My Father’s Sprinklers
In the middle of the seventies, in the middle of our block, there was a house that for one month one summer sprung sprinklers on its roof. The water arced from three ordinary yard sprinklers that had been tacked to the roof but the effect was mesmerizing for adults and kids alike. It was like a southern gothic rendering of the kind of thing we had only glimpsed in films set in Las Vegas as the Rat Pack jetted from place to place. The show began in the morning and climaxed in late afternoon as the sun’s heat steamed the water on the back of the roof, forming a veil of droplets through which a rainbow sometimes ran. Each sprinkler kept its apparently assigned portion of the roof wet, with the excess water slowly dripping from the roof’s edge, looking like a continuous curtain.
Late in the afternoon, as the heat of the day hit its stride, adults in cars would slow and kids on bikes would stop to watch the show of cool water falling onto black shingles and turning into steam. It was a momentary spectacle in the large, flat space of the subdivision. Its aquatic curves were so unlike the straight-lined streets and sidewalks and driveways; its black asphalt shingles were comfortingly cool compared to the black asphalt of the street which could not, in the later afternoon, be walked on when barefoot — if you had to do so, you scampered across on tip-toe and leapt onto grass as soon as you could.
The house itself was otherwise indistinguishable from its neighbors: all were modest, pink brick ranch houses in a subdivision which was itself part of a wide ring of new subdivisions and shopping centers. Like rings on a tree, this particular fat ring marked the oil boom years of the late fifties and sixties. I remember the house so well because my own bike carried me under the dripping edge of the carport and the man responsible for the sprinklers being nailed to the roof was my father. While some kids in my neighborhood thought it was cool, a larger number of kids and adults — including those who stopped their cars, shook their heads, and drove on — were troubled by this seemingly irresponsible irruption of difference. Had the roof sprinklers lasted anything more than a month, once could have well imagined there being gatherings in kitchens and dens to discuss what must be done to return things to normal.
I was an impressionable twelve year old, too sensitive to such social undercurrents and yet, at the same time, utterly curious about anything that posed a problem that could be solved through thinking.
I came by this weakness, as some critics of young Hamlet imagine it, legitimately. I was practically raised to be this way. When I was five or six I disassembled my parents’ bedside clock. Instead of getting in trouble, I was encouraged to try to re-assemble it. When I was older, my father would talk me through his current project, whether it was pouring gasoline on ant piles in sufficient quantity so that when you lit it it would be sure to burn the queen or attaching some gizmo’s wires to the engine block in an attempt to conserve gas. My mother, who set her sights perhaps a bit lower but usually with better results, would ask me how I would like to lay out my room, using her own architectural skills to show me how certain configurations made the room feel bigger or smaller.
Some weekends we would return to my father’s rural roots and drive out of the city and deep into the country to my great-grandparents’ house. There I would eventually squirm my way off the couch, and out of my great-grandmother’s overly long narratives about cousins and aunts of which I could never keep track, and slip out the door, off the front porch, and down the gravel drive to my great-grandfather’s radio shack. He would have slipped out before me and would be sitting in front of a pile of radio parts, usually gazing back out of the shack through the open door or through the small, paned window that lit his workbench. The shack smelled of warmed radio tubes gone cold, the dry dirt of its floor, and my great-grandfather’s pipe as he sat there patiently pointing out radio parts to me.
Years later my father told me how practically everything my great-grandfather knew he either learned from experience or from the pages of Popular Mechanics. He was, for a good part of his life, an engineer, but not in the degreed sense of the word. He was, instead, an engineer in the sense of being good with engines, with machines that appear so complicated to others that they fear them. He loved them.
He loved them so much that he made them in his spare time, sometimes to solve problems that he encountered in his work. One of his many tasks at the sugar mill was to tap into its power system, a series of steam pipes that coursed under the ground. Unfortunately, there was no map of the piping, only fragile human memories about what pipe lay where and ran to what. So the job of running new taps involved digging a hole and a hole there until you struck gold in the form of a massive, hot iron pipe.
Having recently read about the principles of metal detection through changes in electro-magnetic fields in an issue of Popular Mechanics, my great-grandfather decided to build a machine that would make his life easier. And so one summer he pulled the spokes out of an old bicycle wheel, wrapped wires around it to form a coil, and then attached it to a box big enough to hold a battery and the necessary electronics to transform the changes in electrical signal into signals he could understand. His two foot by two foot by eight inch wood box — because none of these parts were small in the 1940s — had both a gauge as well as a set of earphones he had ordered from a catalogue. Box in hand, or in hands since it was by my father’s account both big and heavy, he easily found pipes and reduced the labor of the men who worked for Mr. Guidroz, as he was known at the mill, by half.
But such a magical machine was surely capable of more. Word spread of his “gold-finding machine” and it wasn’t long before men began to show up at the front door of his house at all hours of the day and night — because some quests are best left for the twilight hours when we believe we can see and understand more — asking if Mr. Felix, as he was known away from work, wouldn’t mind coming out and bringing his gold-finding machine with him. This time, they were sure, they had puzzled out a lost pirate treasure or a lost cache of Civil War gold. It was, they were sure, at the base of this tree and they only needed a little bit of help to make sure they were digging in the right place.
My great-grandfather, so far as can be remembered, never said no to any of these requests. He would always retreat back into the house, grab his hat and his machine, and return to be led away. He did, however, have one thing on which he always insisted in return for leaving his house and family on nights and weekends. When asked to come out, he would always say: “Okay, I’ll come. But I get a share and the machine gets a share, same as every man there. And I don’t dig.”
It’s not hard to imagine the series of transformations that took place in mens’ minds when they saw a wooden box with a bicycle wheel that could find where pipes lay in the ground and suddenly knew, just knew, that it could find other buried things. What better to be buried than gold? And so, for a short time on Weeks Island, there was gold to be found almost anywhere. A machine had made the place magical.
From the point of view of a small boy with an active imagination, such magical machines seasoned the Louisiana landscape. From the ditch cutters that could spew dirt twenty, thirty feet into the air to the hotboxes my grandfather made out of spare lumber and old windows to his adaptation of a garden rake to pluck grapefruit from the tree behind his garage, there seemed no end to what one could do if only you had the right device.
And clearly I was not alone in thinking this way. My great-grandfather, my grandfather, my father — our neighbor who had re-wired the horn of his Oldsmobile Delta 88 so he could work it from the dash — I was surrounded by men, and by women like my mother, who genuinely believed that the right combination of imagination and mechanics could produce wondrous results. No problem could withstand the onslaught of optimism and analysis it seemed to me.
It just so happened that in the seventies a wholly new problem had arisen for the dwellers in the rings and rings of suburbs that cities had perhaps too quickly grown. The oil embargo of 1973 and the later crisis of 1979 had made the cost of fuel do the unimaginable: it had gone up.
My father was not a man to take bad news in the form of a bill tallying what it took to cool our three bedroom ranch rental home lying down. Nor was he a man, however, prone to rash moves like raising the thermostat. No, there had to be a better way, and with that in mind, as well as the cheapness of water in a place where a good rainstorm flooded the carport, he made it a summer project to see if there was anything to be gained in the difference between the cost of water to cool the roof versus the cost of electricity to cool the house. In the first month, the savings were remarkable. In the second month, the water company had remembered to send a meter reader around and the experiment came to an abrupt, if also lamentable, halt. (To his credit, the water company assumes that all water consumed is also water taken away in the form of sewerage, so the system was stacked in favor of conventional uses and not attempts to play with the possibilities.)
Watering your roof to keep it cool might, at first glance, seem like a case of over-reacting. In the case of machines, you sometimes hear it said that something is over-engineered, which is a polite way of suggesting that there is too much solution for the problem at hand.
But such an appraisal ignores the fact that our house itself was under-engineered. Built during the energy boom years of the 1960s our house, like the hundreds that surrounded it in our subdivision alone, had little insulation and, worst of all, had little to no attic space. Its shallow-pitched roof nodded, in some fashion, in the direction of Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie-style homes without recognizing that none of those homes had been built in the subtropical torpor of south Louisiana. And the black asphalt shingles that covered roof after roof for as far as the eye could see were terribly good at converting light into heat. The result was that on most summer days, if you stood on a chair and pressed your hand to the ceiling — as children with active imaginations are likely to do — you could feel the heat from the attic through the gypsum board. In such a situation, watering your roof to keep it cool seems like a fairly reasonable response.
In any case, my father, while also possessed of an active imagination, could not be considered an amateur. He was a degreed and licensed architect with his own private practice who would go on to develop a rather ingenious solution for discovering, of all things, water traps in flat roofs. The idea was that where water stood, a leak was most likely to develop. He and his partner, an engineer, would hire aircraft to take infrared photos of their clients’ buildings at night and then my father would map the hot spots onto plans. In most cases, the hot spots revealed where water, which retains heat well, lay. With a marked-up plan in hand, their inspections on foot — which sometimes really meant hands and knees — could be much more targeted and with a higher probability of finding potential or actual problems.
I can’t help but wonder, now looking back, if one thing didn’t lead to the other, in some weird way, to my fascination with men and women willing to re-think the way the world is put together. And, given that my father was happy to try to think outside his own expertise, to my own fascination with individuals who, I think, offer us a model for repairing knowledge, allowing all of us to participate, with our minds and with our hands, in the process of making our world(s) a better place. It was all my father wanted as he stuck those sprinklers on our roof.