To Be a Drain Man

When I began my illustrious career at Roto-Rooter in February of 1990, I hardly even knew that water runs downhill. I had been a pastor and student for nine years, and a salesman, security officer, and student before that. I had been a home-delivery milkman, a janitor, a warehouse worker (moving boxes), and a beer joint musician before that. In other words, I was not a tool-using animal. They hired me because I owned a van I could work out of. I took the job because nobody else would hire me and R-R said they’d train me.

That was eighteen years ago this month. I rode with others for three weeks and I was considered “trained.” Not being used to working with objects, I didn’t learn nearly as much as I needed to. They unleashed me upon an unsuspecting public and the real process of learning began.

I cannot count how many times I resigned in my mind that first year. One occasion I particularly recall saw me digging a hole in a bad neighborhood in the rain in the middle of the night. I knocked a hole in the top of a sewer pipe and was struggling to get my blades through the hole so that I could run them down the line and clean the drain. I was lying on my stomach, rain intruding around my waist because my rain suit was pulled up, and I cut my hands while struggling with the blades and broken pipe under the backed-up sewage as the runoff from the ground around me continued to fill up my hole. I resolved then to resign the following morning, saying to myself, “You have got to be a stark raving mad crazy-in-the-head IDIOT to stay in a job like this!” I may have been correct. Nevertheless, when morning came, I went to the shop as always, told my war story to the other guys who were telling theirs as well, and I kept at it. I had three kids, a home-schooling wife, and a PhD effort to support.

There’s no substitute for spending years struggling with the real world. What does it take to clean a drain? Turn the machine on and push the cable through the pipe, duh! That’s the answer you get from a plumber who THINKS he can do drain work. I used to encounter them when I was with R-R. Occasionally it was my misfortune to arrive at a job site where some “Master Plumber” had a drain problem, but no machine, so he called us. Invariably he was a fountain of authoritarian blather, telling me what the problem was, what caused it, how to fix it, etc. As a rule, he was an ignorant jackass. I was just a drain man, I didn’t know 10% of what he knew about plumbing, but I did know drains. I’d have to fight in order to get him to shut up, leave me alone, and let me fix his problem MY WAY. The nonsense he was spouting would have wasted a whole day with no effect.

I was reminded of these things recently when a plumbing company was unable to locate a sewer line at a home, tried everything, and finally referred the owners to me. I saw where they had dug holes and searched, and how they’d even tried to run their cable through a roof vent to get into the drain and solve the problem. No question, they’d tried very sincerely. But they didn’t know what they were doing.

I knocked on the door, greeted the lady, and asked “Can I take a look inside?” I made a careful note of exactly where the bathroom fixtures lay and then went outside and measured precisely (by stepping it off) where the sewer line should be. I then jabbed my shovel one inch into the ground, pried upward, and up gushed a fountain of sewer water. It took me about sixty seconds from the time the lady had first answered the door.

The first plumbers were looking in the wrong place because they used clues that weren’t as reliable as mine. They had gone to Plan B and Plan C, but had failed to use Plan A. And here’s the real secret to the whole thing: they called someone else and then drove away! When I was with Roto-Rooter, we didn’t have that option. Buddies would come and help and eventually we’d get-r-done, but you stayed on that drain until it was cleared. That kind of punishment is analogous to the physical training that goes into a football team. Nobody can run that lap for you or slam into that lineman for you. You take a beating again and again and again until you become what you have to be.

One day I might tell the first guys what they did wrong if I happen to see them. But it won’t affect their character or their diagnostic abilities because they didn’t suffer until they achieved their objective. They are plumbers, good plumbers, but they aren’t drain men.