and grabbed the first thing that came to hand. A glass of milk. Looking back on it, I’m kind of proud that I made it through the whole episode without ever throwing up, but I have to admit that when I took the glass away from my mouth and saw the brown stain all around the rim? I got pretty close.
Eventually, I went outside and got the water turned back on, crust of shit drying in the sun, and Mom came out to the backyard and sprayed me down with a garden hose for about 2 hours. Then I went in the house, cleaned the bathroom up, and took a shower. Then I took another one. I believe there were 3 or 4 showers altogether. Roughly 4 hours were invested just brushing my teeth.
But you know what? You probably won’t believe this, but as bad as it was, that Saturday afternoon and the Spectacular Geyser of Shit wasn’t the worst thing that happened to me that weekend. What could be worse? The worst thing was that my Mom went to church the next day and told everybody the whole story.