Entering the Belly of the Beast

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A month chills on the upstairs bathroom glass as I clean at Hash Road late one night. Nature has a way of taking the edge off Hash Road chores. (Looks like the glass needs some attention!)

The Hash Road Chronicles

Filed Aug. 11, 2018

By REBECCA TOWNSEND

(The abbreviated History of Hash Road will help orient the uninitiated.)

Prelude:

My summer job cleaning rental houses after the Indiana University students vacated  Bloomington, Indiana, when classes released was THE WORST JOB!

I will always remember this one toilet …

Now that I have decades of experience and several degrees, one would think I would be smart enough to avoid property management duties. But no. My sense of duty and adventure keeps to traveling back to Bloomington, cleaning up after guests so that new people can arrive — an ever-continuing cycle.

The cycle was about to re-start. After a couple of long-term tenants (plus their twins and a big hairy dog) vacated the premises, it took a little more deep cleaning than I would face following the average weekending guests. It took a while to accomplish the necessary trips to the dump and squeeze in the several hours of scrubbing, sweeping, wiping, climbing, crawling needed to tame the amorphous beast that is the cabin at Hash Road, but finally, about two months after the past people were out, I was ready to take the plunge and re-open for short-term guests.

Providence would have it that, within days, an old friend of my mother’s who had spent many days at Hash Road back in the ’90s contacted me to say she’d found the listing on Air B&B and was going to be visiting from Germany with her two kids!

Great!

I purchased new linens and pillows, washed everything and (after working my massage job in Indy on Saturday night) proceeded to drive from Indy to Bloomington. Making beds and doing a final dust/mop before my guests arrived did not seem like such a daunting task. I had all day Sunday ahead of me and the guests were arriving on Monday. Maybe even enough time to shoot down to Louisville to watch Indy Eleven take on their nearest rivals to the south…

I proceeded to fall into a deep sleep. The kind I can only get at Hash Road, where nothing from the outside world disturbs me. I slept from 1 a.m. till 10:30.

In the morning, the first thing that became clear was that an absolutely foul smell was emanating from every pipe in the house. No escape to Louisville. Also not a situation to be solved with emergency plumbers: too big a task to have their hourly rate doubled.

So Monday morning, as I headed back up to Indy to do another massage shift, I called my plumber from the road. The guy who’d installed the most recent upgrades to the system (the guy on staff who best gets Hash Road) was not available until Tuesday morning, so we agreed to wait until the following morning so the best guy for the job would be available.

Dang it! The guests were set to arrive Monday evening. Just the next chapter in my ever-unfolding lessons in humility. I drove back down to B-town after work to greet them.

“Hi, guys! Welcome to Indiana! Sorry about the foul smell flowing from all the pipes…Don’t worry, though, you’ll find that we have plenty of clean, good drinking water in the cooler in the kitchen.

“I’ll be staying in Bloomington tonight and dealing the plumbers first thing in the morning. We think because the place has been unoccupied for a while — and the water is unchlorinated — that the microscopic organisms it contains die and degrade, leading to that awful smell.

“We’ll flush the intake and the filters and the hot water heater and get this all situated for you. It should not take much longer. Terribly sorry for the inconvenience.”

By the time I’m finished with my reassurances, it was nearly 11 p.m. on Monday night.

Thank God for Joan, a Btown friend since approximately 1985. The kind of friend I can call at the last minute and say, “Hey, can I crash at your place?”

She’s like, “Sure, I’m not there, so it’d be great if you can let my dog out!”

Peaceful but quick sleep before I arise at 7 a.m., ready to face MY BIG DAY.

 

Tuesday, August 7

Upon rising for a big day in B-town, fueling up at my local mainstay, the Uptown Cafe, is always a safe bet.

So I headed to the Square where I began slamming caffeine and trying to sketch out a battle plan in what were still somewhat unknown and unfolding circumstances. While waiting for Scott, the plumber, to call and tell me he was on his way, I went about making an appointment for technicians to re-establish the Hash Road wifi (still in dinosaur land) and catching up on news, messages and business.

That’s when I notice a text from my stepdad Jo Jo, a caregiver to a world-famous bird named Charlie.

Charlie rides a perch on the back of Jo Jo’s bike and goes kayaking and has entertained legions of people who he encounters at the farmer’s market, during school visits, and around town. A big-time Indy broadcast journalist put Charlie on the news! (https://www.wthr.com/article/only-in-indiana-ridin-with-charlie)

Charlie appears to have avian bornavirus. (Friends of Charlie are helping out here: https://www.gofundme.com/mpcne-charlie-needs-your-help.) He’s virtually stopped eating and drinking water. After breakfast, I go sit hospice for a while. Preparing to miss a friend is sad.

As we pondered the ways of life and death, I noticed that the day was beginning to drag on — that it was already 10 a.m. and I hadn’t yet heard from the plumbers that they were on their way to Hash Road. I called them for a status report. No room for any wasted time with guests currently enduring the hardship on the premises.

“We sent Scott out there this morning, but we haven’t heard from him since,” the receptionist says.

“He’s at Hash Road,” I reply. “It’s like a black hole. The Bermuda Triangle.”

I excuse myself from Jo Jo and Charlie, saying, “I gotta get out there!”

I turn onto Hash Road just as Scott was about to turn off. I give him the signal to stop and turn around. We convene at the mouth of the cistern (the strange pit-like structure pictured below) and he gives me the news.

“I flushed and changed the filter, the air tank and the hot water heater,” he says. “The smell in the air tank! Whoa!”

“Well?” I say?

“Smell’s still there,” he says. “And we don’t clean cisterns. We can give you the name of a company…”

I begin to use more “familiar” language with Scott the plumber. He was not offended.

As we talked, we began to realize that the smell coming out of the cistern was nothing like it was in the house. Why would it be God awful in the house but hardly nothing outside where there was a large tank of water sitting?

We posited bacterial deposits in the pipes. The system must be disinfected from its source: from the cistern to clear the remaining buildup that was tainting the otherwise glorious lake water.

“Should I shock the system with bleach?” I ask.

Scott nodded his assent and wished me luck.

So I drove back in to town, planning to find a disinfecting agent at Bloomington Hardware. After talking to a friend who’d dealt with a similar situation with his well, I settle on a gallon of bleach.

First mistake: Not scoping the job in advance and doing my calculations before driving to town.

But I’d decided on a course of action, at least. Back out to Hash Road with the bleach.

Finally, there I stood. Alone with the cistern. My guests had disappeared to town for the morning. Up until that point in my life, I’d done every dirty job at Hash Road, except one. I’d never gotten into the cistern. I’d put the hose into the cistern to feed the lake water in. I’d taken the hose out of the cistern to stop the inflow. Never, though, had I crawled into the cistern.

The time had come to venture into a place where not even the plumber would go.

First, this entailed the negotiation of a 20-foot extension ladder. Got that that bad boy dropped in pit and I began my first descent. Little by little I dropped through the cistern mouth. The hole I had to squeeze through reminded me of the tiny holes the tourist-welcoming Viet Cong showed me in 2002, the ones they used to escape the American war machine in the jungles of the Mekong Delta back in the day!

Since I hadn’t planned on this adventure, I hadn’t packed my work boots or overalls. I did have a pair of waterproof mary janes. Otherwise, I stripped to my bra and panties.

I penetrated the cistern mouth and hung on the ladder rungs a foot or so above the water level, which I’d drawn down as low as I could without burning out the pump. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized the need for a flashlight. So out I climbed to retrieve light. Then back in the tank. Siltation on the cistern bottom made the environment feel a bit like the trash compactor from Star Wars. Who knew what kind of serpentine creatures lurked beyond my sight. One creature was within my sight: a frog, surveying me from the water’s surface, at the edge of the tank about three feet out of my reach.

Then I notice a fish — a bitty bluegill, maybe three inches.

I’m about to go nuclear, but creatures need rescuing first! I’m not cleaning the pipes only to feed through bleached bluegill and frog!

So back up the ladder to retrieve some sort of container, I find a clear plastic container the perfect size holding a few clay shooting targets! Remove the clay pigeons. Return to the pit and enter.

“Okay, buddy,” I say to the frog. “Here we go!”

I made some noise and tipped my shoe to the tank bottom. I started to drag my feet, to give any subsurface creatures the head’s up. As the siltation crept up around the top of my foot, the nerve faded to drag the exposed tops of my feet and ankles to the unknown murk. (These are the kind of places young maidens get swept away to the nether realms. Good thing I’m no longer young!) I opted instead to tread lightly, with minimal, tip-toe steps.

The frog came along with relative ease. Maybe on the second scoop, he stayed put. Up the ladder, pushing the container up and out overhead before squeezing out behind, I carry the creature over to the marshland by the spillway and release him. Then I return to the tank for the bluegill, who proved a bit more challenging than the frog. My first capture was brief because he flipped out of the box. He swam in circles around the tank. I tried to find a balance between minimal movement standing in a central location and venturing into each corner when the fish would visit because the corners made controlling the fish’s direction easier.

Finally, I got him! Pushing the container up into the cistern’s surface housing, I lift my head back into the daylight — only to come face to face with a woman’s face! My guest along with her 13-year-old daughter and six-year-old son are peering down at me over the edge of housing. I wonder if in Germany these children have ever seen a half-naked lady emerging from a cistern with a fish in a box. On my way out of the tank, I encounter the most beautiful salamander, with blue and yellow and black and maybe even some red markings. I thought I had him nabbed in my rubber gloves, too, but when I opened my hands on the grass, the dude was gone. Hopefully, he found a safe spot.

“You’re not doing all this for us are you?” she asked.

“Oh, no!” I said, projecting my most confident countenance. “A lot of people depend on this water! I’ve got to take care of this. You are just like the fire under my ass. We’ve got the equipment in the house cleaned out. The smell is still there, but it will dissipate as we flush some disinfectant through the pipes, which is what I’m preparing to do.”

Of course, I reassured her, if she wanted to find a new place to stay, I’d totally understand. At the moment, she was cool to see how the situation evolved. The little boy took the fish back to the lake for me. (In the pressure of the spotlight, I forgot to take a picture of the fish before we released him!)

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Gathering my wits and documenting what like what could possibly be my last moments on this earth … the last moments before I really got down in there.

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I had to get down in there because I had to rescue this guy.

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Emerging from the belly of the beast battle tested, marked as a cistern warrior! The rescue effort was successful — and the area was ready to be blasted with bleach.

We laughed about what the Air B&B review might look like. (I tried to stay focused on my response to the situation — something I could control — rather than the situation itself, which I could not control.)

The woman held me by the ankles as I leaned back over the pit and dumped in the gallon of bleach. Extra dramatic on my part, but I was beginning to feel a little wacky. The family walked up the dam to play by the water. I sat and began contemplating how long I should let the bleach sit — and if I should add more water before flushing — or more bleach!

The woman peered back down at me a little while later.

“Are you doing ok?” she asked. “You don’t look like it.”

“Don’t mind me,” I said. “I’ve got a lot of steps going on in my mind. I didn’t receive a manual for this job. I’ve got to figure it out on the fly. But I do have a plan and I’m thinking right now that I need to know the bleach disinfectant ratio to figure out if I’ve got a solution of the proper power. Because the wifi is not connected yet, I have to drive back to town to get a signal on my phone so I can Google it. And if I need more bleach, I’m gonna go and get that too. Hang tight. I’ll be back!”

It’s a good thing I’d spent so much time quality time down in the cistern. It is so much bigger than it looks from the outside. While down there, I’d estimated it was about five feet wide by maybe 12 feet long. And since I’d stood on the bottom and seen how far the water went up my leg, I could estimate that it was 2-feet deep.

In the parking lot of the state Fish and Wildlife Service, I sat and did a series of calculations and decided I needed 2.5-3gallons instead of the 1.

Second mistake: Stopping at Bloomingfoods, my favorite health food store — and the closest grocery to Hash Road. I’d forgotten that bleach is such an evil and toxic agent that Bloomingfoods did not appear to carry bleach. (You can’t even buy it in Germany, my mom’s friend later told me.) So onwards to Kroger, which had chemical agents in great supply.

With bleach in hand, I returned to Hash Road and added it to the cistern,  allowing a few minutes, before firing up all the faucets in the house. Then I cranked everything on — hot and cold water  in all the faucets — and let them run for hours. For a while, the putrid smell of decaying bacteria kept wafting through the air.

Then, hallelujah! Bleach water began running through and the stench of stagnancy flowed forever down the drain. The continued effort paid off and the promise of brighter days began to dawn.

“Do you need some babysitting with this project?” asked one of the woman’s male friends, who’d come over to hang with her.

“Nope!” I said with a smile. “I think we’re on the tail end of this deal.”

Additional silver lining: The hot bleach water running in the shower was able to blast through some black buildup on the tile grout that I’d had trouble dissolving.

From there on out, I began filling the cistern with fresh water and continued to run the water in the house so that we could flush the remaining bleach water. While waiting for the tank to fill, I busied myself cleaning the nastiness people had left behind on the grill.

Then I cut two long sheets of black plastic from a massive roll and laid them connecting for about 15 feet down the face of the dam. WATER SLIDE! What a perfect way to end the day. I dragged the hose from the cistern up the dam to see if I could muster a test run. The hose cinched up, though, and the flow stopped for a minute, causing me to panic and quickly get back to the business of the cistern filling.

The prospect was too brutal to me, of looking like a blitzed hippie who would sacrifice all the progress of a day’s hard work in exchange for a fancy-free moment of spontaneity on a redneck waterslide…

So I returned to the job at hand. I hope, though, there is a Hash Road Chronicle entry soon titled, “Slide On!” One with lots of pictures…

Parting shots: Most people may be leery of frogs, fish, and salamanders near their water source, but I was glad to see them because their existence is a positive sign that the water supported advanced life. Yes, it’s better if they stay in the lake, but they probably got swept up in the hose as babies. An ultraviolet sanitation light and filter treat the water in the house (and we use store-bought water for guests’ drinking), but we are so lucky not to have to have constant chlorination.  Au naturale! L’eau naturale!

Water quality issues have always been of interest to me. I’ve written several stories on the topic over the years — even broken news that the television stations picked up

… Perhaps making a water-quality testing lab in mom’s old kitchen would be fun. I could study the changes in Hash Road hydrology over time — and help feed the information into the state’s volunteer-collected water quality database. That would truly be a solid contribution to my mom’s ecological legacy. (And help me atone for the sins of my bleach…)

We’ll see what the future brings … hopefully greater water quality awareness  — and at least of one hedonistic afternoon of sliding down the dam without a single care in the world!

Until next time …

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