Magazine | January 24, 2011, Issue

Shovel Ready

John Derbyshire fills a hole

One of our township’s very few claims to fame, perhaps the only one, arises from its cesspools. The Wikipedia article headed “cesspool” devotes an entire paragraph to Huntington. In numbers of people sucked down into collapsing old cesspools, we lead the nation. There were three deaths just this past decade.

The Straggler family avoided this misfortune by sheer good luck. There is a wooden deck at the back of our house, a few inches above the lawn. One night in mid-December a large hole suddenly appeared in the lawn just beyond the deck, at a spot we must have walked over a thousand times. The hole was deep and cylindrical, though narrowing at the top, like the bottle dungeons found in medieval Scottish castles. The interior diameter was seven feet, depth about eight. There was some water at the bottom, and some fragments of rusted-away pipework jutting from the walls.

I consulted with an elderly neighbor who has lived in the street all his life. His first words on seeing the hole were: “Don’t tell the town!” If our township authorities got to know about the hole, they would descend on us in force armed with inspection warrants, environmental-impact studies, certifications, and demands for fees, and with a mighty host of favored contractors in their train. The common idiom “Don’t make a federal case out of it” is seldom heard in New York townships, where a town case is much more to be feared.

It was, my neighbor confirmed, an ancient forgotten cesspool. “Keep quiet and just fill it in,” he advised. I called a contractor he recommended.

After inspecting the hole and warning me not to tell the town, the contractor began weaving grandiose engineering schemes built around major items of heavy construction machinery: a crane with a claw bucket, or a conveyor belt, or else gotta remove a section of fence there, and a fruit tree too . . . pump out the water (which was no more than six inches deep) . . . restore piping for drainage . . .

“Why can’t I just have a load of dirt dumped in the driveway and wheelbarrow it in through the garden gate?” I asked. The poor fellow looked pained, as the Phrygians must have looked when Alexander sliced through the Gordian knot. I got rid of him and did some mental arithmetic: π r-squared times h . . . about ten yards, leaving room for topsoil: a hundred or so wheelbarrow-loads. Definitely doable. So where do I get ten yards of dirt?

Dirt, I learned, is better than dirt cheap: It is free. Construction companies dig up a lot of dirt and have to dump it somewhere. They can take it to some approved site, for which privilege they have to pay and fill out forms; or they can dump it on some citizen’s property at his request and turn Accounts Payable into Accounts Receivable, charging the citizen a nominal fee for their trouble. Free market: 1. Municipal bureaucracy: 0. After consulting Craigslist I ordered up ten yards of dirt from a firm in the next county at an agreed small delivery charge. It would, the voice on the phone assured me, be clean dirt — no unwieldy lumps of stone, concrete, or brickwork embedded, no noxious chemicals. Clean dirt!

#page#On the afternoon of December 23 my dirt arrived. The dump truck was enormous; it backed up my driveway with inches to spare. The dirt pile, too, was enormous when dumped. I contemplated it with rising doubt. It might take days to shift. What if the weather turned bad? I’d need a tarp to cover it. Where could I get a tarp that big? My 15-year-old son, home from school, joined in my contemplations. I shared my weather worries with him. He said he thought the weather would be fine the next day, so we could at least make a start.

The next day, Christmas Eve, was indeed fine, though cold. After some unrelated morning chores I spent an hour constructing ramps for the wheelbarrow, protection for the deck, and a tipping station at the edge, with a raised stop for the barrow’s wheel to “feel” at the tipping point. Any task, I explained to my son, goes more or less smoothly according to the quality of the preparation. By lunchtime the job was shovel ready. We sallied forth at 1 p.m. and set to shoveling. We shoveled, barrowed, shoveled, and barrowed for six and a half hours, with only a few short breaks, and cleared the whole pile!

It was an average father-son bonding experience until a moment of paternal joy near the end. By this point it was dark; we were working by the house’s outside security lights. A cold, bitter wind had come up with the darkness. We were utterly exhausted. Ironic banter had faded out an hour before; now nothing was passing between us but the occasional grunt or curse (permitted, under the circumstances). Then Mrs. Straggler appeared at the patio door, calling us to dinner.

The mountain had been reduced to a few molehills. We were almost done. In satisfaction at our unexpected success, and in deference to my son, who had been working heroically without complaint and was plainly bushed, I said we could go in to dinner with clear consciences, leaving the remainder for tomorrow.

“No,” he said. “Let’s finish the job, Dad. There’s only three or four barrow-loads left.”

It turned out to be five, yet strangely those five seemed lighter than any of the others. After tipping the last one into the hole I said what my own dad used to say on completing a long repetitive task: “That’s what the cobbler threw at his wife.” (I.e. the last.)

Shovels, broom, and wheelbarrow went back to their home in the garage. Father and son staggered in to a splendid dinner made by my incomparable wife. After dinner we sat by a blazing log fire. The tree, dressed and lit by my busy, capable daughter, glowed from its corner. We watched Christmas movies on TV. I opened a bottle of port, carrying forward another of my dad’s idiosyncrasies — he drank port only at Christmas. The TV weatherman warned of snow; but the hole was filled, the driveway empty, the household budget barely dented, the house itself warm, secure, and decorated. Christmastime: family time: comfort and joy.

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