By day 5 it was the kind of bathroom only a survivalist could appreciate- the kind of guy that dogs fear. Air conditioning, the running water, everything had been dead for 5 days. Hurricane Isabel had cut a swath through Mechanicsville and the rest of central Virginia--felling thousands of trees, telephone poles and homes. Cars had been sent skittering across the streets by winds that topped out somewhere between howling and “we’re all gonna die!” After Isabel had decided she’d had enough of my hometown, residents of towns like Mechanicsville, Studley, Beaverdam and Cold Harbor were grateful but we didn’t know that we’d have to wait so long to get our power back.
So, you sit in your den and you sweat. You stick to the couch from the heat. You sweat. You remember liking your den once. Only it’s not a den anymore. It’s more like underwear after a 5 mile run. Everything smells like running shoes. You then ask yourself why you’re in the den when the TV doesn’t work. You don’t have an answer.
But the biggest problem at the moment was that 4 people, all blood relatives, had to share a bathroom with no running water.
In the country, your plumbing operates using well water, which requires a pump. A pump that runs on freaking electricity. No power means that every time you flush, the tank empties and has to be refilled manually. So, every day or so - to get that delicious clean water - we’d raid the swimming pools of various neighbors. An unspoken agreement: you let me use your pool to flush my toilet, I won’t use your pool for a toilet.
We loved aspects of those bucket raids. If allowed to raid unsupervised, the durability of the minivan’s speakers would be “battle tested.” My brother, Stephen, would squat by the sliding door, two buckets in hand. So that no time would be wasted opening the door from a dead stop, we held the sliding door ajar as we drove 35 mph to the target objective. Once we touched down, Stephen could bound toward the unsuspecting neighbor’s pool more efficiently. Not that it mattered. Sometimes he would commando roll out the sliding door while the van was still in motion. Years ago he had surpassed Patrick Noble as the neighborhood crazy kid, these tactics only solidified his legend.
My sister, Laura, was typically behind the wheel of our wood-paneled Chrysler Caravan. On these errands, she would aim the minivan down the target’s driveway at around 25 miles an hour. Usually, she would slow down before Stephen made his stunt exit. But not too much. She’d been pushed to the brink by five days without running water. Ordinarily the most relaxed member of our family, I hardly knew her now. Her playful, verbal jabs-the hallmark of our family meals had turned malicious and cruel the last few days. She was getting personal with her insults and even Dad avoided her.
But there were no guarantees that we would be allowed to make a raid on our own at this point. It had been 5 days since we last heard the dulcet tones of a decent toilet flush. Our parents smelled gamey and their behavior had become erratic. Manners had gone out the window. On day one, it was “Please try to conserve the water, kids.” Slowly that morphed into “Don’t let me hear you flush that toilet. I swear to Christ, don’t let me hear you flush that toilet! Do you want to go to the Jenkins house with five 10 gallon Home Depot buckets? ‘Cuz I don’t. And I don’t think your mom wants to either!” We’re over 50, we can’t be doing this everyday. Unless you’re trying to kill us. Are you trying kill us? Because I didn’t ask to die today. I don’t think I did. Mother, did I ask the Lord to take us today? I didn’t think so. Don’t LET me hear you flush that toilet!”