I’ve always lived in places with municipal sewer systems. Here on the Big Island, I have a cesspool. Hawaiʻi, one of the smallest states, has more cesspools than any other. A cesspool is a mysterious thing, dark, unknown, creepy, and until now, I had no reason to unearth the mystery.
But I decided to extend the driveway on the side of my house. For this, I had to know my cesspool’s location, because the weight of a car could crack the cement cover. But where exactly was the cesspool? Digging through an old file, I found evidence of its general vicinity off the back lanai. It might or might not be in the way of the extended driveway.
I called in Paul at Bob’s Sweetwater Pumping Service. Like a doctor conducting a colonoscopy, he worked a small camera through our sewer pipes to locate the hole. It revealed many roots and a high “water” level, not surprising since we had just suffered six weeks of daily rain. “Might need to be sucked out. Find the hatch and we’ll take a good look.” Cesspools theoretically never need to be sucked, but there are exceptions. Crap.
Knowing the camera position didn’t tell me how far the cover extended, which was my real goal. So I set my yard guy and friend to the task. My husband calls Steve a “Force of Nature.” This 50 year-old has superhuman strength and endurance, running circles around even fit 25 year-olds. I showed him Paul’s brightly painted line on the grass that indicated where the camera had been. “The house’s main sewage pipe into the cesspool ends here. Dig down until you find cement. Then make a trench until the cement ends on both sides.”
Steve found it, about a foot down, and dug up the dirt a foot wide and about six feet across. He also removed the vegetation a good seven feet across, all the way to the fence line. I was alarmed at the carnage, but that was only the beginning. The foot wide path did not reveal the hatch.
About this time my husband decided to jump into the trenches (so to speak) with Steve. He’s a hydro-engineering contractor with a mainland utility company: a dam engineer, or a damn engineer, depending on my mood. I could see that for this project, it would be the latter.
With my husband’s “guidance” Steve dug up most of the cesspool perimeter. It showed the cover’s edge was a good two feet from the proposed driveway – Yeah! We also found the hatch and called Paul back. After his investigation, Paul declared the cesspool to be fine, but recommended we remove the large heliconia clump nearby (travelers palm or Ravenala madagascariensis) to kill the roots in the cesspool. Within a week, Steve and company had that part done.
All that was left was to update the house plan document to show the cesspool’s location, which my husband said he would do. He also pointed out that if we turned the cesspool into a patio, it would always be available, just in case we had to access it again. He was serious. I made it very clear that we’d be covering it again.
Steve was anxious to get it done.
“What’s so hard about drawing a circle on a piece of paper?” he asked.
“Just wait. You’ll see.”
This was my husband’s opportunity to use engineering toys and even buy new ones! On the weekend, I found a series of 21 fluorescent markings around the cesspool cover and 21 corresponding iron rods. (“Don’t take a picture of the uncapped rods. It’s probably an OSHA violation.”) Having spent seven years working on nuclear power plants, he was now in full triple-redundancy nuclear mode. God help me.
The following weekend, he recruited me to help take survey measurements from each of the 21 rods to three different reference points in the yard. My job was to ensure that the reference pole was absolutely straight (I had to call out “the level bubbles are aligned” before each reading) and write down the measurements he called out. Then he brought out his good Brunton compass, and took additional multiple readings. Unfortunately it began to rain, so we had to stop before getting to the other two reference points.
Same deal the third weekend, taking measurements from the second reference point. Bored and cranky, I baited him. “Aren’t you incorporating error into your measurements by having the surveyor’s rope twisted?” I should have kept my mouth shut. Luckily it started to rain again before he could re-set the equipment without the twists. Steve stopped asking when he could fill in the hole.
On the fourth weekend and the third set of measurements with the third reference, I began to rejoice. So far we had taken about 120 measurements in seven hours, just to locate my cesspool cover, precisely and accurately. But who cares? Just draw the damn circle! Meanwhile, my new driveway was already cleared, grubbed and ready for gravel!
My husband informed me that we weren’t done. Today, we would also remove the hatch and take measurements inside. “This is like an archeological dig. You get all the data you can, because you might not be able to come back.” Not that I plan to come back.
He mentioned that I would need to take pictures from inside the cesspool. “No way! I’m not sticking my camera in there!”
“Okay, okay. Keep your pantaloons on. But bring your tape measure. On second thought, I’ll use mine. Might get shit on it.” Of course, he meant that literally.
He lay down on the cesspool cover. “Take my visor. I don’t want it to fall in.” Then, using a new toy, a Bosch GLM 35 Laser Measure, he stuck his arm up to his armpit into the hole, and called out a series of numbers. I was busy writing when I heard him cry out and swear. “Sorry. Nearly lost my glasses. Caught them with my other hand.” Ick! Later we measured the distance from his hand to his armpit (22 inches) so he can adjust the measurements. I don’t make this stuff up.
Are we done yet? No. He saw something odd down there. (I never did get confirmation that turds float in cesspools.) So he fetched his 1500 watt halogen construction light, tied it to a tether and stuck it down the hole. “Write this down. At the west point, there is a vertically standing pipe, about 3 inch diameter. The open end is about two feet from the top of the cesspool and clogged with dirt.” He was clearly more intrigued with this new mystery than I was.
Finally he replaced the hatch, but expressed great concern that now there were some gaps around the edges. Sensing another engineering project, I told him to use Great-Stuff to fill the gaps. “Let the record show that it was YOUR idea,” he said. “This will make it very difficult for the next person to get this hatch out.” I pray that it is not me.
As he cleaned up his tools, he reflected that “we have learned some things. It appears to be a hole dug straight into the dirt…”
“That’s what a cesspool is!”
Ignoring my interruption, he continued, “…and my measurements show that it’s about six feet in diameter.”
“That’s what Paul told us four weeks ago.”
“Yes, but we have confirmed it.”
Sigh. “Can I tell Steve that he can fill in the dirt now?”
“No. Not until I crunch the data, in case we have to repeat something. Then we’ll put heavy-duty plastic on the cover and THEN Steve can fill in the dirt.”
I wonder how long that will take.
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