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Water Hammer


“Water hammer!” my mom shrieks  in somewhat hysterical laughter. It’s infectious, when she gets started, and so nice to see her dark brown eyes wrinkled up with laughter. Soon my sister and I have joined her, adding a loud chorus of “Water hammer!” to her shrieks between our uncontrollable giggles as the water pipes go “BAM!” yet one more time. Tears are now streaming down mom’s face. Someone—it must have been my father—gets up quietly and turns on the bathroom faucet, just enough.

No more “BAM!” noises coming from behind the walls. No more shrieks. The giggles slowly subside. Life at 1232 Beechtree Drive settles down, no more tears rolling down my mother’s face: Just the sound of the bathroom faucet dripping. No more air in the pipes: Water hammer fixed.

Our house was built in 1957, when neighborhoods of split-level homes were springing up all around the perimeter of the town in which we lived; construction was sometimes shoddy, and perhaps a hurried, or an inexperienced plumber was responsible for our recurring water hammer woes.

On Beechtree Drive, most, if not all, of the women were stay-at-home moms. The men were almost all employed by the big three chemical giants of the day. On Beechtree Drive that was mainly DuPont. Kids freely roamed the woods and streams that had been spared by the developers.

Halcyon days, indeed. Or were they?

I have long suspected, but haven’t really wanted to know, that life on Beechtree Drive was not as rosy as it appeared to us kids. Have I imagined a story about a “come as you are” party that involved invitations phoned around the neighborhood at different times of the day—this long before answering machines, when a ringing phone was always answered right away—and that a couple who received their invitation one evening was found, in nightclothes (I think they were dressed) in bed, underneath piles of coats in the hosts’ bedroom the night of the party? I know for sure my parents once trick-or-treated with highball glasses in tow. Certainly there were tensions, sexual and other, beneath the surface on Beechtree Drive. But that’s where they remained for us kids, anyway: far, far beneath the surface.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager and we had long since moved to another neighborhood that my parents explained why their good friend next door on Beechtree Drive never watered his lawn. Mind you, not watering a lawn in the town where I grew up is not such a big deal. Unlike in Salt Lake City, where my parents were raised and went to school, it rains on the east coast. But this was the era of “good housekeeping,” and proper lawn care—weeknight and weekend tasks performed by the men of our Crestview Woods neighborhood—was part of the whole picture … or was it a charade?

At any rate, our neighbor Mr. Glover never watered his lawn. He had been in one or two of the major European battles of World War II and if those horrors hadn’t been enough, he was among the first U.S. infantrymen to enter one of the Nazi concentration camps. Whether it was Normandy or the Battle of the Bulge, Dachau or Buchenwald hardly matters now. He knew, in ways I think would be impossible for most of us to ever fully understand, the precious nature of water to human survival. Perhaps the Glover’s house, which was a little bigger than ours—a slightly different design—didn’t have the same recurring water hammer problem. But if it had, Mr. Glover would probably have let the pipes keep shuddering and clanging behind the walls rather than turn on a bathroom faucet to the slow and steady drip that let air bubbles escape from the pipes and spelled “water hammer fixed” at our house.

I guess I’ll never know.

I’ll never know, either, if water hammer–at least the air bubbles in pipes part (turns out water hammer is a bit more complex than that) was perhaps the one physical manifestation of my father’s work my mother really understood. Dad was, in fact, an expert on water hammer problems. He worked for DuPont doing something: Fluid mechanics, as it turns out. But as a kid, I had no clue. His work had to do with hammering water, and when he described his office, he told me he had a steel desk. I imagined it to be shiny silver metal—like garbage cans—its seams hammered together by rivets. But at about the same age, I thought potato skins were really brown paper bags, so who knows what I thought about what he actually did at his shiny, steel-riveted desk all day:

Wearing shirt and tie
Daddy sitting at his desk
Slide ruler in hand

Shiny metal desk
Piled high with pads of paper:
Formulas, numbers

Hammering water
Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam-Bam-BAM!
He is not happy.

After lunch each day
He picks up the phone and dials:
Mom awaits his call

Afternoons go by
At five-thirty he is home
That is what he does.

Sometime in the 1980s, as I was driving to work (perhaps wondering just what I was doing at my desk all day) and sort of absent-mindedly following an NPR story on the country’s aging nuclear facilities, I heard the reporter say, “Here at Savannah River…” Startled out of my inner dialog, I started paying more attention to the broadcast because several years before I was born, my parents had lived in Aiken, South Carolina—a town that literally mushroomed when, in 1950, E.I. DuPont de Nemours was selected by the Atomic Energy Commission to design and construct the Savannah River Plant.

From my parents’ photos, I knew about Aiken’s red clay soil and red clay dust, red clay that got in everything. Red clay that had turned their white cat, Bessie, kind of a rusty pink. Other things, things that seemed more sinister, yet, than the dust, seemed ever-present there, too. I remember hearing a story about a woman who went to a bridge club event my mother attended. This woman asked the other women at her bridge table if their husbands, too, wore radiation badges. After that afternoon, the woman was never seen by the bridge group again. I’ve often wondered if she were whisked away in the night. And what about her husband and his career? Probably whisked away in the night, too. One learned not to ask questions.

I knew “Savannah River,” as the period was called at our dining room table, had been a particularly difficult and intense one for my father. But I hadn’t realized, until that morning in the 1980s, driving in to work, that the Savannah River Plant was built to produce fuel for thermonuclear weapons.

Dad, to this day, doesn’t talk about that part of living in Aiken, South Carolina.

But he doesn’t have to for me to understand the magnitude of the pipes he would have been working with there; the volume of water coursing through those pipes; the importance of those cooling-waters functioning flawlessly; and why he might have been concerned about water hammer BAM in a big way.

And why quietly turning on the bathroom faucet to a slow, steady drip was an easy solution (to the water hammer problem, of course. Or was it really to address the problem of our laughing at something that, writ large, could prove catastrophic?)

Questions that can’t be answered, perhaps, are questions not to ask. But we either learn, or make up, the answers, anyway. Air bubbles trapped in pipes create water hammer, just as empty holes trapped in the stories we tell about ourselves create our fictions.