Sunday, April 8, 2012

Sunday Story: The Nome Motel by Bruce Mero

The Nome Motel
by Bruce H. Mero

I now finally understood what was happening. Toxic sewer gas leaking into the cellar from the septic system was contaminating the air inside the house. Breathing the contaminated air made me sick, so sick that I was unable to go to work.  I felt terrible, so I stayed home, inside, breathing the air and getting sicker. It was insidious. The longer I stayed in the house, the sicker I got. Fortunately, neither Gretchen nor Mitra were experiencing illness yet, probably because both were out of the house all day and not exposed to the bad air. The source of my illness had come to me as an epiphany and it was now clear that we needed to move out of the house until we could get the situation rectified.

Over the last few months, the old septic system at this old house had failed. It went slowly. First a puddle of foul-smelling, gray fluid appeared in a very inconvenient spot near the front door while we had a house full of guests. It abated when the guests left, but formed again each morning the following week after morning showers. Slowly it would drain away during the day, but would re-puddle if the laundry was washed. We procrastinated as long as we were able, but ultimately hired a contractor and installed a new septic tank, distribution box and leach field. This, of course, solved the puddles-at-the-front-door problem, but the fix then caused another problem as sewer gas began seeping into the house unbeknownst to us, starting the day the new system was installed.

Modern septic tanks are airtight. Homes with septic tanks need to have plumbing lines vented to exhaust the toxic and sometimes, explosive gases generated by the biological activity in the septic tank. Our old house did not have a real septic tank or venting, but it mattered little. The toxics came out of the ground at the site of the collection fixture (an old, stone-lined well in the front yard) and were harmlessly mixed with fresh air to no one’s detriment. With the new modern septic system in place, the gas had no place to vent in this old house, so it began to seep from the plumbing lines in the cellar. Gas concentrations in the house rose and my sickness started.

I drove myself to the local hospital that morning. By mid-morning, my fever had reached 105 degrees and I felt horrible; I thought that surely I was going to die. After several hours in the emergency room and a complete examination, I was sent home (to die, I was convinced). The folks at the hospital could find no reason for my condition and no reason to admit me into the hospital. On my way back home, I stopped at my chiropractor’s office on the crazy hunch that he might be able to make me feel better. This makes no sense now, but in my stupor from the fever, it did then. In hindsight, it was genius. I spent an hour with Dr. Anken. He looked me over a little, but mainly we talked. During the course of the conversation the installation of the new septic tank and leach field entered the discussion. It hit me like a bolt of lightning. Of course, how could I be so stupid?  The new septic was making me ill, or more accurately, the toxic gases being generated by the new system.  Dr. Anken agreed that I might be onto something and advised that we no longer stay in the house until the situation was assessed and fixed.  

Once at home, I opened every door and window.  The outside temperature was only in the 40’s but fresh air needed to replace the poisonous stuff we had been breathing.  I then went into the cellar to see if I could find the source of the gas and immediately found what I was looking for. Screwed into the drainpipe under the toilet was a soda-can sized plastic canister with a thumbnail sized hole in it. This was a vent.  In theory, a diaphragm in the device opened when the toilet was flushed allowing air into the line to facilitate the flushing process. After the toilet was flushed, the thing was then supposed to close to keep the gasses contained. When I found it, the diaphragm was stuck in the open position. The gas being generated in the new septic tank was entering the house through this thumb-sized hole. 

As sick as I was, I spent the rest of the day out of doors to avoid any more exposure to the bad air. I was able to contact a contractor acquaintance and arrange to meet him at the house the next day to install a temporary vent on the septic to exhaust the gas before it came into the house. We could work on a more permanent fix once the house was safe to inhabit again. I was already feeling better, though my fever was still over 102 degrees. Just the fact that I had determined the cause of my illness and had a solution in-hand made me feel better. Surely the fact that I had been breathing clean air all day might have been helping, as well. That night we left the house with every window opened and drove to the Rome Motel. 

An elderly Indian gentleman, wrapped in a woolen blanket, checked us into the motel. We were directed to our room near the rear of the complex. I was still feeling crummy from the fever, so was anxious to get into bed and get a night’s sleep. It was so cold in the room when we entered that Mitra said she could see her breath. Thinking is was simply a matter of the proprietor’s vacant-room, energy conservation program; I went immediately for the heater unit under the window to start it up. I hit the “on” switch and the unit rumbled to life. I waited a minute or so and put my hand into the air stream blowing from the vent to feel the heat, but there was no heat, only cold air. Must take a few minutes to heat up, I thought and helped Gretchen unpack the few things we’d brought. I flipped the switch on the television to see if there was anything on that was interesting, but the TV only hissed. The picture tube faintly lit, but no image appeared. I fiddled with the rabbit-ear antenna sitting atop the set for a moment or two, but still no picture. The channel-changing dial was missing. Reluctantly we concluded that watching TV was not an option. After five minutes or so, I went back to the heater. Still cold air came out of the vent. I opened the control panel to check the settings and to my astonishment, all of the control dials were missing. There was no way to change cold air to warm air, none that I could see, anyhow. Gretchen looked at the control panel and came to the same conclusion. It was cold air only. She turned the switch to “off’ and told suggested we turn-in early so we all would stay warm under the blankets.  I sensed a bit of apprehensiveness in her voice.

Mitra went into the tiny bathroom to get ready for bed. She flushed the toilet when she was finished, but the water in the bowl only swirled around, it would not go down. I tried it after she complained about the toilet, but had no better luck. She then turned on the faucet in the sink to brush her teeth. Nothing came from the cold water faucet. Only a tiny little stream came out of the faucet when she turned the hot water handle. And that piddling little bit of water was ice cold even after it ran into the sink for a couple of minutes. It was enough water to brush with however, so Mitra finished and jumped into bed. Instantly, the mattress slumped under her weight.  Only the thickness of the mattress kept her off the floor. Upon inspection, we found that the box spring was missing. There was only a thin flimsy mattress on the bed. The second bed was identical.  This is when I made my first trip back to the motel office. The office door was locked, so I knocked. After several minutes the elderly Indian gentleman came to the door. He was now wrapped in two blankets, the second pulled over his head in a hood. My glasses fogged when a blast of heat escaped from the office as he opened the door enough to ask what I wanted. I told him that we were unsatisfied with the room he’d rented us. It was cold and had no hot water. He informed me that all of the other rooms were occupied. He’d given us his last room, so he claimed. This was a bit hard to believe since our car was the only one in the lot. I protested, but he was unrelenting. I threatened to find another motel. He politely informed me that finding another place was my choice, but he would not refund the forty-five dollars I’d paid for the room. He said goodnight, bowed slightly, backed away and closed the door.
It took Gretchen a couple of minutes to calm me down once I’d returned to our room. She is the optimist of the family and pointed out that as bad as the room was, it was infinitely better than staying in the contaminated house. I agreed that her conclusion was correct, though I was still mad as hell.

“Sleeping in the car might be better than in those beds,” I protested.
After a couple of minutes of discussion we got into the bed and two facts became immediately obvious; the first that we were smooched together in the center of the bed and the second that there were no blankets on the bed. There was a sheet and a bedspread, but no blanket. Gretchen admitted that she had taken the blanket off our bed while I was discussing our room with the proprietor and put it on Mitra’s after she complained that she was cold.

“We’ll be fine,” Gretchen reassured. “We’ll keep each other warm. Mitra is asleep, so we should try to do the same,” she added. 

We lay back-to-back in center of that deep-valley bed, pressing hard against one another. With nothing to support the mattress, gravity prevailed. I think we actually fell asleep that way for a little while, but I woke up when I heard Mitra whimper that she was cold. I realized that Gretchen was shivering beside me and she woke up also.

“We needed more blankets,” she proclaimed.

She struggled to her feet and fumbled for the light switch. The single bulb in the light fixture on the ceiling blew as soon as she hit the switch. I heard her grumble and she tripped her way in the darkness to the bathroom where she turned on the light. I was up by then and we searched the room for additional blankets. None were to be found.

Gretchen eagerly volunteered to go to the motel office to get more blankets. She knew that I was still mad from my previous encounter with the owner and thought it best that she go rather than me. In an instant, she was dressed and out of the room into the night air. A few seconds later I could hear her knocking on the door of the office.  More knocks, louder this time. Then more pounding and yelling and then quiet. A couple of minutes later she stormed into the room obviously upset. She was mumbling about wanting to suffocate that little Indian man in the three blankets he had wrapped around him when he came to the door. He had been polite, she related, but he would give her no blankets. He said he had none to spare, then wished her good sleep as he backed away, bowed slightly and closed the door.

“You know,” she said angrily, “it was so hot in that office that my glasses fogged when that weasel opened the door. No blankets he claimed. He was wrapped with enough blankets to keep us all warm tonight. I could see a lady on the couch wrapped in blankets also.”

Gretchen calmed down after a few minutes. She suggested that we all put on our clothes and get into one bed. That only lasted for a few minutes. With Mitra between us in the deep-valley bed, she was now warm, but getting squashed as gravity forced us all together in the middle of the bed.  We decided on a different tact. We piled both mattresses together on the floor and the three of us tried to get to sleep again. This actually allowed us to sleep for a few hours. Eventually, however, Mitra’s tossing and turning had twisted the blankets and sheets into a cocoon. Gretchen and I had no blankets over us and were lying awake under the winter coats we were wearing when we left the house. It was nearly midnight. It was going to be a very cold night unless we got some blankets.

Besides being cold as I lay there, the thought of our house freezing-up with all of the windows open was on my mind. I got up and drove back home. I checked the thermometer on the porch. It read 38 degrees. Nothing in the house would freeze if the temperature stayed the same, I rationalized. Once inside, both cats greeted me and complained about the cold. I drew water from all of the faucets in the sinks and bathtub to ensure it was not frozen. The furnace was running, but it was frigid inside. I checked the thermostat and the dial indicated the temperature in the house was somewhere below fifty, the numbers on the dial didn’t go any lower. I found two sleeping bags in the downstairs closet and took a comforter from our bed and put everything into the car. I took a few minutes to take my own temperature. I was feeling better and my fever seemed to be lower. The thermometer confirmed it. My temperature was normal.

The car was warm for my return trip to the motel and I began to thaw a little. Once back inside the motel room, it struck me that it was almost as cold there as it was at home.  The sleeping bags and comforter did the trick and we were able to sleep warmly the remainder of the night.

At first light we were up and back at the house. We closed all of the windows and set a fire in the wood stove. I knew toxic gas was still coming into the cellar from the septic and wafting up into the rest of the house, but reasoned that the fresh air we’d let in during the night would give us a bit of time to fix the problem. I wasn’t going to wait for my carpenter friend to arrive to fix the vent; I was going to do it myself. Since the new septic system was so recently installed, it was easy digging to find the waste line between the house and the tank. The top few inches of soil was frozen, but the digging beneath was easy. I found the new plastic pipe about three feet below the surface and dug around and under enough to saw a gap into the pipe. There I installed a vent line. I wired the vent pipe to the side of the house and filled the hole I’d dug with dirt. In the cellar I removed the failed venting device and screwed a plug into the sewer line in its place. The immediate problem had been solved. The gas generated by the septic would exhaust now harmlessly outside the house until a permanent fix could be installed by my carpenter friend. We could safely inhabit the house without fear of being poisoned. The permanent fix was in place in a couple of days.

We’ve since added an addition with a new bathroom and took the opportunity during the construction process to upgrade the house’s entire wastewater system to meet modern standards. 

I pass the Rome Motel every day on my way to and from work. We have since re-named it the Nome Motel. We will never forget the night we stayed there. I chuckle each time I see their sign which reads: “Quiet Pleasant Country Surroundings”. There is a bit of truth to the slogan. The night we stayed there was like camping-out in the country. 


  1. OMG so many things I can say, lucky you finally figured it out but what a nightmare that motel was not sure which was the lesser of the two evils. I hope you can now look back a little and have some what of a chuckle of over it. Thanks for sharing this story.

  2. Oh wow what an exhausting night! It makes me remember one time when my Mom paid for a hotel room, walked in and walked right out. LOL It was THAT bad. She said the TV was broken and when she pulled the sheets down on the bed she saw bugs!!

    Blech. I'm glad that you were able to fix the septic system. Goodness!


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