What's In The Way?

HC uphill

In the city of Worcester, Massachusetts, which snuggles into the center of the state, you will find Mount Saint James, and upon that steep hill you will find The College of the Holy Cross.

Our daughter Meg attended that fine college and graduated 20 years ago. I have mixed feelings about the location. Meg lived on the campus for the first two years. Her dorm was at the very top of the hill on what the students called Easy Street because it was the only horizontal bit of pavement on campus. The rest of the campus clings to the side of the steep hill and hangs on for dear live.

I loved the school but my muscle memory still causes my legs to ache when I think of it. “Let’s go to the bookstore, Dad!” Meg would say each time we visited. “You can buy me stuff!”

So we’d clamber down the many outdoor flights of stairs, spend too much on branded things, and then hike back up to Easy Street, huffing and puffing all the way.

What’s in the way?

Mount Saint James.

At first, I was delighted when she moved off campus in her junior year and lived with a bunch of friends in a three-decker house that was built with neither level nor plumb. The heating system in that hovel was the kitchen stove. That’s it. I learned that this is called Gas-on-Gas and it was something brand new to me.

When cold arrived that junior year, the landlord (who was also a lawyer) told the ladies how to turn on the “central” heating feature of the stove, and to keep all the doors open, including the bathroom. “The heat will blow around,” he promised. “Heat rises! Everyone knows that.”

What’s in the way of comfort?

A cheap landlord/lawyer, but then I know that life is filled with stuff that gets in the way. I like to think that I can learn from all of it.

Another thing that got in the way was the Holy Cross tradition of holding graduation ceremonies in the football stadium, no matter what. They do have perfectly good and very large spaces that are covered and heated available, but there’s just something about holding graduations outdoors that gets the Jesuits all excited. I suppose they see it as part of a Liberal Arts education (Be prepared for anything!). Holy Cross is the only Jesuit school in the U.S. that is exclusively a Liberal Arts college in the Jesuit tradition. You can learn a lot there, but not everything.

On the day of Meg’s graduation it was cold and raining sideways. Most of the family decided to stay in the car and let Erin the Brave (our youngest daughter) and yours truly tell all about it later when we were in a warm restaurant.

Erin and I were soaking wet (no umbrellas allowed!) on a metal bench and toughing it out. We were determined not to let the weather get in our way.

The commencement speaker was Chris Matthews, a proud 1967 Holy Cross graduate. You may remember him from a show called Hardball on MSNBC, and if you ever watched that show you know that Chris Matthews likes to talk fast and interrupt constantly. Well, the day of Meg’s ceremony he was breaking all records for speed-yapping. He clearly wanted to get away from that lectern and into a dry place. What I remember most, though, was that he had an ASL interpreter standing alongside him. Chris Matthews was going at it like an auctioneer at a cattle sale. The poor woman was waving her arms like she was fighting a cloud of hornets. I thought she’d fall off the stage, but it all worked out in the end.

I spent four years looking at steam radiators and pipes as I wandered up and down Mount Saint Joseph. Many of the buildings at Holy Cross are deliciously old and I can’t resist an old building. Fortunately, I don’t have to work in any of them. A contractor friend told me he had to make a heating repair in one of those old buildings and his story made my whole body ache vicariously.

“They have a lot of steam heat there and there was a leaking three-inch condensate line in a building built in the 1800s,” he said. “I was in the basement, looking up at this pipe. It was pushed tight against the brick foundation and from there it ran horizontally up inside the floor joist bay. The problem was the pipe was touching that brick wall, and there was a floor joist on the other side of the pipe. The joist space was only eight-inches wide and it was up against the subfloor.”

“So what did you do?” I asked.

“Well, I thought about using copper but soldering was out. We were right against the wood in an 1800s building. I thought about ProPress or MegaPress, but the jaws wouldn't fit.”

“That’s tough.”

“You ain’t kidding. We had to have their carpenters pull up the floor and subfloor for access. Then we sawed the pipe in the middle and made a couple of cuts. One end backed out of a coupling but the other end wouldn't come out. I had to do some SAWZALL surgery and use a cold chisel on that one. We also had to bring the three-inch threader with us.”

“Quite a job,” I said.

“It sure was, but we weren’t done yet. The next problem was the elbow we had to screw into. That was also pushed up against the brick wall, and the other pipe wouldn't move. No wiggle at all. So we ended up using two unions inline to get this thing together and it was quite a struggle. The pipe was so close to everything we couldn't use a pipe wrench because the jaws couldn't get around the pipe.”

“So what did you do?”

“We used a chain wrench. That saved us. There was just enough room to get the chain around the pipe. We even had to chisel the brick wall to spin the union nuts.”

“I hope they appreciated all of this.”

“I hope so too.”

Which makes me wonder. When my friend was down there in the basement doing all that he was able to do, students and faculty were all upstairs, going up and down Mount Saint James to sit in classes, or dorm rooms, or any of the other delightful nooks and crannies of this beautiful place.

How many of them do you suppose considered what was making the heat work? How many of them even thought about how heat gets into the spaces where they sit and learn? It’s just there. It’s supposed to be there. What’s the use in thinking about it?

I recall the time Meg called me from her steam-heated Manhattan apartment to tell me there was a noise coming out of the “little silver thingy that’s on the hot pole.”

“That’s a Hoffman #40 air vent,” I said.

“Huh?” she said.

I love her so I didn’t let that get in the way.

Some things, they just don’t teach in college, no matter how good the college. You have learn those things at the School of Hard Knocks.


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