Of Septic Tanks, Handshakes, and the Backbone of America.


The young man from the septic tank repair company hopped out of his truck, flashed a big grin, then thrust his hand toward me,  “Hi, I’m Alex,” he said. I grabbed his hand with all the enthusiasm I could muster.

Prior to purchasing the Four-Acre Wood, we never gave a thought to starting the dishwasher, flushing the toilet, or turning on a faucet. That effluence ran down pipes, tubes, whatever, to parts unknown, our only reminder was the monthly bill received from the  sewer district. Shipwreck however (being slightly removed from civilization) is on a septic tank system.

During the process of purchasing a new home a number of inspections were initiated. One of those was an inspection of the septic tank system. Our real estate agent recommended a local company who only did inspections and analysis, they did no repairs, and had no other services to sell. Made sense to us so we hired them. I followed the gentleman around from the inspection company as he pointed out the two tanks of our septic system, the lift pump, the drain field and offered philosophical discussions about anaerobic bacteria.  I nodded dutifully as if I understood what he was talking about. Susan, having no interest in anaerobic bacteria remained inside the house. The last stop was inside the basement where he pointed out a small box mounted on the wall. “This is the alarm system that will go off if the lift pump fails,” This I understood, I know when alarm systems go off.

Of course it wasn’t long before that alarm went off.

I called the number on the sticker attached to the front of the box. The lady on the  other end of the line was polite and informed me they would have someone out the same day. They were true to their word and Alex rolled in just shortly after lunch.  That’s when he flashed a smile and offered his hand.

It’s amazing the thoughts that can run through your mind in a fraction of a second. During that nanosecond, I thought, “It’s after twelve, this is not his first service call of the day. He works on septic tanks, I don’t know where that hand has been.” Then I thought, “I can always wash my hands, I am not going to refuse a hand offered in friendship.”

This Covid pandemic has warped us. We are constantly reminded to stay 6 feet apart from each other, wear masks and God forbid, don’t touch someone else. We were not designed to live like that. I took Alex’s hand with all the enthusiasm I could muster.

He grabbed his shovel and got to work, digging through the sod to open all the access points of the system. It didn’t take him long to diagnose the problem. The pump was still working, but some of the PVC pipe had become disconnected. Unfortunately he didn’t have a piece of pipe long enough to make the repair. He put in a call to his office and waited by his truck for it to be delivered. The sun was at it’s zenith, I suggested he wait on our front porch swing in the shade, until the pipe arrived. He politely declined, saying he had a more jobs to get done that day and was afraid if he sat in the shade, he might not want to get up again. I made another suggestion, that I get him something cold to drink. He took me up on that.

I waited with him by his truck. He commented on our view and remarked that was the only thing he missed from his previous job as a roofer. “It got hot,” he said, “But sometimes you had the best views on top of those roofs.”

We chatted about things, inconsequential things for the most part, we didn’t discuss politics or the meaning of life, just two guys separated by forty years, standing by a pickup with time to kill.  He asked what I did prior to retirement. I asked how long he had been with this company. He told me that he really liked his job, but he had to drive 40 minutes to get to the office. We talked about high mileage vehicles. He told me he was afraid the timing chain was going out on his truck. We discussed the merits of sinking money into a high mileage truck or just driving it over a cliff.

The replacement piece of PVC pipe arrived and Alex got to work. I retreated to the air conditioned comfort of the house. It wasn’t long before there was a gentle knock on the door. Alex presented me with a bill that was less than expected. I wrote out a check, thanked him for his work, and once again shook his hand.

Alex backed out of our driveway. I said a little prayer that his timing chain would hold out, then I said a little prayer for our country. We don’t need more career politicians, social media influencers, professional athletics, or actors with political opinions to share. We need more Alex’s. Men and women who are willing to put their shoulder to a task and see it done. Men and women who take pride in an honest days labor, who go home tired, but with the peace-of-mind that they have earned it, whether it’s septic tank repair, roofing, or fixing a faulty timing chain.

I watched as Alex drove through the gates of our little subdivision. He didn’t see me, but I paused to give him a brief salute.

Tim, Susan, and Mimsy

2 thoughts on “Of Septic Tanks, Handshakes, and the Backbone of America.

  1. Oh, the loss of the handshake to this Covid time. I hate it. I am a handshaker. Maybe it’s my German roots. Super awkward at church now, during what we Catholics call the exchange of peace. Most of us do a weird little wave. Always enjoy your musings, Tim!


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