Frozen in Place

When the best tool is the telephone

By Jim Moriarty

I’m not handy. Not to make excuses, but I come by this naturally. As my mother, who suffered from dementia at the end of her days, once explained to me in a depressingly lucid moment, “Your father couldn’t put up a stepladder.”

So, the prospects for the successful completion of virtually any gender-stereotypical task around my house were dismally low. Yet, hope sprung eternal in my wife, the War Department. This was an expectation I viewed with roughly the same enthusiasm the nail has for the hammer. Which brings me to the case of the frozen pipes.

The kitchen in our previous home was added on to the original building. Beneath this one-room expansion was a crawl space. Well, not exactly a crawl space, more like a duck-walking stoop space. And, underneath the floor of this one-room expansion were water pipes, water being a desirable element in almost any kitchen.

Though winters here tend to be blessedly mild, there was a certain inevitability that at some point we would endure a brief snap of weather bitter enough to cause the exposed pipes under this one-room expansion to freeze as solid as the Athabasca Glacier. It was equally predictable that I would be dispatched by the War Department to this version of the Russian front.

A friend of mine, who truly ought to be in witness protection, built the house he lives in near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northern Michigan with his own two hands. Where he got the knowledge to do all this wiring and plumbing and hammering was as confounding to me as molecular biology. His father couldn’t put up a stepladder either. Anyway, this person — a card-carrying member of the cult of the handy who was held up to me at every turn as the quintessential model of the serviceable American spouse — instructed me on the ins and outs of fixing frozen pipes. How could you go wrong with advice from someone who lives where winter is so snappy you can get Manolo Blahnik snowshoes?

He told me about the butane torch. The flux. The sandpaper. The solder. All of it. He assured me the flux would suck the solder into the newly fashioned pipe joint like smoke out of a hookah in a Paris opium den. Then, in a hushed tone as if the phone line was tapped by Local 421 of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union, he revealed the secret of a successful watertight seal. Bread. “Bread?” I asked. I could hear him nod.

So, off I went. Equipped with a pipe cutter, my flux, my fire, my sandpaper, my solder and two slices of Bunny Bread, I duck-walked into the Valley of Death. I confess, the actual order in which events transpired over the next several hours remains muddled. I do recall it beginning with the removal of the diseased and fractured section of copper tubing which, if I do say so myself, was accomplished with the skill and precision of a vascular surgeon. Thereafter, things went downhill.

The bread, it had been explained to me, would sop up any excess moisture. I had been properly cautioned that moisture was the Achilles heel of a tight seal. I stuffed the bread into the pipe with my finger like I was packing a charge of black powder into a Civil War howitzer. The pipes were appropriately sanded and fluxed. At the moment of truth, however, when I fired up the torch and applied the solder, the pipe spit at me like an enraged camel.

So, I started over. Same. I started over again. Same. I got more bread. Same. And again. More bread to the front, dammit! And again. And again. Did I already say that the crawl space under the kitchen was at something of an awkward height? It was too high to kneel and reach the pipes but too low to stand. In short, I was frozen, as it were, in what could only be described as a diabolical stress position. Had the War Department piped in Bee Gees music at sufficient decibels I would have confessed to the Ripper murders. Of course, with every aborted attempt and subsequent pipe trimming, the copper tubes got just a wee bit shorter. This resulted in my yanking on the pipes, first to my left, then to my right, in a kind of tug of war to make the ends meet. Still no luck. So often did I stretch the pipes, bread them, sand them, flux them and fire them that I used all the white bread in the house and resorted to wheat. That was when the War Department called our plumber.

Did I mention we had a plumber?

When Jim showed up — the irony that his name was the same as mine didn’t escape me — he looked through the tiny door into my kitchen crawl space where I was crouched, hunks of white and brown bread scattered about my feet, bolts of pain shooting through my lower back and hamstrings, and said, “You havin’ a picnic in there?”

No.  PS

Jim Moriarty is senior editor of PineStraw and can be reached at

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