Longing builds up as a rite of autumn falls by the wayside


October 08, 1994|By ROB KASPER

Every fall I get jealous of guys who get to clean the leaves out of their gutters.

Our narrow rowhouse, like a lot of houses in Baltimore, is so tall that leaves falling from our short trees can't land in its gutters and clog them. This tall-gutters, short-tree situation means that I miss out on one of the great homeowning experiences, fighting gutter clog.

If you have dirty gutters, you are by definition a slacker, somebody the neighbors talk about in disapproving tones when they have other neighbors over for drinks. In addition to covering the family name with scorn, dirty gutters can also subject your roof to the dreaded "capillary action."

I was once a victim of capillary action. It was several years ago when we lived in the exceptionally leafy suburb of Bethesda, and had a short house and tall trees. The trees, gigantic tulip poplars, not only dropped big leaves on the roof, they also dropped twigs and other tree dandruff.

Being a rookie homeowner, I did not know the importance of gutter vigilance. I didn't clean the gutters. They filled up with tree leaves and tree dandruff. Then, in honor of George Washington's birthday, we had a massive snowstorm. Like many Americans, the storm was uncertain which day was George's birthday, so just to be sure, it snowed all weekend.

When the snow melted, the water ran off the roof into the clogged gutter and sat there, like a car caught in Beltway traffic. Somehow the water found its way into the roof, where, thanks to the mysteries of capillary action, the water ran uphill, at least until it got to the living room ceiling.

Then, right in the middle of the house, a house that, as luck would have it, was filled with visiting relatives, the brown water dripped from the ceiling.

That unhappy event turned me into a gutter-cleanliness fanatic. I undertook a regular program of gutter patrol, in which I removed, by hand, the leaves that had taken up residence in my gutters. This turned out to be a bloody proposition. The gutters on the house were covered with a wire mesh that carried the dubious title of gutter guards. The mesh was supposed to keep the leaves out and the gutters clear.

Somehow the leaves and tree parts had outsmarted the gutter guards. They had slipped past the wire mesh and sat underneath the mesh. To get rid of these squatters I had to pull the wire mesh off the top of the gutters, then stick my hand underneath the wire and remove the leaves. Wire being wire, it cut me. Nowadays there is, I am told, a new style of gutter guard made of smooth aluminum sheets. I don't know if the new gutter guards work or not. My bloody tussles with the wire mesh have made me anti-gutter guard.

After we moved to our Baltimore rowhouse, I did not have to worry about gutter guards. The roof was so tall, and the trees so short, that our gutters could gurgle away in unguarded bliss.

After a few autumns had passed, however, I began to miss the old gutter-cleaning routine. It may have been painful, dirty work, but when you had cleaned your gutters, you could see the results of your work. Gutters that were once dirty, congested and a threat to the health of your roof were now clear and free-running, a credit to the residence.

Now when I get a hankering to clean gutters, I go to Kansas City. That is where my parents live. Over the years we have come to an understanding about what happens when I visit.

If I clean their gutters, I can clean out their refrigerator.

People who have never been to Kansas City sometimes make wisecracks about the lack of trees there. Anybody who has cleaned leaves out of gutters in Kansas City would never talk that way. At my parents' home, not only are the trees numerous, they are aggressively leafy. Almost as fast as I pull the leaves out of the gutters, those Kansas City trees fill them back up.

One kind of tree, a native pin oak, is especially cantankerous. Instead of dropping all its leaves during one month, the way many trees do, this oak stretches its leaf drop over the entire winter. Last November, as soon as I had finished cleaning out the gutters on my parents' one-story ranch house, the wind whistled and a couple of oaks dropped a fresh deposit on the roof.

I can't think of any way to stop those trees from clogging my parents' gutters. Unless, of course, they knock down that Kansas City ranch house and build a Baltimore rowhouse.

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