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Septic Systems Are Awkward to Talk About

Sewer surgery is not fun.

The cooler temperatures and shorter days remind us that winter is fast approaching and that we had best prepare for it else we find ourselves with our metaphorical pants around our ankles, staring in slack-jawed horror at the metaphorically empty toilet paper dispenser.
When I was a kid, one of the most important prewinter preparations we made involved our septic system. This is because there are few calamities more calamitous than having a backed-up septic system in the midst of one of our Dakota winters.
The first sign of a septic malfunction is often a distinctive odor. This is followed by accusations and finger-pointing and declarations of “I didn’t do it!” For some reason, the fingers were often pointed at me.
Ventilating those awful odors from the house can be problematic. Heat tends to escape along with the smell, so one must balance the instinct to get rid of the stink with the wish to stay warm.  
Whenever the sewer backed up, we had a Plan B that consisted of a drafty old privy out near the grove. This was not an optional solution, especially when the mercury was below zero and the prairie winds were blowing with such force that it felt as though the outhouse might tip over. It’s physically impossible to exit a toppled privy in a dignified manner.
In an effort to prevent that scenario, Dad would have our plumber guy come out to our farm each autumn. The plumber guy would bring a truck that was equipped with a large cylindrical steel tank. At the rear of the tank was a pump-and-motor apparatus.
The plumber guy would park his truck in the general vicinity of our subterranean septic tank. We had to help him find the tank’s riser pipe, which was slightly below ground level and protected by a sacred and rusted coffee can.
Once the coffee can had been pried off from atop the pipe, the plumber guy would fire up the small gas engine that powered the pump. The engine was about as cooperative as a cat who is being given a cold bath. It took numerous pulls on the starter cord and multiple muttered imprecations from the plumber guy to start the engine. My vocabulary benefitted greatly from observing the nuances of this process.
The engine would eventually sputter to life and the large hose that the plumber had stuffed into the riser pipe would writhe and jump like a thick, black snake. This was not a reptile a person would want to wrestle, especially when you considered its diet.
An underground gurgling sound would signal that the septic tank was empty. The plumber guy would drive his truck out to one of our fields and spread the gunk onto our farmland. One fall he put it on a hayfield. For years afterward, there was an oval of alfalfa that was always taller than the rest of the field.
The farmhouse where my wife and I live was built by my Grandpa Nelson in 1962. He installed a state-of-the-art (for its time) septic system. I couldn’t help but notice that Grandpa had kept his old privy out by the grove.
We’ve had our share of septic problems since moving into this house 30-some years ago. One of the most memorable occurred when we had our extended family over for Thanksgiving. Another happened during that infamous Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction.”          
In both of those instances I missed much of the action because I was in the basement, attempting to muscle a sewer tape through a labyrinth of underground pipes. During those trying times, the imprecations I learned from the plumber guy proved quite handy.
Over the years, piece by piece, we have replaced our entire septic system. This has sometimes involved sewer surgery that was so delicate that it required the use of a jackhammer and an excavator.
The hoped-for outcome of all this expense is that nothing will happen and we won’t suffer a back-up at a moment that would be especially embarrassing such in the midst of a visit from the governor. We don’t live anywhere near the state capital, but one can never tell about these things.
Our septic system has functioned swimmingly for several years. Even so, my wife remains somewhat paranoid. Whenever a particular type of odor assails her nose, she will turn to me and ask, “Can you smell that? Is the sewer backing up?”
My gut will be gripped by a feeling of dread, and I will immediately trot down into the basement to see if everything is working. And I have made it a habit to stay down there until that feeling has safely passed.
Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at and in bookstores nationwide.

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