"He Don't Know Shit About Septics"
TWENTY-ONE YEARS AGO, when my wife, Margaret, and I first moved up to the country from New York City and bought an eighteenth century farmhouse in Pleasant Valley, New York, not far from Poughkeepsie, we didn't give much thought to our new neighbors, who were mostly hardworking dairy farmers of seventeenth-century Dutch or English stock and, while not exactly unfriendly, were reluctant to enter into conversation with people who didn't raise Holsteins and weren't interested in the price of milk.
Along with the house, we acquired (or were acquired by) a bluff, jovial, pink-cheeked old man in his late sixties named Harold Roe, a local who mowed lawns and was reputedly handy with a backhoe, a bush hog, a York rake, and a dozer blade all objects that were soon to loom larger in our lives than we had supposed.
Harold turned up in the driveway the day we took possession of our new home and announced that everything was running to rack and ruin. A bulky, muscular man, despite his age, he waved around him to indicate how widespread our problems were. More than slightly deaf Harold had a voice to wake the dead. Our trees needed pruning, wiring: fertilizing, our lawns needed emergency care, our shrubs wanted "whacking back" a favorite phrase of his, as we were soon to discover, and by which he meant a kind of scorched earth policy; he didn't like the look of our cedar-shingled roof or our wooden gutters either, into one of which he contemptuously drove the blade of his folding penknife and announced with great satisfaction: "Dry rot."
Although the previous ownerswere still within earshot of normal speech, let alone Harold's roar, and were going through a small emotional moment together as they gave up their home of thirty years, he pointed to them as the source of our troubles. "They was do-it-themselves-ers," he shouted. "Did all the work without knowing how." He voiced his contempt: "Too tight with the dollar to hire help."
Harold was part of a numerous local clan of canny countrymen there were a good many mailboxes around us that bore the name Roe and one of his daughters had married into the Daley clan, which was almost as canny and widespread, and included the local highway superintendent and his brother "Turk" Daley, Harold's son-in-law, who dealt in sand, gravel, and septic system installation.
Harold himself, we soon learned, was one of those vanishing Americans who could set his hand to pretty much anything, from welding to fencing, and who put in an uncomplaining fourteen or fifteen hours a day of hard manual labor, for which he insisted on being paid in cash the offer of a check had roughly the same effect on him as that of a cross when presented to a vampire. His only hobby was snowmobiling, a sport that had not hitherto played any part in our lives-in fact, he was the president of the local snowmobilers' club, and we had hardly shaken hands before he asked us to open up our land to them. This, as we soon discovered, was the first thing most of our neighbors wanted to know about us. Would we keep our land open to the Rombout Hunt, for foxhunting? Would we continue to let our neighbor to the south hay our fields? Would we open our land at the appropriate season to pheasant shooters, bird-watchers, cross-country skiers, and deer hunters, not to speak of one neighbor who trapped animals for their fur? Most of these people took rejection badly. Our home might be our castle, but our land appeared to be community property.
Shortly after we had settled in, on a hot summer day, we gave a dinner party to celebrate our new home, and as I was greeting guests in the driveway, I noticed an unfamiliar and unpleasant smell. I traced it to its source, and found the unmistakable signs of sewage rising in the garden, just in front of the dining room windows. Clearly, the situation was not going to get any better, so even though it was a Saturday evening, I called Harold, who soon appeared with son-in-law Turk in a pickup truck. Together, they sniffed the aroma, agreed on what it was, then proceeded to dig up the garden Harold had only just planted for us at considerable expense.
Since I felt obliged to show a certain amount of interest, I abandoned our guests from time to time to see how the work was getting on and bring Harold and Turk iced tea. Soon they had uprooted Margaret's favorite hedge and dug deep into the lawn, in search of the septic tank. On my next visit I brought them a couple of beers and asked a few questions, if only to show that I was interested and no citified snob. When they finally found the tank, would it have to be replaced? How much of our precious lawn would have to be backhoed if there was a problem with our leach field? Could the broken pipe to the tank the prime source of the trouble, though not, as it was turning out, the sum total of it be repaired, or would it have to be replaced?
Neither Harold nor Turk was eager to answer questions. Like surgeons, they refused to make guesses. "We'll have to see," or "It depends," was about as much as I was able to get out of them, and that was that. In the end, they went away as darkness fell, promising to return the next day with a backhoe and a bulldozer, leaving me with the task of telling Margaret that her lawn was about to be transformed into the equivalent of the testing grounds of the Royal Tank Corps at...