Digging Trenches

“You need some exercise?”

Was the plumber calling me fat?

“Sure,” I said with a shrug.

“I need you to dig a hole.”

The plumber handed me an iPad. He showed me an image.

“Your pipe is busted,” he said. “See?”

I saw.

The image explained why water had been seeping up through the drain in the garage for the past week. Nastier stuff, too.

The first plumber charged me $200 to run a snake down my pipes. Told me the problem was fixed on a Monday. It wasn’t. Nasty stuff was coming up again on a Wednesday. Seven phone calls later and it was Friday. A more experienced, more expensive plumber arrived to my house. His camera found the problem.

I followed the plumber into my backyard. He took me underneath the sunroom. He pointed at the ground.

“I need you to dig a trench that is three feet wide and three feet deep. I’ll fix the pipe, but I can’t dig the hole.”

The plumber was in his sixties. I couldn’t blame him for refusing to dig. I gave him a fat check for identifying the problem. Agreed to pay him an even fatter check when he returned after the hole was dug.

The plumber took one last look at me. He sized me up with a sad expression and went to his truck. The plumber returned with a pickaxe.

“You might need this,” he said.

His offering was ominous.


A friend agreed to come over to help me dig. More like a saint. He showed up at 6:30 on Friday night.

“There’s a lot of rocks back here,” my friend told me thirty minutes later.

There were. Large rocks. Small rocks, too.

I wiped sweat from my brow.

“The soil is kind of wet,” I said. I wondered what fecal materials might be underfoot.

The digging was slow going. Large rocks and wet clay made the work a near impossibility. The stench was unpleasant. Solomon, Samson, and my friend’s daughter watched us for a little bit.

“Is there a pipe down there?” Solomon asked.

“Somewhere,” I said.

“You could go down it like Mario,” he suggested.

“Or Luigi,” I told him.

The sun was gone by 8:30. We’d been digging for two hours and had yet to find the pipe.

“It’s gotta be down here somewhere,” I told my friend.

“I hope it isn’t under that,” he pointed to the dirt pile we’d created. Well, rock pile.

A friend from church arrived early the next morning. We dug for two more hours. We exposed the pipe. And the leak. Nasty liquid pooled at the bottom of the hole.

It was Labor Day weekend, so my expensive plumber wouldn’t be available for a few more days. But the hole was dug. Mostly by the hands of my friends.

Thank God for other people. I took a couple of swings with the pickaxe and was ready to give up. Digging trenches is hard work.


I was president of The Silly Octopus Gang in the third grade. A group of eight or nine of my friends started the club.

One day, during recess at Horace Mann Elementary School, we started to dig a hole. Surprisingly, none of the teachers stopped us. One week later, we’d gone about ten feet underneath the playground. We created such a spectacle that all of the other kids gathered to watch us work. We were minor celebrities. There were eight of us in that pit. We worked as a group to get to the bottom of the playground. Finally, the teachers realized we were creating a safety hazard. The operation was closed down.

I’ll always remember that project. Digging a hole into the playground with my friends was stupid, yes. But it felt good to work with others. And other kids at recess watched us were fascinated. There’s something mesmerizing about a group of people working together. Satisfying, too.

It felt good to finish digging a hole over Labor Day weekend, even if most of the credit went to my stronger friends. I’ll be satisfied when the plumber returns. Busted pipes are nasty. For all sorts of reasons. I’ll be broke when he leaves, but maybe our toilets will flush, our bathtub will drain, and Mario will have clean corridors.


What a week. My fifth year as a professor. Fifth year in Pennsylvania. Solomon started Kindergarten. Samson returned to preschool. Nasty stuff came up in the garage. I dug a trench. What a whirlwind.

I was supposed to go to Camp Improv Utopia East last weekend. But the plumbing disaster forced my hand. I wasn’t going to leave my family swimming in nastiness from the garage. So I stayed home. Dug trenches. Collapsed on the couch. Adulthood forced my hand. Happy Labor Day, friend. May your garage be free of nastiness. May you never need to dig a trench.

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