November 24, 2014
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Learning from trial and the unexpected
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Sometimes it pays off not to know too much. That was the case Sunday, although I was sprayed for my over confidence and could have left my 96-year-old father and Marge, his companion, in an untenable situation.

Marge told me the plastic knob to the hot water faucet on the guest bathtub snapped off a couple of weeks ago. I promised Marge, who is 89, that I would see what I could do when I visited.

“Nelson,” who mows the lawn and closes the house for the winter, “took a look at it. He didn’t think there was anything we could do.”

Such a challenge didn’t go unnoticed and had me wondering if she knew what she was doing. I suspect that was the case now, although at the time I was more intrigued with the possibility of fixing something that even a plumber had written off. Apart from knowing his yard machines and being skilled with a chain saw, Nelson also could get cranky oil burners to work and pull apart radiators that leaked and left stains on hardwood floors. If he believed the faucet was a goner, then who was I to question?

The faucet was the last thing on my mind during my all too quick weekend visit. We sat around the kitchen table, watched a couple of movies and invited friends over for drinks and mini egg rolls Marge heated in the toaster oven. With the chill of autumn fresh in the air and the oil burner being cranky again, I lit a fire in the living room fireplace. It made a cozy atmosphere for conversation long after the sunset.

By the following morning, everything was burnt and only the charred end of a split log lay in a bed of white ashes, looking like a black witch’s cap. There were no glowing embers. The fireplace was cold.

Before heading back to Rhode Island, I wanted to set up another fire that would need only the strike of a match to start. I made a trip to the cellar and returned with the wood to discover Marge had set out Saran-wrapped pieces of apple and pecan pie to bring home, if they made it that far. With the fire set, I gathered up my stuff, heading for the back door.

Then Marge reminded me of the faucet.

How difficult could this be, I thought. Surely the faucet had been logically designed and this couldn’t be the first time a stem had snapped. Fortunately, the faucet had broken in the “off” position. The knurled plastic handle sat in the corner, between the tub and the tiled wall of the enclosure. A silver cylinder, with a ribbed end, extended from the wall, designed to be grasped with pliers.

Just as I thought, someone foresaw such a problem. All I need to do is unscrew the cylinder and remove the plastic shaft. Then, when I returned in a couple of weeks, I would have the replacement and put everything back together.

The cylinder came off, leaving a gaping hole in the tub wall. I was gratified by what I found. Just as I thought, there was a plastic shaft and it had snapped.

I pocketed the shaft and the knob and headed out of the bathroom. Then I heard a pop that was followed by a jet of hot water. Without the cylinder to hold everything in place, the water pressure shot the valve out. The water sprayed the opposite wall of the tub enclosure and then cascaded into the tub and down the drain in a remarkable display of force.

The second realization that I didn’t know what I was doing came when I tried to shut down the geyser. I removed a wall panel to find the pipes but there were no shutoff valves there. A trip to the cellar was no more helpful. There were rows of pipes running the length of the house like railroad tracks. There were intercepting pipes wrapped in insulation that protruded brass valves. Some had black handles. Others were red. I was looking at both the heating and water systems.

Marge called down from the kitchen.

“Shall I call Nelson?”

Fortunately, Nelson isn’t all that far away.

“I can’t shut it off completely,” he said, grasping the wheel of a valve that looked like it had come off a submarine. He cranked it and, slowly, the gushing subsided. The draining of the bathtub stopped.

I reassembled the tub valve, a trickle coming from the tub faucet. Nelson cranked the water back on. Everything was holding. Nelson left and I was ready to follow when his truck pulled back into the drive.

“I was thinking, maybe that piece you took out needs to be there for it not to leak.”

I was wondering the same thing. With my confidence already tested, I didn’t give it a second thought.

“Let’s be sure,” I said.

He went to the cellar to shut off the water. I went upstairs with the pliers.

I stood in the tub and unscrewed the cylinder. It came off easily but as soon as it did, the remaining pressure shot water out the valve. I took a good dose of water and humility.

Had I learned anything?

Well, yes.

Would it stop me from stepping beyond my knowledge again? Certainly not; that would be no fun at all.


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