I love salamanders. I love to walk down to the creekbed in spring, settle myself down in the moss, and watch for their slender wee forms to wriggle up out of the mud when they don't know a giant's watching. I love to watch them swim in sylvan pools and creep along the margins, their fire-colored bellies lighting the shadows in faint glinting hints...
But today, I'm in love with another kind of salamander.
Last night we drove over to Mr. Ed's. Desperate with anxiety over our absolute lack of running water, we asked to borrow his salamander. For those of you who've never set eyes on one of these beasties, a salamander (a.k.a. "torpedo heater") is an elongated and rather fearsome-looking heater designed to provide heat in challenging but well-ventilated areas such as construction sites. Here in the North Country, it is also used--often improperly, at great risk--in homes during power outages, or employed to thaw frozen plumbing.
It was this last application that attracted our attention. Mr. Ed brough it over in early January when the pipes in our old house first froze up. We fired the monster up and high-tailed it outside to avoid the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Ten minutes later, the kitchen pipes were completely thawed and the interior of the house had jumped from 30 to about 80 degrees. We took that opportunity to drain out the entire system and avoid further damage.
A week later, we had a one of those "January Thaws" that steal in and stick around just long enough to mix up our winter wardrobes and taunt us with vague summery rememberings. It went up into the 40s and we got overconfident, turned the old house plumbing back on, did some laundry, butchered a few chickens, and reveled in faucets and flushes. After one of those 40-degree days, we blythely went to bed...and woke up the next morning to a temp of -23 and frozen--now burst--plumbing. We couldn't borrow Ed's salamander at the time, as it was then making the rounds of his various and sundry down-and-out relatives.
Last night, though, we borrowed it back. It was an excuse for a visit with Ed, who always seems gruffly happy for our company. "Hey, Kiddo," he called out to The Bagpiper from his old orange couch, where he was resting with a propped-up bum leg. "I see you brought your shadow with ya!"
Mr. Ed dug out his keyring and showed The Bagpiper the key to the garage. "Now, you girls just go out to that shed yonder and load that puppy right into your little soup-a-roo." (He finds it tremendously amusing that we use our Subaru for tasks that really deserve A Big Ol' Truck. To keep him on his toes, we sometimes ask to borrow his truck, too.)
We did laundry at the laundromat on the way home, hung it on the rack by the woodstove to dry, then entertained the Border Collie with several minutes of "Go! Find It! Give It!" At that point, we admitted to ourselves that it was too cold, too dark, and we were just too grumpy to do anything more about plumbing until the morning. We slept fitfully, haunted and taunted by our seemingly eternal wait on tradesMEN to fix all our problems.
The Bagpiper woke first, stomping down the plywood stairs to start a fire at four A.M. She angrily attacked the firewood pile, chiseling a few pieces loose from the ice that had built up under a poorly-secured tarp. I pulled the covers over my head and attempted to fall back asleep, but I knew there was no way of avoiding the work ahead of us: as soon as it was light, we dragged and hauled that borrowed salamander over sculpted snowdrifts and down icy banks, ducking under the lashing bud-laden branches of the untrimmed forsythias. We kicked against the cellar door until it finally creaked inward, then woman-handled and rumble-thumped the firebeast into place. The goal was to aim the heat-stream at the water pressure tank in the old house cellar hole, to see if this act might somehow loosen up the system and allow our outside field hydrants to function.
(Privately, I was convinced that it wouldn't work. I was fairly certain the hydrants were a separate system, independent of the pressure tank. I was also fairly certain that the true source of our problem was a dead water pump, the replacement of which would be a very exhausting and expensive propostion. If we had a plumber who EVER answered his phone, we could have made a simple call or two to troubleshoot the system. But that would be too easy.)
The Bagpiper plugged the salamander in. Down in the damp darkness of the cellar hole, it emitted a series of quiet clicks and then suddenly roared to life, breathing fire. Oh, Wizardry! Oh, Saints Preserve Us and Thaw Our Plumbing! We rushed out the door, clambered up the snowbank, and went back into the old house. After about ten minutes of spelunking, The Bagpiper trekked back down to the cellar, shut the beast off, and threw the switch at the plumbing shut-off valve. Standing upstairs in the grubby, fridgid kitchen, I listened to the faint hiss and gurgle of filling pipes, followed by a rushing, spattering sound under the sink. Ahah! So THAT'S the burst pipe! I yelled "Got It!" through the floor-grate, waited for the water to be shut off again, then went out to test the the cold-water hydrant in the new house. Oh, rapture! Oh, glorious cascade! Under the lifted handle, the old black bucket was filling with a burbling, singing, stream of clear, fresh water!
Oh, I DO love salamanders...
(Next on the list: get all my seed-starting gear set up in the new house, repair the burst pipe, then heat up the old kitchen, sharpen my knife, and butcher those poor beyond-ready broiler chickens!)