Pipe dreams? Nope, pipe nightmares.

You know it’s cold when a cold snap is news in Vermont. This past Monday morning it was 28 degrees below zero on my front porch here in Lincoln. This is still a far cry from the minus 40 degrees we had one January morning in the late 1980s, but it’s certainly not shabby in the “my cold is bigger than your cold” competition. Sally Ober, Lincoln Town Clerk, reported it was 31 degrees below zero at her house. Some Vermont schools closed and others opened late. And lots of folks had pipes that froze. Dundon Plumbing and Heating in Middlebury had over 35 calls to thaw frozen pipes on Monday.

Frozen pipes, of course, should never be news – though back in January 1987, my first experience with frozen pipes, I came very close to making serious news with frozen pipes by blowing up a sizable portion of the center of Lincoln. This was only the first of my “This Old House” near cataclysms, but in some ways it will always be the most impressive on the “Don’t Try This at Home, Kids” Stupid Meter.

My wife and I had been living in our 1898 Victorian village house about two and a half months then, having recently moved to Lincoln from a co-op in Brooklyn that had about as much living space as a minivan. We were young and naïve and knew nothing about managing a house that had been built when William McKinley was in the White Office.

One freakishly cold January morning, we woke up and discovered that our pipes had frozen. At the time, the house only had plumbing on the first floor, with the structure’s lone bathroom adjacent to the kitchen. So I called up some neighbors on Quaker Street, an absolutely delightful older couple named Jack and Betty Peters who had served as our guides to homeowning and all things Vermont, and asked who they used for a plumber.
Jack was a great guy, but he always had way too much faith in me. He never quite figured out that I was the Vincent van Gogh of Incompetence. So, when I told him our pipes were frozen, he came by my house with an acetylene torch, showed me how to fire that bad boy up, and said, “Just run it along your pipes and thaw wherever they’re frozen.”

In hindsight this was sort of like saying to a five-year-old, “Just put the Chevy Suburban in drive and step on the gas. You’ll be fine.”

Nevertheless, my wife and I went down into our basement and surveyed the chaotic array of copper that carried water and LP gas into the house. We were on our hands and knees or stooped over like Quasimodo because the ceiling there is between three and five feet from the dirt floor. I picked some tubes near the stone foundation, turned the torch on, and started gently running it along the copper, feeling every bit the capable homeowner I aspired to be. My wife was just over my shoulder.

I had been holding the flame against the pipes for perhaps thirty seconds when my wife tapped me on the arm. I lowered the torch and turned to her.

“Is that a gas pipe or a water pipe?” she asked, and there was a rare but unmistakable quaver in her voice. Together we followed the tube to its origin in the wall and realized – Surprise! – it was indeed a pipe bringing LP gas into the house.

Given that it had been only six years earlier that the center of Lincoln had nearly gone up in flames when the church burned, I would not have endeared myself to my new neighbors if I had caused my house and the surrounding buildings to explode. Still, that would have been the least of my problems, since almost certainly my wife and I would have been dead and – thanks to our proximity to all that flowing LP gas – cremated.

That afternoon, a plumber thawed our pipes.

And I will always be grateful that the biggest news story that day in Vermont was that it was cold. Really, really cold.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on January 30, 2011.)


Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.