January 14, 2019
Chiang Mai, Thailand
They looked innocuous enough. Simple handles that swung one way or another to allow the water to enter the machine. All I had to do was reach over and turn them 90 degrees counterclockwise. But terror gripped me. How was I going to get this done?
At the time, I was 19 years old, broke, and living in the basement of the home of a family friend. I could have had a full-time job and been better off financially, but the religion which raised me encouraged us to live simple, work only part-time, and spend the majority of our time in spiritual pursuits. So, I worked roughly 100 hours a month as a construction laborer, and spent a bit more time than that engaged in knocking on doors preaching their brand of gospel, or preparing and attending services three times a week.
In northern Michigan, the winters can be brutal and the conditions make outdoor construction work difficult at best. Many contractors tend to slow down during those months, so I didn’t always have the same amount of work available. Even though my expenses were pretty low, I still needed to earn money to pay for my rent, gas, insurance, etc. So when a friend of a friend offered me a chance to make some extra money, I was not going to say no.
The friend of friend’s name was Arty. He had a cleaning business of sorts, and during the winters, some of his contracts included doing housekeeping for rental homes and cabins that were adjacent to the ski resorts. Tourists from the more southern regions of the upper Midwest (e.g., Detroit or Chicago) would come up for the weekends to hit the slopes of Nub’s Nob, Boyne Highlands, or Boyne Mountain. They tended to stay in rental homes (think AirBnB before AirBnB existed) that were close to the ski lodges. And someone needed to clean up in between guests.
The house that Arty took me to see was about 45 minutes away from where I was living. It was in the woods, had beautiful views of snow-covered forest, and an open floor plan which begged to be used for small parties. I remember it having only one bedroom, a tiny galley kitchen, and a single bathroom with tub, toilet and sink. There was also a small laundry/storage area with a washing machine and dryer.
My instructions were to start by stripping the bed, putting the used sheets and towels in the washing machine, then cleaning the countertops, emptying the dishwasher, and vacuuming the 1970’s-era wall-to-wall shag carpeting while the laundry was going. I would then have time to place the clean sheets and towels in the dryer while I finished windows and other needed chores. It should have taken about 90 minutes to complete everything. I don’t remember how much money I was paid for this weekly routine. I know that it was probably not much, but I was desperate, so I took the job.
When Arty was explaining quickly about how to use the washing machine, I neglected to tell him that I had ZERO experience using one. My mother had always done our laundry when I was growing up. And the friend of the family who I was staying with did not trust me to use hers, so she would just wash my clothes for me. I guess that was a perk, but it didn’t really help me in life. So, because Arty mistakenly thought that I knew what I was doing, he simply told me that I had to turn on the water valves before running the machine, then turn them off again when I was finished. And therein lay the problem.
The Closet Monster
When I was about five years old, I suffered a very traumatic (to me) experience. My aunt and uncle lived in a basement apartment, and once when we visited them, I went to use the toilet. Because the bathroom was situated in the basement, thus lower than the plumbing that ran to the septic tank, there was an ejector pump installed in the closet next to the sink that would turn on and force the wastewater up into the main drainage pipe. So when I flushed the toilet, the pump started up with a loud, unexpected THUD! and a WHOOSHing sound. It scared the living shit out of me. Had I not just finished emptying my bowels already, I think I would have crapped my pants. I ran out into the living room, terrified. The adults thought it was pretty funny, and didn’t really take the time to explain to me what the noise was, show me how it worked, and tell me that there was nothing to fear.
I was a sensitive child, and I let my fears rule me. From that day forward, I refused to use the toilet in a strange place without someone going with me. When we went to a restaurant as a family, I would always make one of my younger brothers accompany me to the restroom. This continued probably until I was 11 or 12 years old, and then it just became too embarrassing. But the fear did not leave me. Even though I never once had that same experience again, I was still very uneasy about moving water. Pipes scared me. I didn’t like taking stairwells in tall buildings alone because I had to walk past the red-painted, 6″ fire mains that ran vertically and had big, scary valves attached. I didn’t like turning on and off the pump to the swimming pool that we had installed in our back yard. The infrequent times that mom’s washing machine became unbalanced and shuddered this way and that would freak me out.
I once read a story about a disaster in Louisiana that happened when I was 12 years old. Lake Peigneur, once a sportsman’s fishing paradise, was completely drained in a matter of hours because of a drilling accident. The water was sucked down into an existing mine underneath the lake, and the swirling vortex swallowed barges and boats down into the earth. The thought of that stayed with me, and I also became nervous about large bodies of water, even the swimming pool, especially at night if I was alone.
This dread stayed with me well into my adulthood. When I was in my 30’s I started a new job working at a paper mill. My first assignment was working in the basement of the building that housed the big papermaking machine. Down there was hot, noisy, and smelly. There were also scores of pumps and hundreds of pipes and valves- small ones, larger ones, and huge ones. My first thought was “No fucking way!” But I desperately needed the good money that the job offered, and I forced myself to remain calm and try to do the job. The longer I stayed and concentrated on my work, the fear eventually began to fade.
I cannot place all of the blame on my relatives for not handling the situation better back when I was five. As an adult, I probably would not have reacted much differently, I guess. No one realized how traumatic it was for me at the time. But I do believe that what we experience as children, without having the knowledge and perhaps the adult intervention to deal with events that affect us, has long-lasting effects, and can even be crippling. I wish that my parents had recognized that something was not right about their growing son having such an irrational fear of water and plumbing, and had tried to address the issue.
Last year, I went for a ride a bit north of my village to a reservoir/dam near Doi Saket in Thailand. It was dry season, so the reservoir was not brimming at the moment. I rode past the giant, sloping, concrete spillway without giving much thought to the potential power of all that water pent up behind it. I turned to the right down a road that I hoped would get me to the top banks of the reservoir. There was a canal to my left as I rode, and I noticed that the farther I went, the more turbulent the water in the sluice became. As I rounded a corner, I saw water gushing out at high pressure from the small gateway at the base of the hill. All of a sudden, the old fear came roaring back. My hair stood up on the back of my neck, and I felt a dreadful tingling in my spine and in my guts. I quickly turned my motorcycle around and rode back in the other direction, trying to calm my nerves. The fear is still there, just buried and mostly under control in my daily life.
Staring into the Abyss
So there I stood, at nineteen years of age, pondering the simple valves that controlled the flow of hot and cold water from the spigots to the washing machine hoses. I was afraid to touch them. I didn’t know what I should do. I needed the money. But not badly enough to face my fears.
So, for the next eight weeks of ski season, I went to the rental house. I vacuumed the carpet. I put away the dishes. I cleaned the mirrors, toilet, sink, and tub. I threw out the trash. And I simply brushed the hairs off of the pillows, sheets, and blankets onto the floor. I shook the towels and re-folded them before putting them away. For eight solid weeks, probably eight different sets of people slept on soiled sheets and used dirty towels. I hope Arty never found out.