For a brief period – the fall after I graduated from college – I worked for Crow Brothers Construction Co. In those days, Crow Brothers were the dominant septic cleaner in the area. Their bright red pumper trucks were constantly crisscrossing the suburbs, pumping out accumulated sludge and ooze.
I got the job because the summer before a kid in my brother’s class – Tommy Crow – had dove off the ledge at the swimming hole near Banty Road and landed on the crown of his head on a just submerged rock. I helped pull him out of the water afterward and got him to the hospital. He broke a vertebra and had to wear a neck brace for half a year, but everything turned out fine; I got a job at Crow Brothers and he got out of the draft.
When I reported for work at Crow Brothers I learned that I was the only person there who had gone to college. The general view was that my years in higher education were not a plus, in fact, they represented a disqualifying event; I was written off from the start. It was a remedial case. Hopeless. And the best evidence of the fact was that I was assigned to work with Louis.
Louis had worked for Crow Brothers on and off for 20 years. He had a complicated relationship with Eddie Crow, Tommy’s uncle. For reasons that I never really understood, Eddie couldn’t stand Louis. However, Louis was easily the hardest worker of the dozen men who drove for the company. And so Eddie kept him on the job, perpetually in the shithouse, always given the worst assignments, the oldest equipment, the rawest assistants.
At that time Louis was in his mid-fifties. He was squat and fleshy. But powerful. His forearms were the thickness of my calves. He always wore the dark blue Sears work pants and the light blue Crow Brothers shirt that was the official uniform. His shirts were deeply sweated stained. His neck was a burnished maroon.
My pairing with Louis made some sense. He could not read and the general view at Crow Brothers was that my college education had outfitted me for nothing else but reading. And so he would drive the big Ford 750 with the red 2000 gallon pumper tank behind and I would recite the names of street signs as we drove.
He had an uncanny ability to locate lost septic tanks. You wouldn’t think that you could lose a septic tank, but septic tank lids had often grown over since the last visit. Our standard procedure was to take a heavy iron bar and sink it down into the lawn for 12 or 24 inches until you heard the sweet and unmistakable sound of metal hitting metal. Sometimes, however, if there had been several owners since the last pumping – and if they had been foolish enough not to use Crow Brothers in the past – there might well be no record of where the septic tank was located. Sometimes the location was clear from the topography, but every so often, the septic tank was really lost. The bar procedure was of little help; the bar was 60 pounds or so and while it was fine for finding the precise location when you knew generally where the tank top was, it was a painful tool for plumbing the expanse of a 2 or 4-acre suburban lawn, particularly when the owners were watching from the porch and audibly groaning at every hole you sunk into their verdant suburban carpet.
At those times Louis would be at his most brilliant. He would scour the lawn until he found a tree branch of his liking and then he would hold it out in front of him and lower his face to the ground and begin to slowly pace the yard. He wore the most intense look as he walked. He wouldn’t respond if you called him. It was as if he was truly divining where the septic tank lay. And I would follow along behind him carrying the bar over my shoulders and hoping he actually would be able to find the damn tank. And then he would stop and take the bar from me and, without saying anything, he would drive it down deep into the grass. Then he would pull it back and forth to widen the hole in the lawn. Then he would lift the bar high and drive it down again, deeper into the lawn. Again and again until now, 30 inches of the iron bar were below the surface, and then, just when I had given up hope, there it was, the clanging resonance that left no possible doubt that Louis had found the spot.
Louis liked an audience and I gave him a more respectful one than most of the other folks who worked at Crow Brothers. After a couple of weeks on the job, he began to teach me about the ways and mores of honeydipping. One of his teachings remains with me until today.
The way you clean out a septic tank is to back up the pumper truck to the hole and stick the heavy 5-inch hose down into the muck. Then you turn on the pump and suck the ooze into the tank. But the contents of the septic tank are sometimes crusty and heavy and then the pump whines and labors but can’t draw the sleaze up from the tank. At that point, the experienced honeydipper reverses the pump, and the watery swill from the pumper tank blasts into the septic tank and loosens the sludge from the walls. Back and forth. Fill and draw. Suck and pump. Until finally the tank is clean.
One day I was holding the hose while he worked the pumper controls. It was hot and I was bent over the foul septic tank and the hose was heavy. I was thinking of something far away from what I was doing. I relaxed my grip on the hose just as he thrust the engine from suck to pump. The hose jerked out of my hand – and to my absolute horror – whipped out of the hole and began to thrash across the backyard, a frenzied snake, all the while spewing forth great gushes of black sludge across the grass as clean and prime as the felt on a pool table.
I stumbled backward; the hose was as heavy as a firehose and if its metal head were to crack me in the knee on one of its thrashing passes, I would have been out of the game for a long time. I managed to evade the coils of the snake but in the process, I knocked Louis off his feet. That meant no one was at the pump controls and the hose continued to thrash and spew. I lurched to the control and was able to turn it off just as one great gulping belch of stinking unguent sludge caught me square in the chest.
It was suddenly and vastly quiet. Louis lay on his back on the ground. The grass in the yard looked like it had been coated with motor oil. I was dripping with sludge.
I looked at Louis. “I am so sorry.”
He was quiet for a long time. His look was fierce.
And then he started to laugh. I couldn’t believe it. I had never heard him laugh so hard and long before. He couldn’t get to his feet he was laughing so hard.
“Thanks a lot,” I sputtered.
It was then that he decided to pass onto me the deepest secret of the profession: “You are not really a honeydipper,” he said to me, “until you get it in your mouth.”