There’s no such thing as a free $#!+, even if the opposite has always seemed true. My dad put in our first septic system when I was fresh to the world. My grandparents covered the cost of my waste at their homes, and whatever pooping costs I paid when I bought my first home in Warsaw, Indiana and my second one in Greencastle were too folded into the sale price to notice when I flipped the flush-handle. Except for a couple of apartment stints in college, I’ve always lived little more than a couple bunny-hops from a septic tank: That toxic, underground cesspool which Erma Bombeck once lovingly said produced the greenest grass.
Last year, when one of those “especially green” spots along the finger field started sporting pockets of black mud, I didn’t stress too much about it. Growing up in parts of Indiana vastly more rural than our current subdivision, I had been around the stuff all my life. This doesn’t mean I wallowed in it, or used a trowel and made “mud castles” out of it, or slathered it all over my face so I could go trick-or-treating as a Navy Seal. It simply means I was around it. I would go outside with my assortment of Tonka trucks…and there it was. I would zip up and down the yard on the old man’s ’74 Bolens yard-tractor…and there it was. I grew up on a hog farm and a nine-hole golf course. If there were two things I had become better than used to, it was breathing in the aromas of feces and life-altering chemicals.
But over time, the soggy spot grew worse. It probably didn’t help that the people who put in the swimming pool probably covered the last six or seven feet of the finger field (even though somebody was kind enough to submit a new diagram to the county health board magically showing the lines out of the way). It also probably didn’t help that some now forgotten construction crew ran the gutter downspouts directly into the finger system. Add one of the wettest July’s on record last year, add one of the wettest May’s on record this year, add a general series of semi-monthly deluges in between, add the addition of a fourth bedroom, add a minimum of two teenage girls, add my penchant for long showers, and my fiancée’s habit washing a load of laundry every hour…sooner or later your cup will runneth over.
For years my neighborhood has stared down this problem one way or another. Every handful of years, talk springs up suggesting that the city might annex us, bringing us weekly recycling, fall leaf removal, and sewage. But it’s talk which always dries up. People up here don’t want to pay for those amenities, and people in the city don’t want to add some 500 Republicans to the polls. The last time this conversation erupted, about a decade ago, a whole swath of homes in the middle of the addition, built sometime in the ‘70’s, started losing their systems. Now, up on top of the hill, several homes built in the ‘80s and ‘90s are starting to shut down. In our case, as the problem grew, we realized there was no way out of this except the hard way.
Like many American subdivision lots the houses here sit on down-sloping parcels, flush with the street on the front door and descending to walkout-basement level in the back. Much of that back lot, where the existing septic field festers, was ruled out by the excavator we’d hired to fix the problem. But to the north side, heading along the upslope, lay more than enough room to put in a mound system. Mounds, which are heavily controversial because the end product often looks like a burial ground for dead elephants, move the waste up instead of down and rely more on evaporation rather than absorption. The spot our man picked was appealing because, sitting to the side of the house along the downslope not only minimized the hump, but it moved waste out of the low ground running alongside a natural drainage trench cut between the neighborhood and the adjacent farmland. As our excavator said, “The higher the drier.” We had a plan. It was good. Life could go on.
After weeks of paperwork, our excavator finally showed up, trundled out the familiar three-legged stand supporting the laser-level, withdrew the stakes I had been mowing around all summer, and prepared to break ground.
Then the state engineer showed up. At first, I minded my own business, letting them hash out whatever had to be hashed. When I helped my own dad put in leech systems in the late ‘90s, I hated it when homeowners hovered around us throwing out empty small talk and getting in the way. I assumed they were there to check off the final boxes on some suffocating pile of bureaucracy so they could stuff it into some obscure database where it would sit until either Jesus returned or the Pacers finally won an NBA title. But two hours later, when I heard the knock on the door, my heart sank.
“We can’t do nothing,” the excavator said. “She…” here he turned his index finger to the state engineer, a stout woman with a cropped haircut and steady gaze searing through her transition lenses… “she says your soil’s no good. There’s nowhere else we can go. You’re screwed.”
When someone tells you “You’re screwed” under any circumstances…when the oncologist is putting your CAT scan up on the screen…when the general is laying out the battle plan you’re going to be leading…when the auto mechanic is holding one of your pistons in his hand…when that happens, you have a couple choices. You can flip out. Scream something along the lines of “Like hell I am!” Grab a handy semi-automatic weapon, take some hostages, and wait for your six-and-a-half minutes of fame in front of the local news cameras. Or you can avoid eye-contact, walk away, cuss in private, and maybe return for a “Now what?” conversation. I wasn’t fully calm when I walked back out, but I wasn’t ready to hit my Cliven Bundy button, either.
The state engineer began dispassionately telling me our options. The first one included what she called a “sub-drip system” which involved going deep underground, finding the mole men Superman fought in that 1950’s movie, and teleporting most of my $#!+ to Mars…or the closest affordable asteroid. Basically, not cheap. The other option was the aforementioned mound system, but instead of on a dry, uphill, upslope this one would be wedged in the lowest, wettest part or the property between the pool and the weed line next to the bean field.
There was other drama. There was the moment when, as our excavator was explaining how the state makes everything impossible (an easy argument from my point-of-view), the state engineer charged up, got in his face, and told him that if he undermined her she “wouldn’t help him at all.” There was the moment when she pompously declared that “someone should have taken the time to find out what caused the failure” only to later announce that the cause was a combination of all the factors I had mentioned…and had known about…before she ever arrived. She punctuated that moment by announcing, “We could bring in someone to find out what happened, but really there’s no need at this point.” There was the moment she flashed her icy stare when I asked her which government entity oversaw her operation. She followed with a patronizing, “I’m about to tell you that…” There was the moment when she told my finacée that if it came down to it “the system trumps your pool.” For almost two hours she paraded our excavator around the small patch of ground demanding one measurement after another. Her final decision: get a soil sample in the new—wet—spot. Cut into the landscaping by the pool. Get an easement from the farmer beside us.
Piece of cake.
After the debacle, when all the parties had left, we took our dogs for a walk. Like our tank, we also needed to vent. Along the way our biggest dog stopped incessantly every twenty or thirty feet, burying her nose in day-old piles of dog poo left by the canines who had earlier traveled the way. Dog crap everywhere. I actually chuckled at the irony.
At this point, I don’t know how all of this will pan out. I do know that we will end with a decent system. The state will see to that. It will be so good that, if any of our neighbors need to dispose of an annoying pet or an irritating house guest, we will probably be able to teleport them to Mars…or the nearest affordable asteroid. But regardless what we put in, life will go on. I’m still going to throw a card game every so often, the girls will still have their friends over, and we’re still going to invite our friends to hang at the pool. We may have to demand a $5 bathroom surcharge up front, however. After all, there’s no such thing as a free $#!+.
Unless, of course, you’re someone’s dog.