Kids Do Some Strange Things To Heating Systems


Our daughter, Kelly, and her husband, Craig, wanted to give our grandchildren names that would never appear on a souvenir rack in a touristy store, so they named our grandson Sullivan Daniel and our granddaughter Dempsey Jane.

I mentioned at one point that they had named these kids after former Heavyweight Champions of the World, which had not occurred to either Kelly or Craig, but now seems quite appropriate to me, especially in Dempsey’s case.

This child is a mixture of beauty, cunning, and mayhem. She moves through a room, seeking the most dangerous objects she can find and then she palms said objects. She is MacGyver in diapers. She could murder you with a plastic spoon. Don’t let her cuteness fool you.

Sully, at four years old, is pure imagination and perpetual motion. I watch him and listen to him and then need a nap. He has no pause button. Thankfully, he is not as fearless or as diabolical as his little sister but he still finds ways to make me tremble.

It’s a wonder children become adults. Dempsey walked off a high step out onto the porch as if she could walk on air. She hit the floor like a sack of cement. I jumped up in horror. Dempsey just screeched, and smacked the floor with her little hand. Then she growled at it. She had a lump the size of a golf ball on her forehead but she cried for maybe a minute before heading out to look for the next thing she could do to make me even older than I am.

I was thinking about my dear grandchildren the other day when I read the story about the toddler in Fort Wayne, Indiana, who had managed to get the register off a floor duct and then slide eight feet down into the duct before his mother could get back into the room. She had left him alone for just a moment but that’s all the little felon needed. And he wasn’t alone. He had his two-year-old brother with him and I figure that miniature Dillinger had a hand in this, too. It took six firefighters to get the kid out of the duct, and Mama got older. Much older.

Put a kid near a boiler and watch what happens. When I was a child, I was fascinated with the barometric damper on our oil-fired, hot-water boiler. I loved the way it swung back and forth with the wind. I had no idea of its purpose, but I liked the sound it made. And I liked to drop stuff from my father’s workbench though the hole whenever it opened. I also liked to pop the relief valve and stick pencils into the circulator’s whirling coupler. It made a cool sound, sort of like the sound a baseball card makes when the bicycle spokes hit it.

My father beat the snot out of me, of course, but that was both acceptable and understandable during the ‘50s. Father knows best.

A contractor friend told me about a repeat call he had on this compression tank that kept failing. He had replaced it five or six times, but the relief valve still kept going off. The tank couldn’t seem to hold its air cushion and he was cussing the manufacturer. On his final visit, he passed a kid walking up the basement stairs as he was going down. The kid was tying a knot in a not-so-full balloon. “You should blow that up some more before you tie it,” my friend said.

“I can’t,” the kid said. “The tank is all out of air. Again!”

They’re out to kill us, every one of them.

I was helping another contractor with an old-school convector that wouldn’t get hot. The cover on this convector had at least 50 coats of paint on it and it glared at anyone who wanted to remove it. We had to use a sharp knife to scratch through the archeological-dig of paintjobs to get at that element. And when we finally did, we found a whole deck of playing cards lying on the top of the element, completely covering it from end to end and blocking the flow of air.

An evil child did that and when we confronted her, she smiled sweetly and told us she was playing ATM.

Dempsey would have used the bills in her mother’s wallet.

My sister-in-law, Missy, has Down syndrome and lives in a group home now, but during the eight years she lived with us, she went out of her way to make me older than I was. For instance, in February, she would get out of bed in the middle of the night and open the window in her room. She was hot. Then she would waddle though the house, opening all the other windows. And I mean wide-open. And this was in February. On Long Island.

I would question her about this and she would tell me to mind my own business.

So we took it up with her caseworker, who told Missy (at our urging) that because she was making the house cold, we were going to have to send all our money to the oil company, and that meant there wouldn’t be enough money to send her to camp next summer.

Well, that made an impression. I could see the light come on in Missy’s eyes. She promised to never again open a window. I looked at The Lovely Marianne. She looked at me. We both looked at the caseworker and at Missy and we smiled. Problem solved.

The next night, I woke in a sweat. Our bedroom felt like Phoenix in August. I checked the thermostat, which was pegged at 88 degrees, as were all the other thermostats in the house. Missy.

But follow the logic: If the house is cold she cannot go to summer camp. Therefore, the house must be kept hot.

Kids come in all ages and sizes.

A guy has a problem with his steam system. It’s hammering like crazy, but only when it first starts. The contractor I’m helping had changed the boiler last winter and it was running fine. But now here we were one winter later and the house sounds like a blacksmith’s shop. But it’s only happening on start-up, which usually means that condensate is hanging around in the mains between steaming cycles. When that happens, the steam, which moves very quickly, picks up the water that didn’t drain between firing cycles and rockets it down the pipe like an artillery shell.

So we get out of the boiler room and follow the pipes around the basement. We get to this one spot where the main is really drooping. “That’s the problem,” I said.

“How come it didn’t happen last year?” the homeowner says. “Nothing has changed.”

And don’t you just love when someone says that? If nothing has changed, than what we have here is Divine intervention. Or magic.

Something has changed. Believe in that.

And this is when the kid shows up. He’s about 13 years old and athletic. “You work out?” I ask. “Got some guns there.” I point at his arms, which aren’t really that big, but hey, he’s 13 years old.

“I do a lot of pull-ups,” the kid says.

“Yeah? Where do you do them?”

He shrugs. “Here and there.” He points to the steam main. “I can only do them there during the summer, though,” he says.

“Because the pipe gets hot in the winter, right?”

“Yeah,” he says.

And that made me think about all the stuff I once pushed through our barometric damper. And how nice the coupler on that old circulator sounded when I stuck the pencil in there.

Just imagine what Dempsey could do with that sharpened pencil.


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