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The Great Fish Room Disaster

(Water Pipe Reveries)

Circa 1969 - 2002

 

Back in the late sixties or early seventies, in my first life, we were pretty heavily into tropical fish keeping. It was in the days that Ash's Marbleized Angels were introduced to the world, and the Devil's Hole Pupfish was making regular news. Fish were more important than children in those days, so we had our two kids stacked up in one bedroom in order to give our fish, in some 30-odd fish tanks, their own room. It wasn't until our third child came along that the kids finally carried enough weight to drive the fish out.

The fish had special needs, and we made sure their accommodations were absolutely as comfortable as we could provide. Among other things, they required a regular tank cleaning and change of water -- sort of like humans getting a breath of fresh air, or babies getting a change of diaper. To this end, I had installed a laundry sink in the closet for purposes of cleaning aquariums.

Now, in those days I wasn't quite the plumbing genius that I am today. This 3/8" tubing thingamabob that connected the water to the faucet had a tight-fitting compression washer on either end that was designed to tighten on the tubing when the nut was cranked down, which I thought I did, but it didn't.

Time and experience were against me, and on one dark night the connection came apart. The water ran full blast for hours while we slept. When the alarm went off the next morning, I hit the OFF button and splashed into three or four inches of water. Not exactly a Rhodes Scholar at that time of day, I sat on the edge of the bed frozen in the moment, muttering "Oh, no, OH NO!" over and over, louder and louder, until full realization of the situation was upon me. In the next five minutes I did a lot of stupid stuff in a hurry - trying to figure out where the water was coming from and get it shut off, as if time was really of the essence. The truth is that another hour wouldn't have changed anything at all.

Once the obvious was upon me, I threw on a robe and opened the bedroom drapes, which were soaked to about waist high and felt like they weighed around 300 lbs.1 When I opened the Arcadia door to the patio, about two or three inches of water began pouring outward over the door slide. I ran to the main water valve and spun it closed, then retrieved my keys from my dresser and, hurling myself over the four foot masonry fence to the front yard, unlocked the kitchen door from the carport and threw it open. Returning to the bedroom via fence and patio, I went down the hall to the living room and opened the front door. Water was now draining at a good rate from all doorways.

Now, the old refrigerator stood immediately beside the kitchen door, and I hadn't realized yet that it was wet enough to bleed electricity into the water. As I stepped past the living room carpet onto the kitchen tile with my bare feet, I began to feel the shocks in my ankles. My jerk reaction was to speed up, and the closer I got to the refrigerator, the more shock I felt in my ankles and legs, causing me to move faster. Of course, the faster I went, the longer my strides; and the longer my strides, the greater the shock. Anyway, I exited the house and continued across the wet carport and into the yard on a dead run, yipping like a dog, louder and louder with each step, until I was far enough away that the shocks subsided. Although I didn't have the presence of mind to think about it, I probably wouldn't have been shocked at all if I had hopped through the kitchen on one leg (or perhaps on both legs held tightly together).2

So there we were, with the water shut off and all the doors open, and water running out over the door sills. I shut off the electricity and removed the door sills from the two forward doors. After the draining had slowed to a trickle we spent the next several hours sweeping with brooms and mops to get the remaining water out of the house. I then called a carpet man, who gave me a bit of wisdom I've remembered throughout my life but not exactly used time and again: "Pull up all of the carpet and lay it in the yard face down. That way the stain will be drawn into the lining as it dries." We did, and it was.3

After a few days of sunshine we turned the carpets over and rolled them up to bring back into the house. As promised, there were no visible stains. However, we had to have that old carpet professionally reinstalled because it had shrunk several feet -- only about 18" across the average room, but nearly seven feet down the hallway. That guy sweated over the thing for hours. When he was done, you could almost feel the concave curvature of the concrete floor, and you could produce a high C by plucking the carpet. I had the distinct feeling that if that floor ever buckled, the house would shoot skyward.4
 

 
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A few months later the flood returned one dark and evil night. I awoke with a splash, ran wildly through house and yard yipping to the rhythm of electric shock. I ripped up threshold and carpet setting the house to drain -- but it was all in vane. Within days it happened again, and then again. I became entrapped in a swirling maelstrom of water, pipes and carpet, repeating and repeating my actions like some mindless electric automaton powered from below. Months, then years passed, the flood replaying and progressing through grotesque and exaggerated permutations to shoulder depth and lightening severity.

The electricity gradually moved into walls and ceilings, creating nightmarish arcing, fires and clouds of dense smoke. For years we wandered about in fear, shrinking from glowing walls and sparks, breathing acrid, smoke-filled air. During this time the fish migrated from their tanks into the standing water, and eventually took flight as the water receded, swimming through house and haze at all levels oblivious to the fiery displays. As the years passed, the electrical and fire activity slowly subsided, while the fish grew in size and took on exaggerated characteristics. Some developed their own internal lighting, glowing like so many denizens of the deep with an eerie phosphorescence not dissimilar to the environment of their past. But eventually, even the fish retired from a central role, although they never completely left the scene.

Meanwhile, pipes and plumbing continued to deteriorate under the floors with increasing severity. Jack hammers were brought in and holes were opened to effect repairs; but through the years, repairs slipped behind and the cavities grew in size, until the floors throughout the house consisted almost entirely of deep pits and large piles of earth, with only very narrow ledges for walking. By now, our household possessions were long gone. Walls and ceilings were charred and torn with giant orifices; electricity and running water were distant memory. Only the roof remained somewhat intact, useless against rain and snow with open, glassless windows. We were hopeless and depressed. Still, we somehow lived in that cold, dead, hollow shell for several more years before moving on.

When we finally left, a few of the fish followed. After that we recovered swiftly, and life again became worthwhile. To this day I sometimes open a door to find a few of the smaller fish resting in a protected niche or unexpectedly gliding away a few inches above the floor. Once I came across a nest in the closet of a seldom used spare room. There was a large Egyptian Mouth-Breeder and a foot-long Bushy-Nosed Plecostomus. I tried not to disturb them because I do enjoy finding them around the house from time to time.

Last spring, I came into the living room to find a whole family of large Angelfish gently gliding about. The smaller ones were at least twenty-four inches from top dorsal to tip anal fin; the largest some seven feet, with a 30" body and coloring with gentle striping like that of a mature Brown Discus. Her body was covered with delicate brown fur. She came toward me as I entered the room, hesitated a few feet from me, and hung there, pectoral fins waving gently in circular motion to keep her body stationary in space. As I stood there in awe, she extended her right ventral fin toward me and delicately touched my arm. My gaze was inexorably drawn to the rhythmic pulsations of her breathing and the ripple of her powerful ventral muscles, where her fur was thinner but very straight and over an inch long. She was beautiful!

And then, with a flick of tail and ventral, she was gone.

With the thirty-plus year legacy of the great fish room trauma finally receding in the twilight, I sleep peacefully at night knowing that some measure of good eventually derives from even the worst of situations, and looking forward to one more encounter with the surrealistic pleasures of the past. There is, indeed, a silver lining in every cloud. Or, wait, is that a fish?

 
Circa 1969 - 2002
 

 
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1The drapes were removed and dropped into a plastic trash bag to be sent for professional cleaning. They were returned with a mosaic of stains from top to bottom, quite obviously a result of piling them into the bag to dry.

2Because in standing water the difference in potential that causes an electric shock is directly proportional to the difference in distance between each of the points of contact and the source.

3This solution is obviously only possible in a dry climate.

4When the house was repainted for the last time prior to selling in 1985, you could still see the protruded grain on baseboards and the bottom three to four inches of door casings.
 

 
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