First and foremost in my memory of horrible tasks was cleaning out the grease trap. I didn’t get suspicious of this particular responsibility until I was in my early teens and complained about it to my friends.
“Don’t you hate having to bail the grease trap?” I asked them. They looked at me as if they didn’t know what I was talking about.
“What’s a grease trap?” they asked.
I assumed their parents hired someone to do it while they were at school. I described the cement tank likely buried outside their kitchen window, designed to catch everything draining from the sink. At least once a year, I had to dig down to the cement lid, attach a block and tackle to the piece of rebar that served as the handle and hoist the lid into the air to uncover a foul soup of greasy waste. Then I used an empty paint can to ladle the filth into a 5-gallon bucket and haul it across the highway into the woods. There was no way to do this without gagging as it sloshed all over me.
My friends studied me. “We definitely don’t have one of those, ” they concurred.
I eventually discovered that people with the convenience of the city sewer didn’t, in fact, have or need a grease trap. I further discovered that most people who do have a grease trap don’t have to bail it often, if ever. Like septic tanks, these mechanisms have a field line that is supposed to take the waste material out of the tank and leach it into the soil. Ours was simply not designed for a family of nine.
The Beached “Roadkill”
On to the dead things …
There is a never-ending supply of decomposing creatures that float up on the beach and have to be carted away like roadkill. For some reason, catfish seem to die more than other species. Most of the smaller fish or birds could be removed with a shovel and deposited into the trusty 5-gallon bucket. But we would also find alligators, porpoises and other large animals that had to be towed out by boat.
Strangest of all were the large number of cats. I consulted a neighbor about the matter.
“Do ya’ll find a lot of dead cats on your beach?”
I thought about it. We didn’t encourage cats to stick around, but we certainly had more feline hobos than our neighbors. Our house was raised about 2 feet off the ground, and our central heating system ran beneath the floor. There were only a few families living in Point Clear in the wintertime, and not just cats but raccoons, opossums and other critters traveled long distances to nest about the ducts for warmth.
But I’m still not sure how the cats ended up in the water.
The Most Miserable Maintenance Duties
Wintertime also holds other dirty perils. Whenever I saw Dad bundled up and hurrying about the yard at night with a flashlight, dripping faucets, I knew there would be broken pipes in the morning. Even after we installed a makeshift skirting of wharf boards, a north wind coming across the Bay always seemed to find a way to lick at the pipes until they burst. Repairing the copper pipes involved squeezing under the house on your back in a puddle of muddy ice water, holding a propane torch in one hand and a flashlight in the other. The spider webs didn’t bother me as much as the tiny reflecting critter eyes and their hissing complaints.
Repairing the bulkhead was also done in wintertime when the tide was low. After pulling the waterlogged, scum-covered boards out of the mud, we hauled them off before they began to stink like more dead things. Then, we used a water pump to sink the new boards and pilings into place. The entire project was done trudging in wet, cold, soupy mud.
Summertime had miseries of its own. “Don’t you just hate tarring the roof?” I asked.
“What are you talking about?”
Most of my friends were not familiar with roll roofing and the buckets of tar needed to install and repair it. All these years later, I still find it impossible to deal with roofing tar and not get it on myself. Even if you aren’t required to be on all fours to spread it with a paintbrush, I believe it will jump out of the can onto you. The only way I knew of to get clean was to wipe myself down with gasoline.
Of all the chemical threats, creosote was the worst. This black toxin covered our pilings to keep them from rotting, and we dealt with it summer and winter. Usually we wore long-sleeved shirts and long pants into the water and covered our remaining exposed skin, especially our faces, with Vaseline. But the rainbow-like slick left on top of the water always seems to find a way to get to your skin. The smell and chemical burn it leaves is so familiar to me that it’s become nostalgic.
Actually, I suppose it’s all a bit nostalgic these days. But I’m not one to chase ghosts.
Text and photo courtesy of Watt Key