Tales Of The Sewer Trench
My dad would be ten feet below bending over a sewer pipe at the bottom of the trench. At the top I would very gently kick just a few grains of dirt down on him. He would immediately yell “Cave In” and sprint either for the ladder or try to climb the unclimbable narrow trench walls. He could actually get up about three feet with a highly motivated clawing, elbowing, kneeing, and kicking action. As soon as he saw it was a ruse, he would curse repeatedly as he fell back and then tell me what he was going to do to me when he came up – including time at a Reform School or Foster Home. I did this repeatedly over a series of years with very little consequences other than a kick in the butt, a good licking with a belt and withdrawal of my Valentine’s candy. It was worth it, just to see him attempt a ten-foot standing high jump or a sprint down the trench – ladder bound. What made it great was that we occasionally did have a real cave in, so he was never sure if it was me or Mother Earth that was after him.
Before the EPA, Strict City Codes, and Harsh Inspectors, there was a time in the 1950’s when a contractor could basically do as he pleased -if he generally followed what rules were out there – such as the were. My Dad at age 32 bought the second backhoe sold in the state of Utah. It was a Sherman, mounted on a Ford Tractor and bought from the Ford Implement Dealer in Midvale, Utah – right on State Street. He had a job for the Hoe with Enoch Smith’s Sons - a General Excavation Contractor – digging in gas lines. Paid the princely sum of $50 per day for the rig and himself as the operator. The backhoe was carried on a single axle tilt up trailer with twenty-ply airplane tires from WWII to hold the weight. Towing was with a 1951 green six cylinder underpowered Chevy Pickup.
The machine would be backed slowly onto the tilt-up trailer at a 30 degree angle, boom high in the air. At the last minute the trailer would tilt downward, the weight bringing the Chevy back bumper slamming to the ground. Then the Hoe boom slowly dropped until the bucket softly sat in the pickup bed. I made sure I stood well away during these loadings – always expecting tires to blow, the bucket to smash into the truck cab, or the entire backhoe to roll off the side. It made for some interesting towing, especially at night since the trailer had no taillights or reflectors. Riding anytime in the truck was reason for me to slump low in the seat. Overloaded with pipe, tar, lead, shovels, rags, burners, and assorted parts from the last job. We looked like Armenian Gypsies trying to escape the Turks.
While my dad liked steady work, he really had a personality that should not work for anyone else, unless represented by a confrontive and aggressive union. He fancied himself a duplicate of Ed Norton from the Honeymooners, wore the same type hat, and informed people he was a Sanitation Engineer.
Soon he began doing independent jobs after work, putting in water and sewer lines in Pleasant Grove. I was drafted as an apprentice slave at age ten against my will, and paid 50 cents an hour for shovel operation, laying pipe and generally being the person of choice to be yelled at. I slowly learned not to offer opinions, or to question any choice that my Dad made, but occasionally I would find a way to even up – kicking a little dirt down him was one, falsely telling him the feared and hated inspector had just driven up was another.
The bucket on the backhoe was thirty inches wide, so any trench we opened up, no matter how deep, was just a bit wider. A little un-nerving looking up at the sky when you were at the bottom of a twelve-foot trench hunched over a four-foot long, eight inch wide, hundred pound sewer pipe – your shoulders brushing the dirt walls. The EPA was light years away where they would require a one to one trench slope (45 degrees) rather than our 90-degree death trap excavations.
My dad was antsy about having a trench cave in when we were leaning over a pipe, especially when the depth was ten feet or more. We used a ladder to get up and down, and it was quite impossible to get out without one. Usually just before a cave in, there would be just a bit of dirt fall as the walls began to shift, letting us know to run towards the ladder or attempt to scramble upward. Even just a slight dirt movement brought terror, screams, and panicked physical activity to escape.
My dad was a nervous type anyway, and early on I found that he was deathly afraid of spiders, having once jumped out of a two story building to avoid a Black Widow bearing cousin. Once I knew this, I, of course, began to collect both dead and fake spiders. My most effective move was to have a fake tarantula poised as if it was just creeping from under the bed as he was getting ready for the night, sitting on the bedside. I would wait for the howls and then prepare myself for some physical and verbal abuse. He also liked to lie in the tub and soak after a hard day. I would stealthily tiptoe in and toss a glass of ice water on him. Locking the bathroom door was no protection since I was already perfecting my lock picking skills. He would often berate me as an unworthy son. His claim that I would be the death of him through heart failure had no effect whatsoever on my activities.
In those early days I would lean over the bank and hand down oakum, tar pots, snakes (One inch rattlesnake like rope strands that went around the bell of the pipe to keep in the liquid tar until it solidified into a solid seal) and of course pipe; sometimes lowered down with a rope. This was before my father decided I was better suited to work at the bottom of the trench -since on occasion I sometimes let go of the rope before he was ready – resulting a very close relationship between he and the sewer pipe curled together at the bottom of the trench.
On almost every sewer job we used both tar and lead. These were the times when most everyone was on a septic tank, but were required to hook up to the sewer when it became available. We would lay pipe from the main line up to where the existing pipe came out of the house and then cut it off – warning the people inside not to use the bathroom or drainage facilities of any kind until we had connected up to the main. The pipe coming out of the house was cast iron – we would connect it to another cast iron pipe by pouring molten lead around the joint, and then put on a clay pipe adapter and then it was clay all the way down the trench.
We tarred each individual joint connecting the clay pipes – sometimes two hundred feet or more, broken up by cleanout pipes rising every fifty feet to the surface. All of the connections required using Oakum and Snakes to hold in the lead and tar. The Oakum was an oily frayed rope-like substance that was stuffed into the bell of a connected pipe – then either tar or lead would follow to form a solid seal.
Using molten lead and tar was risky business. First you had to heat up the tar and lead using a propane tank and burner. Sometimes there would be imperfections in both the tar and the lead, which, as they were heated, resulted in small explosions. You could tell when something was about to happen, especially with tar. We would be heating an oversized teakettle filled with pieces of tar - but with solid melted residue from previous jobs covering an inch or so of the bottom – usually my fault for not cleaning the tar kettle thoroughly. The bottom tar would heat up first, trying to expand against the tar above, and then finally blow, sending liquid streams out of the kettle. There would be some wisps of green smoke, which gave warning to move smartly from the immediate area just before she exploded. Lead was somewhat the same, although you wanted to stand further back.
Molten tar had a somewhat interesting effect once it came in contact with bare skin. Many times at the bottom of a trench I was pouring tar from the kettle around the snake opening at the top of the pipe – the tar would splash and hit exposed skin. My hand would involuntarily try to smash its way into the trench wall looking for cool earth to stop the pain. When someone commented on the discolorations on my arms, I just replied that it was precancerous skin removal – that’s a lie, since no one knew anything about precancerous conditions back then. I usually tried to make up some story about a nonexistent girl friend who had bitten me in the throes of passion. The tar also splashed on your clothes with permanent effect. My mom would make us take our shoes and clothes off before entering the house. They eventually would end up in the garage until they could be taken to a commercial washing machine – Ajax and heavy bleach added to the clothing batch.
The lead was in a whole different category. Sort of the difference between a BB gun and a 45 Magnum. Basically the skin’s outer layer disappears with tar – with lead, the liquid continues to burn through whatever tissue is underneath the skin until flesh and blood bring a cooling solidifying action. Getting liquid lead on any part of your body was cause for instant movement – violently trying in vain to shake the lead and then a rush for the first aid kit – a couple of rags and some Watkins Petro Carbolic Suave under the spare tire in the back of the truck. My Grandmother swore it could heal an amputation or, if needed, cure leprosy. The lead was poured with a ladle around the cast iron joints, but it also splashed, leaked and popped – throwing globules onto gloves, shirts and sometimes, exposed flesh. We did our best not to get burned, but it seemed that it was inevitable; no matter what minor safety precautions we took. I don’t remember any trips to the doctor, since that cost money; and there was no health insurance, but the discolorations on my skin have faded though the last 55 years and the scars are barely noticeable.
The experiences of being in the sewer and water business were varied and pretty much unpleasant. Lots of memories float up, some with unusual odors, since we were primarily doing sewers. It was long hours, low pay and relatively dangerous. Plus the inspector disliked my dad, and me even worse. Whatever possibility I had with girls quickly faded once they knew I was a sewer worker. Here are just a few memories that are printable.
Setting an entire neighbor’s front yard on fire while heating tar. Tripping in the sewer trench and dumping either a pot of tar, or a cauldron of lead everywhere – including on myself. Not watching the pipe carefully as my dad backfilled with the backhoe front bucket (we were supposed to blind the pipe first – covering it with six inches of soil or more to prevent backfill breaks), only to watch one of our newly laid pipes get hit with a rock and crack. Fitting a new pipe in the middle of the string was basically undoable unless you broke something else. We fashioned a lot of cement into fake looking partial pipes trying to make repairs.
Hooking on to various things with the backhoe bucket while digging – gas lines, phone lines, water lines, buried concrete, dead dogs, etc. It was always somewhat of a surprise to see a black pipe come out of the trench hooked around the bucket teeth, with a hiss of escaping gas. We did our own repairs on broken gas and water lines and hoped the statute of limitations would run out before they broke again. Telephone cables were different – it looked like a 1000 haired Medusa after a break – no way to repair it. Then the call to the Phone company, the always ask question, “did you call before you dug?” and the shameful response. They always threaten to bill us but never did. But it did delay our work when they came for the five-hour splicing adventure. On jobs that were too large or too long my dad took on partners, but he wasn’t the kind of man to really have partners – he worked harder, longer, and with more intensity than any of his companions – always willing to do the dirtiest, most difficult jobs – I guess from his partners’ viewpoint, he was the perfect partner
Thirty-third south is a busy street in Salt Lake City. We were putting water lines six feet under the road – the street being 90 feet wide. We would dig a trench 15 feet long perpendicular to the road and then drill under the street. The drilling auger didn’t have a bit on it. Just compressed air to make it turn, with water squirting out the end of a ten foot, one inch galvanized pipe. We would aim the first section at the other side of the road where we had opened up a small trench, and start to shove, the pipe turning and water jetting out the end – the water doing the main work. Every time we made ten feet we would turn off the water and screw on the next length of pipe; then lean forward with the Auger between our legs shoving back and forth letting the water jet make the main hole. Unfortunately, an old street like 33rd has many, many pipes, telephone lines, gas and water mains, sewer lines, storm drains, boulders and chunks of concrete underground.
My dad would sometimes get in about 40 feet and then stall. I would be called down into the trench – now filled with a foot of back-washed muddy water – to help him shove the auger and pipe forward – sometimes all 90 feet of it – slow and gut wrenching – or to give up and pull everything out and start all over again. Yes, we would occasionally come up in the middle of the road through the asphalt like a miniature Old Faithful Geyser. Or we would put on 110 feet of pipe for the ninety foot road, finally coming out 20 feet to the south of where we were supposed to be. And sometimes we just kept adding lengths and lengths of ten-foot pipe until I thought we had penetrated the mantle of the earth - the pipe angling downward after hitting an obstruction.
I can remember times when it took four or five trenches and daylong efforts to finally get one pipe to the other side. Then, since we were using copper as the final water delivery product, we would hook the copper from a roll to the end of the galvanized lengths under the road and pull it through. This also was problematical, since the copper would occasionally stick rock solid. Solution, just hook the backhoe bucket to the galvanized on the far end and pull until the copper came out. I looked at some of the one inch copper pipe that emerged, wondering if this is how you flatten a penny on a railroad rail. I couldn’t see how much water could pass through a now flattened narrow elliptical pipe, but there were no complaints, so it must have worked.
It was New Years Eve, 1955. My buddies were all out doing something, sans girlfriends, since we were all too young at that point. My dad had contracted for us to hook up a local service station to the sewer just as the station was due to close – something about needing it done before the New Year. We started around 7:00 PM in the dark – snow falling regularly – both of us already mad. We were ready to hook up around ten to the cast iron joint coming out of the back of the building. Just as I was reaching to make the connection, someone inside flushed the toilet (and it wasn’t exclusively number one). I jerked upward and cracked my head on the electric meter above, knocking myself dizzy, and naturally, falling backwards into the slurry coming out of the unconnected pipe. My dad went raging into the station, scared everyone who wasn’t already crapless into a state of mortal terror. He then pulled me out of the trench, squirted me off with a hose to complete my total chill, and with the admonition to “be more careful”. We finished the job around midnight, backfilling the trench in swirling snow. I’ve had lots of New Year’s Eves roll by since then, but none that compared with that stormy night.
Probably the toughest experience was when we were in West Jordon; chugging away, putting in lateral pipes from the main line to people’s property line. We came across an eight-foot wide, three-foot deep irrigation ditch – more like a small canal – and naturally full of water to the brim. After careful calculations we laid pipe up to the ditch from both sides and then began to tunnel underneath – six feet down. You have the picture – lying on our stomachs at trench bottom, one on each side digging like gophers – trying to keep the hole about a foot in diameter to slide the pipe through. Finally we could just hear each other’s shovels.
Whoosh! The entire ditch bottom collapsed dumping several thousand gallons of water and dirt into the trench – every thing was buried, floated or blown away – us, tools, tar pot, and sewer pipe dissipating east and west. After drinking half the canal, I made my way to the surface spewing mud and water, only to be washed out at the end of the trench. I quickly searched for my dad on the other side – tearfully sure he had drown – and found him pretty much in my same condition, but with his hat lost forever. It only took about an hour to get the Water Master (a very, very unhappy person with a tremendous Marine Vocabulary) to get the ditch water shut off. It took us a day and a half to shovel and pump out water and mud and finally get in the line. I can still remember to this day hearing the thump and then the rush of water crushing me until I was rolling head over heals down the trench. And the relief at seeing my dad was okay.
These memories are still vivid to me. Seeing my dad work so hard -especially with me tormenting him – watching as he would jump into a trench half filled with water or something worse to take charge. Seeing him work a fourteen-hour day, starting at 5:30 AM in the dark. Watching as he operated his backhoe the day after he had lost two fingers in a joiner accident, blood dripping through the bandages. Seeing the pain of his being unemployed during the winter months. All these things taught me a lot about what is possible in life with hard work, determination and perseverance.
My Dad’s in a much better place these days – the deep, narrow sewer trenches, burned skin, inspector anxiety and rushes down the trench have long since faded. However, I know he’s waiting for me – and I expect it will be with his Ed Norton Sewer hat on – ready to berate me once again for all those times I trickled down a little dirt as he was bent over at the bottom of the trench.