One of the most humiliating experiences I can imagine is to take a huge dump in the front yard and then invite someone over to have a look at it. It’s just not something that is ever done. Even more humiliating and nonsensical, though, would be to then ask them to dispose of it for you. As unbelievable a scenario as this is, it’s exactly what I did this week, only several thousand times worse. For this week, you see, was the week we had the septic tank emptied. Yessir.
We’re about to move, you see, and, as part of our process of readying our house to hit the market, we’ve been going down the list of home improvement projects we’ve intended to accomplish for four years and getting to some of the ones left there. So we finally had the automatic garage door opener on my side of the garage replaced, redid the hall bathroom, regrouted part of the tub surround in the master bath tub, etc. And, as we went down the list, some items were moved further down it in priority—such as actually replacing the tub in the hall bathroom, which we avoided by rationalizing that we didn’t know what kind of tub the new owners might want there, so why not let them do it? Other items were added to the list out of the blue.
“We should call someone to come clean out the septic tank,” the wife said over breakfast. I’d already been thinking about that, oddly enough—not because of breakfast but because a cleaning of the poo tank was probably due. According to the paperwork we’d received with the house, the last time it had been emptied was a few months before we bought the place. So you figure once every 3-5 years being the norm for emptying a poo tank (though some argue against emptying it at all), it was about time. The thing is, I’ve never lived in a place with a septic system before and we were kind of mystified as to where the tank itself was located, and had no idea where its lid could be found. We deduced it was in the front yard somewhere, because that was the direction our poo pipe ran from beneath our house, but we were not at all sure where the tank was buried. Our front yard has a lot of trees, so it seemed like it would have to be located in between some of them, but the trees were spaced fairly close together. If you were going to bury a 1000 gallon tank, it would have to be somewhere between the trees, we reasoned.
We’d had cause to speak with the health department, a few months previous, as we’d been trying to determine when our well had originally been dug. While I had them on the line, I’d asked if they had records of the septic tank’s installation and, hopefully, location. They faxed over two diagrams, one for the proposed tank and drainage field location and one for the inspected tank and drainage field location. They showed two different locations for the tank, but I figured the inspected one was the correct one. It put the tank somewhere outside my office window, with the drainage field further down into the yard. I didn’t do any digging to check, but figured that would be where I’d have to direct any poo removal specialists when that day came.
And now it had.
The poo removal specialists arrived around midday and were soon awash in the oh-so-vicious snarls of my two dogs Sadie and Moose (collectively known as Sadiemoose). While the dogs barked and slavered from behind glass, I went out to meet the poo removal specialists carrying with me the aforementioned poo tank diagram.
“Has it been backing up on you at all?” Terrance the poo tank man asked.
“No, not at all,” I said. “We just want to get it cleared before we sell it.”
Terrance and his poo tank assistant, Matthew, then poked the ground with a pointy metal pole for a while, making their way from the center of the yard over to the area in front of my office window that I’d suggested was where they start. The poking of the lawn continued, with occasional thunks as the pole struck either concrete or rock. Several minutes passed this way with no real consensus as to where digging should commence. Finally, Terrance took something plastic and orange from his pocket and handed it to me.
“Could you go inside and flush this twice?” he said. I looked at the plastic device. It was about the size of a flattened golf ball, but had a slot along one side within which I could see a small metal disc, about the size of a thick watch battery. It turned out to be a tracking device. I figured he must have a whole box of them back in the truck and that they must be cheap if you could go flushing them willy nilly. By “flush this twice” I knew he meant, flush the tracker down, then flush the toilet again to send it on through. This I did and when I came back Terrance produced what looked like a metal detector handle minus the pole and detector disc. He aimed it at the ground until he found where it seemed to be the loudest, which was beside one of the four pine trees planted in front of our house, this one just outside my office window. They stabbed the pole down once more and struck something solid.
Digging began, hampered a bit by the limbs of the tree.
“That tree’s in a bad location,” Terrance said. His point was that with the tree was as close to the tank as it seemed to be, eventually there would be root problems. They might not make it through the concrete tank, but they could certainly bore into the septic pipe leading into the tank and gum up the works—that is, if they hadn’t already. He recommended the tree be taken out.
Within 20 minutes a foot and a half deep pit was dug out and the upper surface of a section of the concrete poo tank exposed. There was a rectangular concrete plug in the top of the tank with a rebar hook embedded in it. They looped some chain through that and lifted the whole thing off. And there before us were exposed the gates of hell itself.
I will not go into detail as to what the gates of hell look like in this case, but I will say that the gates were quite FULL. To the brim even. I will also not describe the smell, which you already have a pretty good idea about I’m sure. What I will say is that having four years-worth of one’s leavings exposed to strangers is a very embarrassing experience even if it is the job of said strangers to see such leavings on a regular basis. I wanted to apologize and issue denials and run away all at the same time. But there was just no denying what we were all looking at and smelling, nor was there any denying exactly who had produced a goodly portion of it.
“Looks like we got here just in time,” Terrance said. Then he and his poo tank assistant went back to their poo truck and soon poo hoses were hooked up and stretched across the yard and into the gates of hell. The powerful poo pumps on the poo truck soon began to make quick work of their 1000 gallons worth of burden. And Terrance stood by with a giant poo rake to help the process along. He seemed pretty skilled with that rake, and was able to use it to retrieve his orange radio tracker, which he tossed to Matthew, who put it in a pocket. And with that I suppressed a shudder at the realization of how many poo tanks that thing had probably seen in the past and how little cleaning it was likely to have had before being handed to me earlier.
“I been doin this a couple days,” Terrance later said with a grin. “Thirty five years, actually,” he added.
“What’s the strangest thing you’ve pulled out of one of these?” I asked.
“A dead body,” he said. Then he grinned again and said “Not really.” But he did say that when he was first starting out, about the same age as Matthew, he was working on pumping out the septic tank of a man and wife whose septic system had become clogged. The man of the house asked him what had been causing the clog and young Terrance told him “Condoms.”
“What?” the man said.
“Condoms. You know, rubbers?”
The man of the house said that this was not possible. He and his wife didn’t use condoms.
“Well, maybe it’s from house guests,” young Terrance reportedly had offered.
No. This wasn’t likely either.
“Well, maybe it was the people who owned the place before you,” Terrance said.
And at this the man of the house said, “I built the house.” The man then excused himself, went inside and there shortly followed a great deal of angry shouting between the happy couple. Terrance’s boss came running up at the sound of the screaming argument from within the house and asked Terrance what he’d said to cause it. Terrance told him. “Boy, don’t you ever tell the customer what’s in the tank!” the boss said.
I laughed at this story, but within mere minutes we were to discover something of a different brand of disturbing within my own poo tank. As the level of substance decreased in the tank, a PVC pipe with a T joint on the end was exposed. This is the end of the pipe that ran from our plumbing beneath the house. Unfortunately, as the level finally reached the bottom of the tank, we could see a second section of T-capped pipe lying in the muck at an odd angle, its other end very much broken.
“Ohhhhh,” Terrance said when he saw it. “If that’s what I think it is then you’re in for a world of shit.”
“What?” I said.
Terrance asked for a flashlight, then got down on hands and knees and lowered his head into the gates of hell for a look around, specifically toward the easterly end of the tank which extended several feet beneath the ground. When he came back up he looked grim. It seems that the piece of broken pipe was supposed to reside in the other end of the tank, as it was a part of the system that connected to the drainage field. The way a septic tank works is that everything enters the tank where solids sink and paper and sludge float. The solids are digested by microbes from the monthly Rid-X treatments we send down. The liquids are able to bleed off into the drainage field, which are a series of pipes running down into the yard that allows for natural filtration of the water. According to Terrance, though, the broken pipe was preventing this system from working naturally and it had all just been building up in the tank itself.
I shook my head in annoyance at this, but was not entirely surprised. After all, it’s not like anything around here is ever going to be simple or go to plan. No, it’s going to take three times as long, cost three times as much and drive me nigh unto madness before the end of it. At least this time, though, I had two guys who were willing to return, venture into the gates of hell and fix our poo pipes. We’d be able to include their work in our packet of Cool Things We Did to Make the House a More Attractive Purchase folder for prospective buyers.
The poo tank assistant fished the broken pipe out of the poo tank with the poo rake and then dumped it in the yard. Terrance then picked it up and used it as a visual aid to explain the work that would need to be done, including replacing that thin chunk of pipe with much thicker modern PVC that wouldn’t break. The work would involve a lot of digging—including possibly digging up the offending and dangerous tree, if we liked—to expose the other lid to the poo tank where the bulk of the work would need to be done. Until the work was done, the septic system would be inoperative, or at the very least inefficient, and would just fill up to the gates of hell once again. It would take a while, but far sooner than if the drainage field was operational.
I agreed to it and soon the men were plugging the poo tank with its concrete lid again and winding their poo hoses back onto their poo truck, promising to return at the crack of dawn the following day. They left.
I went back in the house and was greeted by our dogs, who were very interested in getting outside to potty and explore and see what smells these strangers had left behind. Oh, you’ll smell some smells, I thought. I opened the back door and out they ran.
After several minutes, I began to wonder why the dogs had not returned to the back door. They’re usually only good for a couple of squirts in the yard and then they’re back wanting to be let in. Oh, they’re probably around front checking out the smelly hole in the ground, I reasoned. So I stepped out onto the front porch where I could see them over by the hole. I clapped my hands to call them and they came running. Moose trotted up the steps first, happy to see his “pa” as always. Then Sadie rounded the edge of the porch, a huge smile on her doggy face, and I was afforded a horrifying sight nearly as bad as the gates of hell earlier. Sadie’s neck and shoulders were coated in something black. To the untrained eye, it might have appeared to be very black mud. But to my trained eye and nose, I knew it to be raw sewage.
Where did she… ? How did she…? What the f…?!
And even as I watched, she gave me my answer by dashing back to the poo tank pit where I witnessed her bend over and roll gleefully onto the sewage-coated piece of broken pipe that was still laying in the grass above the pit.
“LEAVE IT!!!!” I screamed. “YOU! LEAVE! IT!!!”
Sadie looked up through a haze of filth and flashed a big ol’ grin of satisfaction. This was by far the greatest and best stinky thing she’d ever found to roll in and she was in stank heaven.
Cursing, I threw open the front door and yelled at Moose to get in the house. Then I snatched up my phone and texted “YOUR DAUGHTER JUST ROLLED IN SEWAGE!!!” to my wife. Then I then began preparations to give that damn dog the queen mother of all baths.
But which bathroom to use? Normally we bath the dogs in the big tub in the master bathroom. But we’d not yet sealed the new grout we’d freshly put in the master bath tub surround. I could bath her in the hall bathtub, but did I really want to chance this dog shaking wet sewage all over the freshly painted walls? Onto the good towels? I finally opted for the bathroom with the most room and the most tile and went with the master.
Sadie, of course, knows that we don’t dress in normal clothes for bath time, and she never comes to a bath willingly. So we’ve learned that if we want to bathe her without so much hassle, we have to dress as per normal, calmly walk up and lift her 80 pound butt, carry her to the tub and only then strip down to skivvies. However, picking her up now meant coming into contact with sewage and I didn’t really have any normal clothes I wanted to sacrifice. So I put on my painting shorts and a t-shirt I didn’t care about. This didn’t fool Sadie. One look at me and she went into red-alert mode, dropping her front down to the deck and giving me a warning woof. And any move I made toward her sent her skittering away. I opened the back door and ordered her into the house, determined to get her into closed quarters where her running range was limited. This was very dangerous, I knew, because there was carpet in the house and she was just as likely to decide to roll on it in her flight from me as anything. But I was able to corner her on the parquet floor of the kitchen and eventually reason with her until she let her guard down enough for me to slip my arms under her chest and lift her.
I held my breath as I carried Sadie back toward our bedroom, but half way there I had to take a breath. Oh, it was awful. I felt my throat tighten, suppressing a gag. You never consider when you use the bathroom that you’ll ever see, let alone touch that waste again, but here I was carrying a dog coated in it. And I was quite certain that if I dwelled on that fact long enough, I would indeed throw up. Instead, I tried to put it all out of my mind and just concentrate on putting feet in front of the other all the way to the bathroom.
I lowered Sadie into the tub and set about spraying her off with the shower hose. I avoided her head, though, because that’s usually the trigger that makes her shake and the longer we could avoid that the better for the surrounding room. Pulling the shower curtain as far closed as I could, I then sprayed it off too then growled loudly at her when she did shake. Dots of dark water struck the shower surround and dripped down. Ewww. Unfortunately, in my haste to get things ready I neglected to actually bring doggie shampoo into the bathroom. What I had brought was doggie conditioner. I couldn’t leave her there to go look for any shampoo, either, or she’d be out of the tub and dripping diluted sewage around the house for sure. So I grabbed the next best thing, a bottle of Head & Shoulders, and started pouring it on her. I gave the bath extra attention to detail and spent a lot of time scrubbing her face, neck and shoulders. Then I rinsed her off and, since I’d brought it in, poured on some conditioner. Finally, I took a sniff of her neck to see if the sewage was gone. It took my nose a few seconds to process it, but it seemed like the smell was gone. I gave her some extra rinsing to make sure, then toweled her off with three different towels—all of which were popped into a hot washing machine before the dog could finish her triumphant post-shower victory prance around the house.
This accomplished, I cleaned up the bathroom, washed all the sewage drops away and then had a shower myself using the same H&S technique as with Sadie. After I too was dry, I grabbed one of our industrial strength contractor’s trash bags and went outside to deal with the poo pipe. I managed to get it into the bag without actually touching it, then sealed it inside the trash can.
It took a few hours before I risked letting Sadie out again and even then I watched her every move and called her back every time she tried to head around to the front of the house. I had dispatched the pipe, but who knew what sort of drippings she could sniff out and roll in. I only hoped the following day’s adventure would prove fruitful and far less disgusting.
I slept very poorly. I kept having mini panic attacks that once the septic guys dug up the other side of the tank they would find something even more horribly and expensively wrong. What if the reason the pipe had broken within the tank was because that whole end of the tank had collapsed? That would suck.
At the ass crack of dawn, I finally arose to await the arrival of Terrance and his assistant. They’d said they would roll in around 7:30. I made extra coffee in case they needed some and commenced to wait. While I did, it began to snow. We’d had nary a flake since mid-November, which I’ve attributed to the fact that I’d had my snow tires installed in mid-November. But down the flakes were coming now. I wondered if it would mean a halt to the project for the day.
Around 8:30, Terrance and his assistant arrived driving a different truck from the previous day. This one was a smaller and with a flat black metal bed in the back upon which was mounted a bright and shiny new portajohn pump. Hitched to the back of the truck, though, was a long trailer on which was secured a medium sized backhoe. Terrance unloaded it and soon its treads were rolling up my driveway and then across the yard to the septic dig site.
As they set up, I told Terrance the story of Sadie rolling on the pipe. They agreed it was an awful experience, but I know it was far from the worst septic-based thing that had happened to them, so I doubted if they felt any actual sympathy.
With a bit of digging from the backhoe’s scoop, a new hole was opened a few feet to the right from the previous one. Some fine tune digging with a hand shovel later and the tank’s other lid was exposed. This time they hooked the chain for it across the backhoe’s shovel and lifted it off. Inside was a deep dark and relatively empty space, save for some liquid in the bottom. Terrance borrowed my flashlight again and poked his head into the tank to have a look around. He explained that he needed to see which direction the pipe leading out to the drainage field was headed. The interior portion of that pipe was the broken one that Sadie had rolled on, which is why he had to look inside the tank to see where it had been connected before the break. It seemed to be at the southern end of the tank, so that’s where they next began to dig to expose the pipe leading into the yard. As expected, this pipe was also broken and partially collapsed. He said this was likely due to the whole tank settling at some point and sheering off the pipe on the outside, which led to the breaking of the interior part of the pipe as well. It probably still worked to some degree, but not at prime efficiency.
Within half an hour, Terrance and his assistant had dug out around the pipe, sawed through it below the break, installed a new section of thick PVC pipe that ran from within the tank, through the tank wall and connected to the drainage field pipe. We were now back in business.
“Wait about two weeks then pour a whole box of Rid-X down the toilet,” Terrance advised. Then he added, “You still want that tree pulled up?” I explained that the wife did not want the tree removed up at all, but had agreed to it on the grounds that within a couple of months this would no longer be our house and we would not have to be concerned with whether there was a tree imbalance in front of it. Terrance’s assistant hooked their chain around the middle of the tree, the other end to the backhoe and with a smooth application of reverse they pulled it right out of the ground, roots and all. Then it was just a matter of recovering both sides of the freshly repaired tank and smoothing the mud back down in a mostly level fashion. It doesn’t look too bad. Not nearly as bad as the wife expected. The tree itself I sawed all the limbs from and will shortly carve it up for firewood with my chainsaw. I’ll plant grass over the place where it had grown and hopefully by the time the place sells we’ll have something of a yard over there again.
And the next time anyone opens the gates of hell to see my leavings, I won’t have to be there to see it.