Historians claim language is the cornerstone of civilization. Other experts say religion, science or even the family unit. I suggest something most of us do not consider: indoor plumbing.
I’m at work when I notice a text from my husband, Bruce: “Come home so we can flush together.” Only rural folks with a holding tank can understand the pure joy when a septic pumper truck maneuvers down and back up an icy driveway and takes away 3,500 gallons of waste water.
“Amen,” I text back, the experience simultaneously romantic and religious. Chippewa Septic owner Travis Simet is my hero.
“Everything’s a little harder in the country,” a friend told Bruce and me when we first moved to a Lake Hallie cabin nine years ago. Six months in, our septic system failed. Given his extensive research, Bruce still claims he could earn a degree in septic (or should I say Private On-Site Wastewater Treatment Systems — POWTS). Modern zoning means we’d have to install two concrete holding tanks, nose to nose and specially cast to fit the long configuration of our lot. This was summer. Of course we didn’t consider we’d likely have to call a septic pumper twice per winter. Or that a truck would have to maneuver our steep, quarter-mile driveway that becomes a little like the Donner Pass December through February. Or that I’d have to spread 1,000 pounds of salt and sand, sifting the mixture off the back of my plastic snow sled, a low tech but efficient approach so Travis could get to us.
Our last “pump guy” was easy-going and chatty. “What are you gonna do about it?” he’d say about the state of politics or pretty much anything else. His not-so-chatty son took over. We’d see him every two months, and we built a relationship. In early January I called for a pump. “The driveway is perfectly clear,” I pitched, knowing Son was warier than Dad. An hour later a receptionist called back: “We thank you for your business, but we can’t come to your house in the winter.”
Our tanks hold 4,000 gallons of waste; an alarm rings when we get to 3,000. I do the math: we have room for about three more weeks of flushing, showering and laundering. Not time to panic.
I got off the phone and panicked. I texted friends with septic systems, then I went old school and checked the yellow pages. In desperation, I called all three numbers for Chippewa Septic. A few minutes later Travis called me. I explained the driveway and the current conditions.
“I’ve got a few dicey ones,” Travis said confidently. “Can I come today?”
I talked with him while he moved away the cement tank cover and dropped the large hose in. Afterward, he came to the door, rubber boots on my outside mat, body leaning toward me. Even if his boots are clean, which they looked, or if a house is a cabin with a “no need to take your shoes off” approach, which I have, this must be septic guy protocol, like put on the big rubber gloves when you touch anything outside the truck, take them off before you write the invoice. Surprisingly, the discovery that illness came from bacteria in human waste didn’t occur until the 1850s. One-hundred-seventy years later Travis gave me a bill with clean hands.
I told him, “Our alarm goes off about every two months. I’ll see you in the spring.”
Bruce and I will never again be one of those “flush and forget” people. And neither will any of our guests. Above our toilet my framed homemade sign reads: “If it’s yellow, let it mellow ... ” You know the rest. Bottom line: Every flush counts.
Chippewa Septic was established in 1966 and has been a father/son business ever since. Travis Simet and his wife, Cassi, took over from dad, Steve Simet, in 2018.
I ask the Simets about any bathroom humor Travis dealt with when classmates discovered what his dad did for a living. Steve and Travis laugh and recall how Steve dropped his son off at middle school in the septic truck. Travis says, “And he blew the air horn.”
Father and son lament about the downside of the job: smashed fingers from heavy cement tank covers, mosquitoes, poison ivy, bees, rain, heat and bitter cold. These are unexpected answers, given I really want to know about the dirty business of taking away waste after others do their business. Travis says simply that this line of work “takes a certain kind of person.” His dad nods in agreement.
Many septic businesses are passed down through families, most often father to son. Partly, Travis explains, because 1,600 hours of work experience are required for a septage servicing operator certification, and it’s often easiest to keep it in the family. I ask about any siblings who might want to work in the business with Travis. He tells me, “My sister is a nurse. I couldn’t do her job any more than she could do mine.”