We’re still in our first house, mostly because this is where all the memories are. That maple tree in the center of the backyard, the one that towers over the second-floor roof? I had that tree in the backseat of a Chevy Impala on the day that Meghan was born. A child is born; you plant a tree. That’s hope. You plant a tree and imagine that someday you’ll hang a swing from a branch and you’ll push a giggling grandchild, and that’s how you see your kids through their lives. You hug them and teach them and you hope. The memories and the hope dance in the air around here, and that’s why we stayed. We moved in on a brutally hot day in July 1977. I bought some gardening tools and a push lawnmower at a garage sale and became a land baron on my 5,000 square feet. To liven up the front lawn, I planted some petunias down there at the end of the driveway, right on the corner of our little piece of the planet. I watered them and took care not to drive over them when I backed the Impala out into the street, but they didn’t thrive, and I couldn’t figure out why.
Then one day I got up early and was standing on the front lawn, just looking at the world and listening to the birds when Bill, the guy next door, came by with Baby on a leather harness. Baby was an old dog, built low to the ground and about the size and shape of a toaster oven. Bill had bought the first house in the neighborhood back in 1950 and he saw himself as the Mayor of the Block. He had something to say to everyone who passed by, and no one in our neighborhood knew what the heck they were doing, no matter what the project was. I know this because Bill would tell me so just about every day.
Bill wore his trousers up around his nipples and he used both a belt and suspenders. He had a world-class beer belly and a quick waddle of a walk, just like the dogs. I liked him.
So I’m standing there on the lawn, back in that first summer, and I’m considering the sorry state of the petunias when Baby lifts his stump of a leg right over my flowers and lets loose with more urine than a dog this size should be capable of producing. And while this is going on right there before my new-homeowner’s eyes, Bill is cooing to this hairy bag of urine, “That’s it, Baby,” he’s saying. “Thaaaat’s it. Come on, Baby. Get it all out. That’s a good boy.”
So I walk down to the end of my driveway and I ask Bill if he realizes that his dog, Baby, is peeing on my petunias. And Bill looks at me as if I’m the dopiest man who ever put on a pair of shorts and he says, “You can’t grow flowers here,” and he points to the wilting sprouts and the dog with the never-ending stream. “This is where Baby goes pee pee!” he says. “Baby has been going pee pee here since you were a pup! You can’t change that. Go plant your flowers somewhere else.” And then he shakes his head and chuckles to himself, as if I, at my age, really should have known that. And then he and his now-empty dog waddle down the sidewalk and into their own yard. I moved the petunias.
And I really liked the old coot. He and his wife, Marian, would sit on their front lawn in aluminum lawn chairs and look at their neighborhood and wait for people to ask for advice, which never happened. And he’d have a can of cold beer and always an unfiltered Camel on his lip, and the Yankee game on the transistor radio, and he’d talk to the players and cuss the umpires while she sat with Baby on her lap. She’d pet that dog all afternoon, and the dog hardly ever moved. It looked stuffed.
One day, Marian, told me that Bill wasn’t feeling well and that she was going to take him to the doctor, and three days later he was dead.
She wasn’t the same afterwards. She’d sit on a lawn chair in the shade for hours, and Baby would sit on her lap and she’d stroke his old fur all day long. And I’d chat with her but her heart was never in it.
And then Baby died. He was a very old dog, and they had squeezed more years out of him than I had ever though possible, but it’s always a horrible thing when a dog dies, especially one that really was the baby.
Marian sat on her lawn chair on summer days for some years afterward, and she stared down the street as if waiting for someone to arrive in a big black Buick. She sat with one hand cupped in her lap, palm inward, and with her other gnarled hand, a hand made beautiful by the years of housework, she stroked a dog that wasn’t there. An air dog.
Marianne and I would watch her from our yard and we’d look at each other and then at our young daughters playing in the sprinkler and we’d think about time, and habits, and how difficult it is to change routines, even as our daughters were developing their own routines. And our routines were hardening like cement, of course, because that’s the way people are. We all have our air dogs. I never again grew flowers at the end of my driveway.
All of these sweet memories came drifting back to me last night right after I finished a seminar here on the Isle of Long, my home. I asked the group a question that I’ve been asking for the past year or so as I travel around. I ask because the answer fascinates me.
“Can concrete hurt pipe?” I asked last night.
“Yes!” they said together.
“And what is in concrete that hurts the pipes?” I asked.
“Lime!” they said.
And it’s that way every time I ask the question, no matter where I am in America. It’s almost as though a huge chunk of the industry got together and shared this knowledge about lime and then vowed to pass it down to the next generation. Lime in concrete hurts the pipes.
“How does it hurt the pipes?” I asked.
“It eats them up,” they said.
“What is it about lime that eats pipes?” I asked.
No one spoke.
“Is lime an acid or a base?” I asked. “It’s a base,” someone said.
“Then how can it eat pipes?” I asked.
Everyone looked around the room. They knew that there was something in concrete that can hurt the pipes, but they weren’t so sure about the lime anymore, even though they had believed it all their professional lives.
I told them that I read in an old engineering book that if you were going to bury a pipe in concrete, and that if you wanted that pipe to last, you should surround it with (guess what?) lime. To prevent corrosion. Lime is a base and it counteracts the acid that’s in the concrete. The acid comes from the fly ash that the concrete people add to the concrete. Fly ash comes from coal-burning plants. It’s cheap and plentiful and it works so well with concrete. And it eats pipes. So we add lime. But hardly anyone knows that.
Most folks in this business will say LIME! when you ask them what’s wrong with concrete. It’s the exact opposite of what’s true, but somewhere along the way we picked it up and we keep it going out of habit. We pass it from generation to generation, and isn’t that something?
And I can sit back and marvel at that right here with you because I’ve been known to pet a few air dogs myself.