There's a Hole in My Infrastructure

September 04, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — We've been working on the infrastructure, all the livelong day. We've been working on the infrastructure, and our tempers are starting to fray.

Havre de Grace. -- When they rebuilt the stone springhouse, sometime in the 1930s, and laid those state-of-the-art copper pipes to the house and the barn, they probably didn't know they were installing infrastructure. Most likely, they thought it was just new plumbing they were putting in.

They did a pretty good job of it, and 60 years later the springhouse is still in good repair. Water from the spring, one of several with which the farm is blessed, flows out of a hillside where a giant beech tree grows and into the little slate-roofed building. There it fills a concrete reservoir.

The springhouse is tightly built, and so the reservoir stays very clean, although sometimes a frog will get into it. It once did double duty as a cooling tank for milk cans, but that was a long time ago. When the reservoir is full, which is most of the time, the water overflows through a pipe to the outside of the building.

This overflow fills a tub where animals can drink, and the overflow from the tub is piped underground to another watering trough in a different field. That trough is made from an old bathtub. Overflow from the bathtub augments a stream produced entirely from springs on the farm. The stream feeds Mill Creek, a tributary of Deer Creek, which runs to the Susquehanna.

Now as a century ago, gravity powers all of that. But because the two houses that the spring serves are on higher ground, a more complex mechanism is required as well. An electric pump draws water from the reservoir and pipes it to the houses and barns.

When the pump wears out, it can be easily replaced. But replacing the old pipes, though it will have to be done some day, is a daunting task. We keep putting it off, and just keep patching the breaks as they occur. Baltimore, New York, and other water-system operators do the same thing, I've read. That's how I know that what I've been digging through the mud this week to find is now called the infrastructure.

Because our water is hard, over time it corrodes the old copper pipes. Some we have replaced with plastic, but there's still plenty of copper in the system, and when we find a new wet spot in the ground above the water line we know what we're going to find when we dig down. Infrastructural corrosion, and a lot of mud.

The old pipes are said to be the reason why the spring water, which tastes so good as it overflows from the springhouse, has an odd taste in the houses. They're also the reason why the bath water tends to turn bright blue when soap's added to it. With plastic pipe this wouldn't happen. Someday the government may require us to install plastic pipe, and when that happens we'll be able to say that we've been tasked to restructure our infrastructure.

There's something at once comic and sinister about the word ''infrastructure,'' perhaps because it's so redolent of bureaucracy. When he came across it for the first time late in life, in early discussions of a European Common Market, Winston Churchill tried unsuccessfully to kill it with mockery.

William Safire, in his ''Political Dictionary,'' quotes Churchill as attributing the word to ''the band of intellectual highbrows who are naturally anxious to impress British labor with the fact that they learned Latin at Winchester.'' After that assault the word languished, but it was too valuable a piece of jargon to be allowed to die.

Government loves big words with vague meanings, because they can be assigned new uses as expediency dictates. For example, American policy makers used to talk about the ''viable infrastructure'' they intended to build in South Vietnam. They meant a functioning democratic government. But when that became a joke, like the light they kept reporting at the end of the tunnel, they quickly gave the tainted word a subtle new meaning.

''Publicly Expose the Viet Cong Infrastructure,'' read a poster printed up in English and Vietnamese by the psy-ops experts. Suddenly, good countries didn't build infrastructure any more. Only their enemies did, and it needed to be exposed and destroyed.

Now, despite Winston Churchill and the Vietnamese experience, infrastructure'' is still with us, more durable than ideology, more flexible than Spandex. Today it doesn't mean people, either virtuous or wicked, or their political institutions. It has to do with hardware. It means highways and plumbing.

Well, let's go with the flow. I think I'm going to suggest to my children that when they're asked what their father does, they reply that ''recently he's been deeply involved in infrastructural engineering.'' It's more refined than saying he's a mudslinger.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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