I woke up last night and couldn’t go back to sleep. An all too common thing with me. As often happens, a wave of tangenting thoughts set in, until I landed on a weird memory I thought I’d share.
When I was a kid, my Daddy would suddenly decide he wanted to spend a Sunday afternoon visiting his sister, Bertha. Yes, I really had an Aunt Bertha! She was sweet and soft spoken. I was fond of her, but I was even more fond of the fact that I hadn’t been named after her.
Aunt Bertha lived about an hour and a half away, in an area of odd geography. Where I grew up, which is also where she grew up, the land alternates rolling hills and flat fields. Where Aunt Bertha settled the land was very flat. Except when it wasn’t. We’d be driving along, admiring the huge fields of nodding sunflowers that seemed to add an extra glow to the sunbaked afternoon. Then, suddenly, the flat fields gave way to the closest thing to mountains anywhere around. Red hued bluffs rose abruptly to loom mildly over the surrounding checkerboard of farmland. I never understood why, unless it was a place where the Cumberland Plateau swept toward the Mississippi Delta. A couple of other places where the geography changed drastically were more subtle descents, so maybe the minor bluffs were the result of the great earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 that changed the landscape of that area forever. Whatever the cause, I can so distinctly remember the change in the air, as we entered the cool, leafy contrast to the sunflower sunfest we left behind.
One curve in particular made Daddy slow our progress, so he could point out the place where a small stream of clear cool water emerged from the rock face. I had trouble believing his stories of drinking water that ran directly from the ground, and marveled at the imagery as I imagined how such water would taste. My wellwater had always come from a faucet, tasting slightly of iron with a familiar metallic tang. The very idea of drinking from a stream seemed like magic.
One particular time we were not concerned directly with water, be it from stream or a faucet or a restaurant glass. No, our minds on that day were occupied by a bizarre story we’d heard on the news. An unassuming, unsuspecting family in a town near where my aunt lived became notorious for their 15 minutes of fame, when they used up all the water in their water heater. Some malfunction I still don’t quite understand the mechanics of caused alarming pressure to build up inside the tank. Eventually the alarming pressure became dangerous pressure that basically turned their mundane water heater into a missle.
According to the news story that was the buzz of a third of the state, the water heater blew right through the roof of the house and landed in the yard! No injuries were reported, except perhaps the family’s collective dignity.
Of course we had to find that house. We wouldn’t rest until we’d witnessed for ourselves the site of such a marvel of modern ingenuity gone so horribly wrong. Now that I think of it, maybe that afternoon is where my desire to visit places I’ve read about in novels originated. Dickens’ London, Rilke’s Paris…the water heater peoples’ house.
Without an address we just drove into the small town and aimlessly went up and down streets, looking for signs of excitement. It took quite a while, but we were in no hurry. The quest for confirmation was all consuming. A time came when we knew we were on the right street, approaching ground zero. There in the distance, growing ever closer, was a small ranch style house, with a water heater size hole in its gray shingled roof.
It looked so normal. A neat yard. A well kept home. Not a single brick out of place. Any of one of a thousand small town families could have lived there. But only one family called what temporarily passed for a minor tourist attraction in the rural South home.
The Water Heater People.
We drove by slowly, gawking as if we’d stumbled into the single exhibit of a small town cabinet of curiosities. It was absolutely nothing. Yet it was everything we’d hoped to see. A house with a hole in its roof. A house I never forgot. Somehow, my child’s mind was beginning to think like a science fiction writer already. In my mind’s eye, the appliance with a bad temper and a penchant for flying took on the accoutrements of a dreamer. It sported sweeping little wings out each side.
That house had launched a water heater toward the stars.