Machines conspire to wreak havoc upon the holidays


November 27, 1993|By ROB KASPER

Too many people travel on holiday weekends. And when they do, the basic rhythm of the universe is disturbed. Things that are supposed to work smoothly don't. Things like cars, drain pipes and hot water heaters.

This is my belief. It comes after spending many long weekends either being a house guest or playing host to guests. It has affected the way I view holidays. Members of my family, for instance, speak of a Thanksgiving several years ago as "the time our cousins visited us from Vermont." I remember it as the time the hot water heater croaked.

The day after Thanksgiving, with a house full of dirty dishes and dirtier kids, a little puddle showed up underneath the hot water heater. At first I thought one of the kids had made the puddle. No such luck.

The puddle was the water heater's way of saying goodbye to the working world. Restoring hot water to the house required buying a new water heater and coaxing a plumber to visit the house on a Saturday. It was an expensive holiday, even though we never left town.

The hot water heater was mad. There is no other sensible explanation. For 10 years that thing had been in that basement doing whatever water heaters do. But the one weekend the house was filled with in-laws, the water heater decided to stop working and start leaking.

Houses and their vital working parts do that. They get even. Guests shouldn't be offended when the house they visit throws a tantrum. There is little guests can do. If they weren't getting the house agitated, another set of relatives would be.

That is what I tried to tell myself about 10 years ago when my family descended on my brother's house outside Boston for a Thanksgiving weekend. Things were going smoothly until we sat down for the feast. Just as the pumpkin pie was about to be served, the house's sewer system started backing up. Many hours and several frantic phone calls later, a plumber diagnosed the trouble as a diaper stuck in a drain pipe. The real reason was that the house was getting even for having to accommodate a tribe of rowdy visitors.

Family vehicles are well known to exact their revenge during long, holiday trips. The typical vehicle suffers silently, until a holiday weekend. Then, when the family is totally dependent on the car's sweet, cooperative nature, the car pitches a fit.

Take, for instance, the painful trip several years ago when we drove to New York on the day before Thanksgiving. Drove is not the correct verb. "Inched" would be more accurate. The traffic was bumper-to-bumper from Philadelphia to New York. Our kids, who were then about 6 and 2 years old, reacted with the usual forebearance kids this age show when a four-hour trip turns into an eight-hour ordeal. They wreaked havoc.

They changed seats. They repeatedly played sappy songs on their tape players, like "The Wheels On the Bus Go Round and Round." One of them amused himself by turning the car's interior light on and off. The car took all this without complaint. When we got to New York, the car collapsed in a parking spot I found on the street. It sat in that spot for three days.

But when it came time to head home, the car wouldn't move. Its battery was dead. Luckily our host, a Manhattan resident, not only owned a car, he also owned some jumper cables. He got us going again.

Later I figured out that the car's interior light might have been left on for three days. That would have been the logical explanation of why the car's engine wouldn't crank. A more likely reason, at least in my mind, was that after the horrific drive to New York, the car was terrified of ever traveling again.

We have since changed cars. And so far the new car has behaved well on trips. It did not get honked off when nails showed up in its tires, or sea shells took sanctuary under its seats, or when one of the kids dropped a pencil down a --board heating vent.

My wife says the fact that the car heater works, despite my dire predictions of the damage a pencil can inflict, is proof that I exaggerate the risks of family travel. She reminds me that last Thanksgiving we drove to the Eastern Shore and back, and nothing bad happened.

That is one way to look at holiday travel. The way I see it, we got lucky last year. And that only means this year we're headed for big trouble. Already I have checked under the hot water heater for puddles.

You should, too.

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