It Always Happens During The Christmas Season


I have an affinity for heating systems and, as a corollary, how the heating system affects the plumbing. It all began when I was about 10 years old. In that Antediluvian period, furnaces were elegantly ingenious in their simplicity. I would roll up bunches of old newspaper (we were the ultimate recyclers before it became a politically though thoroughly useless national pastime) throw them in the furnace, then dump in one or two shovelfuls of coal, light a wooden match, ignite the paper, set the damper, and stand back as laws of physics were obeyed. The coals would begin to burn and send heated air up the duct work to the floor we lived on. Two other furnaces did the same for the other two floors in our tenement. There were no motors, no electricity involved, little to worry about.

Then came a new era when coal was replaced by oil, electricity, and/or gas.

All was blissfully uneventful until the late í70s, early '80s when my family had been living in the old Victorian on Essex Street in Lynn. The house was heated by oil and used a motor to send forced hot air through the ducts to registers on each floor and room of the house. The first time it happened, we were caught totally by surprise. On a cold (in the low 30s) Christmas Eve, I had gotten home from midnight mass around 1:30 AM. The choir had been singing since 11 PM and I was pleasantly tired and a bit hoarse. Luckily, the pastor had a cold that shortened his homily, otherwise, we would probably still have been there. He could drone on in his high pitched, annoying voice for 20 minutes or more when the spirit moved him. Father Lefevre was actually a nice guy of a generation that produced some priests you could actually look up to. Anyhow, when I got home, Julianne and Josh were a long time asleep. Terry was still up putting finishing touches on the dining room table in anticipation of the 16 family members who would descend upon us for Christmas dinner the next day. This was one Christmas where I didnít have to spend hours in the attic assembling toys designed by and manufactured by sadists. Terry and I sat down in the living room near the tree and had a couple Baileys and chatted.

"Kids pretty excited?"

"Yeah, we shouldnít stay up too late because theyíll try to have us up by 6."

I lowered the heat to 62 degrees and we were off to bed, hopefully for a long winterís nap. The kids didnít wake up at 6 but I sure did, sensing something was wrong. Everything seemed OK but my nose was cold.

I got up from the bed and the minute my bare feet hit the floor, I almost hit the ceiling. The heat was out. I had no idea how long but it had to have been at least a couple of hours. I dressed quickly and ran downstairs. The thermostat in the house read 55 degrees. The outside temperature was 16 degrees. If the water pipes froze, weíd be in deep manure. Burst pipes could cause a lot of damage. Our oilman was Fran Thibedeau. Fran was also a choir member and a friend. I hesitated a few seconds before placing the call. Expecting to get the answering service, I was surprised when Fran himself answered the phone. It then dawned on me that I had called his home phone, not the business.

"Merry Christmas, Fran."

"Oh, hi Tom." The voice said sleepily.

"Fran, I hate to bother you Christmas morning, but my furnace is out."

"Iíll be right over. Weíve got to keep those kids warm."

"Thanks, Fran."

I went to the kitchen and set the gas stove setting to broil, shut the kitchen door, and started coffee. I puttered around the kitchen as the room warmed. The family was bundled up well in their beds. My main worry, of course, was the copper water pipes. However, Fran was true to his word. The furnace problem was minor, something about clogged contacts, and soon the welcome sound of the motor in the cellar signaled a rush of heat through the registers.

Fran had come and gone and the house heated back up before anyone was the wiser. It couldíve been worse. I couldíve slept later, and I shudder to think of the potential water damage from burst pipes. How prophetic this thought was to have been in later years.

We were allowed a few Christmases of respite until our first year on Ocean Street. The dinner as usual was spectacular for the 16 or so who joined us. Terry had outdone herself with the preparations and now with full bellies, we sat and sipped liqueurs or coffee and made small talk while the kids played with the gifts they had exchanged. A couple of the ladies were cleaning in the kitchen.

"Hey, Tom, can you come out here for a minute?" Shouted Terry from the kitchen.

"Whatís up?" I answered.

"The garbage disposal and sink drains are plugged up here and in the bathroom. Water and gunk are coming up in the bathtub too."

I thought for a second and then said, "Woops, probably my fault. I threw the turkey grease down the garbage disposal."

"That wasnít too swift."

"I know that now. There should be a plug on the main drain pipe in the cellar. Iíll see if I can get John to help."

Itís as good a time as any to talk about John. John Lessard was Terryís brother and a couple years younger. Growing up in the Lessard household was no picnic because of an insecure, authoritarian father who was abusive both physically and mentally. 

John is sensitive (heíd hate me for saying so), family-oriented, and has an IQ reaching into the stratosphere, and, yet possesses a touch of his fatherís cruel streak. Unlike Louis, though, John had a bravery that earned him the Silver Star in Vietnam. John was a Marine and during the Vietnam era, when even members of the same family were polarized, I remember Terry and I had tried to convince him to go to Canada rather than becoming canon fodder in the killing fields of Vietnam.

Itís funny, as conservative as I am now in my dotage, if the same circumstances occurred today with a conflict like that, Iíd still try to talk John out of it. After all has been written, primary sources revealed, and research done, Vietnam was a political debacle.

However, despite the lack of purpose in this war, the American soldiers still fought with the intensity and bravery of their predecessors. John earned the Silver Star. He doesnít talk about it. We donít know the details. Anyhow, I enlisted Johnís help to free the drain of whatever was blocking it. I had a bunch of heavy-duty pipe wrenches from the days I had fancied myself a handyman. We went down the cellar and traced the overhead drain pipe to the point where there was a big plug. We unscrewed the plug and I got a couple of buckets to remove the offal. We could see above that the pipe was jammed solid with garbage. It was ripe smelling and fermenting and that should have given us a clue. John stood on a chair and started to loosen the blockage with a coat hanger we had taken apart. Unfortunately, progress was slow so I suggested a broom handle to shove into the pipe. And, sure enough, after John had pushed the handle into the pipe a couple times, all hell suddenly broke loose. Behind the blockage were gas and water and more garbage that flew out of the pipe at about 20 mph.

Garbage and filthy water and escaping gases rained down on us and into the rest of the cellar from all directions. Our clothes were saturated with stinking swill. It was in our hair and the deluge continued for about five minutes. During that time, it covered not only us but boxes, some open, some not, from our last move from Essex Street.

"Hey Tom, the sinks unplugged." Yelled Terry from atop the stairs. Surely understated. It took weeks to clean up the mess and the smell. I guess it wasn't just the turkey grease.  This looked like it had been building up for some time.

Merry Christmas.

On two other Christmases on Ocean Street, the furnace went out but Mike Keravich was around to fix it. Mike lived on the second floor with C-A-T, a gray cat who was prone to psychotic episodes. The cat would approach you meowing and purring and would rub its flanks on the side of your foot as she passed by. Youíd bend down and pet her, and, suddenly without any warning, the cat would try, sometimes successfully, to scratch your face. C-A-T would then walk away as if nothing had happened. She was mostly an outdoors cat who would disappear for days, weeks, and, once for a month.

Even though she was spayed, sheíd come back bloody and scarred.

Unlike C-A-T, Mike was one of the greatest people we have ever met. He grew up in West Lynn and hung out with a group including Tom Gecoya who was my barber later in life. They played ball all the time and I probably ran into them as a kid but I have no memory of it. Mike became a cop and like many in the profession became a raging, nasty, violent alcoholic.

He ended up broken, divorced, and with a son, Mike Jr. After sinking to unknown depths, Mike became a friend of Bill W. And, by the time we met, he was 10 or 15 years sober and a leading light for AA whose meetings he attended still with regularity. Mike was an inch or two taller than me and built like a linebacker. He kept himself in relatively good shape and had the strength of a yoke of oxen. He worked as a home builder and was handy at most building applications from roofing, brick and cement work, plumbing, etc. When he got tired of that or laid off, Mike would head out to sea as a fisherman. Mike has worked for awhile now for East Coast Seafood in Lynn where he built the worldís largest lobster pool. Amazingly enough, given his background, I never really saw him down. He was always cheerful and wanting to help with anything you needed.

Mike Kerevich had a propensity for pretty, young ladies, anywhere from 30 to 31 and somehow he attracted them. His tastes, however, were not discriminating as one turned out to be a druggy and took quite a while to get rid of. Another was beautiful, in shape, and insane. It didnít last long. He tried someone more contemporary once but she was too controlling. You didnít try to control Mike. Rather, you went with the flow. Most of these ladies used Mikeís generous nature and he usually ended up nearly broke from these relationships. He rebuilt an entire kitchen, living room and porch for one before they broke up. Luckily, in the last several years, heís found a lady who goes with the flow and Mike seems to have reached some stability.

Anyhow, here it was our second year at the house on Ocean Street and, sure enough, the furnace goes the first time two days before Christmas and another time around New Yearís.

Both times, Mike came to the rescue. I canít imagine over the years how much money Mike saved the owners of the house, Bob and Marjorie Casy. They repaid Mike handsomely when he moved by withholding a chunk of his deposit because Marjorie, the shrew, found a scratch on the kitchen counter.

Marjorie and Bob lived in Nahant and were in the Lynn school system. No wonder our educational system is in disarray if these two are an example. Bob is an alcoholic and theyíre both in denial. She brings new meaning to the term BITCH.

One night after Mike had moved, our furnace went out and I called Bob. His speech was slurred and he mumbled that heíd be down to check it out. I thought this was odd since he didnít know the first thing about HVAC. When he arrived, he looked at the furnace and said heíd call for repairs. As he was leaving, out of nowhere, he says,

"You know, Tom, if you donít like here, move."

Wow, did that come out of left field. He was pissed because the furnace broke down like it was my fault. My Irish then took over.

"Bill, why donít you go home and sober up. Iím not about to argue with a drunk."

He left mumbling to himself. The next morning was Sunday and I was sitting in the kitchen early AM with a cup of coffee and reading the Globe. Everyone else was still sleeping. I enjoyed these quiet times on Sundays. Suddenly, Marjorie appears at the door (it was glass) dressed in her Sunday-go-to-church finest. She walked in without knocking.

"Did you call Bob a drunk last night?"

"Sure did."

"Who do you think you..?"

"Hold on just a second. When he called me back about the furnace, my daughter had taken the call and told me his speech was slurred. I noticed the same thing when he came here. And, as heís leaving, he says if you donít like it here, move. I have no idea why he said that."

"Bob's not a drinker." Blah, Blah, Blah.

"Marjorie, get out of my kitchen. This conversationís at an end."

She continued to argue. I picked up the phone.

"Iím calling the police, Marjorie, get out."

She stormed out. She acted as if no one had ever stood up to her before.

Six months later, she came into the store where Terry worked and told her (with customers in the store) that she had just sold the house and we had to be out in 30 days. Terry was understandably frantic. Remembering the way she treated Mike when he moved, I immediately stopped paying rent. She mistakenly thought she could throw us out in 30 days. We ended up staying another three months until we could pack everything and find a new place.

We finally found this great townhouse in Salem on the Common. Mike Kerevich, of course, helped with the move.

The Federalist house on Salem Common was started in the early 1800s but not completed until just before the Civil War. We fell in love with the apartment from just seeing two rooms: the living room and dining room. You could smell the history. Large working fireplaces with mantels 90 inches plus long dominated both rooms. The ceilings were 12 feet high with a plaster Rosetta in the middle from which hung chandeliers of leaded glass. In the dining room, on either side of the fireplaces, were closets with 4 drawers on the bottom and shelves above. The doors had glass panes halfway up in the form of a semicircle. Off the dining room was a large pantry with drawers, counter space, and glass and wood doors opening to cupboards. Then into a kitchen, three times as long as it was wide to a door that led to the back porch opening to a large yard that came with the apartment.

Off the kitchen was a bedroom and full bath. From the dining room was a hall to a French door that opened onto a glass-enclosed sun porch. To the left of the hall was a set of circular stairs leading to the second floor where there were two more bedrooms and full bath. There was a staircase leading nowhere just for show as Tevia would say.  It probably went to the third floor at one time.

Down in the cellar were three more rooms. Two of these we used for storage. The third became my office. The hallway connecting the rooms had a hookup for our washer and dryer.

Our first winter there was uneventful because the weather was relatively mild. This lulled us into a sense of false security. Then came Christmas of year two. There were 14 gathered around the table. Tish and Mary had nodded off in the living room. I was making a drink in the pantry when a few drops of water landed on my head.

"Donít be a wise guy." I said to Terry who was loading up the dishwasher.

"Huh? What?"

"OK, Miss innocent, you sprayed me with water."

"No, I didnít."

As I was opening my mouth to respond, about a cup of water splashed on top of my head. I looked up and water was coming out of the light fixture above me. I looked in the cupboard and water was cascading over the plates and down onto the glasses then God knows where it went. I remembered there was a small wooden door screwed into a part of the wall on the second floor. I ran up, unscrewed the door and, sure enough, I could see the copper pipes where water was coming down from a split in a pipe that was beyond my reach. And of course, needless to say, there were no shut off valves. I ran down to the first floor then downstairs into the cellar. This appeared to be the waterís final destination. There were myriad shut off valves here so maybe I wouldnít have to shut off the water for the whole house. I did some quick pipe tracing and shut off what I hoped was the right valve. As I shut the valve off, Josh yelled down that the water had stopped. It shut off the water not only on the second but the third floor also. Luckily, the kids who lived upstairs had gone skiing for the holiday weekend and wouldnít be home for a couple more days.

There wasnít much damage but Terry had to wash everything in the cupboards. My main fear was an electrical fire from the pantry light socket.

The next year things really escalated. Julianne and her Miami boyfriend Javier were spending Christmas with us. I woke up at 5 in the morning on New Yearís Eve day with a cold nose. I jumped out of bed, dressed quickly, and ran downstairs to check the thermostat that read 52 degrees. We had a thermometer outside on the porch and that read 8 degrees.

After calling Clark Brothers Heating for emergency service and being told we would have to wait in line because the cold snap had knocked out many of the heating systems in the older houses around Salem, I turned on the gas oven in the kitchen and left the door ajar, then went outside to bring in wood from the pile and started a roaring fire in the living room fireplace. By the time everybody had come downstairs, the heat from the kitchen and living room had warmed up the first floor. The damage, however, had already been done.

Everybody had decided to go visiting friends and relatives Christmas Day because we had wanted to spend a quiet family New Yearís Eve at home. I was going to go with Terry to see her aunts but changed my mind at the last minute for no apparent reason and gave Terry the car keys. So here I was, home alone when all hell broke loose. After using the bathroom downstairs, I flushed the toilet which then emptied but didnít refill.

Rats! I tried to turn on the water in the bathtub but nothing came out. Made some sense because once I traced the pipes, I found out that those in the downstairs bath room went under the sun porch outside and were exposed the elements. Said pipes were covered with the cheapest insulation. Sure enough one of the pipes had burst and frozen. Stalactites had already formed. I went inside to find the shut off in the cellar. Walking down the cellar stairs, I heard what sounded like Niagara Falls. Water cascaded down from what turned out to be a burst pipe on the third-floor. There was an inch of water on the ground. I found the shut off for the third-floor and at first thought I had shut off the wrong valve. I could still hear Niagara Falls. I found the culprit in the room that had our oil heater and gas water heater. Over by the cellar window was a water pipe that went outside for watering the garden and lawn. The pipe had a one inch gash that spurted water and generated icicles. Luckily, again, that pipe also had a shut off.

It took the plumbers three days to correct all the problems.

For the next three years and only during the Christmas season, the oil heater would go, pipes would burst, or combinations thereof. Every year we swore this would be our last year here. Well, here I am now, two weeks before Christmas, anxiety beginning to creep in, and wondering when all hell will hit.

Oh well.