Here is how it goes: The dogs wake me at 5:30 in the morning. I really wanted an extra hour of rest but Riika barks at a car that passes outside; Thor raises his head, whines; and Fenway and the cat start a stand-off across the bed on which I, in vain now, am trying to sleep. They face off across no mans land and in this case I’m the no man.
Between Riika’s harsh, insistent barking and Thor’s pitiful “I need some attention whine,” between Fenway and Lady’s back-and-forth tussle that fills the darkness with puppy barks and growls and the cat’s hissing, between all of that I give it up. I’m done sleeping, like it or not. And I don’t particularly like it, not at 5:30 on a Saturday when I wanted to sleep until at least 6:30.
Up, into that dark room; feeling like a blind man for pants and a shirt, fumbling as dogs swirl around my legs like fast current over slippery rock. I hold my ground, feel for the light switch as a braille marker, move forward.
The dogs go down the stairs in a rush, dog claws clicking a fast tempo on the wood. I follow, shuffling, cautious, fearful of stepping on a dog or the cat.
I turn on the kitchen light, open the door to the backyard, feel the rush of hard, cold air sweep over me. I push the dogs out; it’s a cold morning; I want the door shut.
I switch on the coffee machine as I pass. I turn the water faucet to fill the coffee maker. I’m still groggy but even in that fogginess I know that something is amiss for I don’t hear the sound of water.
I turn on the light; the water faucet handle is turned wide open; the faucet is mute and dry. I turn it off; back on as if it would change reality; nothing. I walk to the bathroom, turn the faucet all the way; zippo. And I stand there on a dark Saturday morning in the coldest month we’ve had in ages and I speculate and deduce.
No water. What can that mean? Perhaps the main in the basement has burst and so there is no pressure to drive the stream upstairs to where I need it. If that’s the case the basement will probably be filling with water. I go to the top of the basement stairs and listen; all is quiet, no sound of rushing water.
Which leaves, of course, the other option, namely that the main water line to the house has frozen tight.
It had worked fine at 3:30 when, driven by thirst after a late night pizza on Friday, I’d filled a glass with cold running water from the upstairs tap. Could it have froze up tight in those two hours? Could that main water line, the one that has served the house for more than 50 years that I know of, the one that had never slowed let alone froze, could it have, on this day, failed me?
Outside the dogs bark; cold out there; they want in.
I go downstairs, turn a small propane heater to the water line; let it run for an hour or more. Nothing. The faucets are as scrap metal; cold and hard and lifeless. And I think; There are things we take for granted in our lives, things we never give a second thought to, things that always work. Except when they don’t.
Except when the furnace goes dead as the sun goes down and the temperature inside the house drops. Except when the lights go out and you sit in the darkness as the wind blows and the spark and crackle of electric current is gone and you might as well be in a cave. Except when the water line freezes on a cold morning. And all those times you stand in the cold house or the dark house or the house without water and think: Now what?
Now what? Now that the electric current is gone or the water flow is staunched or the life-sustaining heat fades. Now what?
I made phone calls, connected with the man from the city crew: “It’s never frozen in 30 years,” I tell him. He says he’s heard that a lot lately. I told him the water ran free and pure at 3:30 and in two hours could it really lock up? He tells me, Yep. And tells me that on this cold Saturday morning they’ve got about four calls ahead of me.
I was glum and had difficulty seeing the world with eyes bright with optimism. I sat with the dogs and soon enough men came to do the work. I do not know exactly what they actually did; they may have gone down the basement and waved magic wands for all I know though I’m pretty sure that’s not what happened. I think it had more to do with a thick, black snake of a cable they ran to the pipe and somehow turned that electric juice to heat and the heat to the pipe and soon heat to the ice. I felt of the cable; it held heat.
I don’t know what they did, only that they did it well. I got the impression they were getting good at it. “One hundred so far this year,” one tells me, “Been going steady for about three weeks.” And then tells me that February is the worst month.
Upstairs the water faucet sputters and then, as if a miracle, water comes. It rushes out fast and pure and cold and I stand there in the kitchen and look at it as if seeing it for the first time ever.
They tell me to keep it running; a nice steady flow, keep it running until things start to thaw outside and the way I’m seeing it, that might be June this year. Then they leave; another call, another house, another frozen line; another miracle to work.
I watch the water run, stand there in slack-jawed amazement at it all.
The next day is Ground Hog Day; it’s sunny and the dogs run outside and I see their shadows and I think: Six more weeks. Six more weeks of winter. Six more weeks for pipes to freeze. Six more weeks of this.
But that afternoon I walk down Brown Street and the sun is as high as it will get that day. It has some warmth to it and on the sidewalk the snow shows dark and damp and a few weeks ago the sun did not have the punch to do that. I think; it’s coming, the season change, it’s coming. Not very fast but it’s coming.
That evening we watch the Super Bowl and my wish for a competitive game is in tatters early on and my wish for great commercials soon follows in the same vein. A bad game and commercials that lack creativity and wit.
Sally asks, would I like a beer? Some wine? nything special?
I think to myself: Something special? Something really special?
And I say, “I think a glass of water sounds pretty good”.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call (715) 362-5800.