A Unique Christmas Ornament

It was only a couple of days until Christmas and the weather in Petaluma was cold and dry.  Back in Colorado Springs, our new home for the past 6 months, I heard the temperature was dropping and, with the wind chill, was  reaching down to the single digits – brrrrrr!  I wasn’t sure my California family was ready for that kind of cold yet and was glad we were here.

dad v diaperI had just finished changing the baby’s diaper and asked my wife, “Hon, this little guy is getting fussy.  What do you think, is it time to put him down for the night?”

“Yea, most likely.  What time is it?”

“A little after 8.”  She walked over to take the baby.  “I’ll feed him and put his down.”

A flannel-clad squeeze-toy toddler, our middle child and only girl, scrambled out from behind mom after being wrangled into her all-too-cute PJs and went in search of Grandma.  The oldest, another boy, was already doing something with Grandpa.

I had sat back to enjoy family happening as it’s supposed to when the phone rang.  I could hear my mom telling the caller, “One moment.  He’s right here,” as she brought me the phone.  I was annoyed because I really did not want to be bothered with work stuff while taking time off for a rare visit with my now distant family.

“Hello; this is Gary Wilson.”

“Hey Gary.  This is Mark.”  This was a surprise because Mark was the husband of the couple we asked to watch our house and pickup our mail for the week we were to be gone.  “Merry, almost-Christmas Mark.  What’s up?”

“I listened as he described why he was calling.”  My wife heard his name and was intrigued enough to stop and listen .

“Yea, I heard a news report about how cold it was in Denver and figured it must be at least that cold in the Springs.”

My wife’s eye brows went up, sensing that something had to be wrong.  Mark would not have called just to talk about the weather.

“Okay, yea.  Oh no!  Mark, please tell me you’re kidding. . .”  I didn’t know him well enough to tell for sure.  He wasn’t. . .

“Okay,  I understand.  With only 2 days to Christmas, I doubt I can get a flight back. Let me call my insurance agent and get back to you.

united-jet-mountains.jpgIt would have been our first Christmas in Colorado, but my parents really wanted to see the baby again and, as fresh escapees from California, our blood had not thickened enough to be really comfortable in the high frozen desert of Colorado Springs.  So we packed up the kids and enough underwear for everyone, some presents and caught a jet for San Francisco where my parents met and whisked us north to my childhood home in Petaluma.

We had moved to Colorado Springs so I could follow my dream of managing a technical support team with my company.  On arrival, we knew almost no one, but people there were friendly and we were quickly welcomed to our new neighborhood and church.  We used our fail-safe way to meet people by keeping the baby in his car seat and sitting on the front row of the sanctuary.  Most church folks cannot resist a baby and after our first visit we were surrounded. Life was good.

I was still settling down after a hectic child birth, crazy hectic 5 months at work and all the fun of packing one baby and two toddlers into an aircraft and making the trip from Colorado Springs to Petaluma with one tight stopover and a jammed sedan for the drive to my parent’s home.  We could have slept for most of the planned visit, but the grandparents were holding breakfast hostage pending the delivery of  at least 2 of 3 children for them to play with.  Sure – help yourselves to whichever ones you want.  We’ll be out in about 12-13 hours. . .

But that evening, this call from Mark arrived and instead I had a big problem to solve – from two states away.

He and his wife had stopped by to pick up the mail.  They went in our home to leave the mail in a box on the kitchen counter as arranged and were ready to leave, but the wife thought she heard something.

“Yea.  I hear it too and it sounds like water running,” Mark said.

dripping faucetI understand this started a rapid walk around the house checking facets and toilets.  Mark told me the house was really cold and I admitted that was to be expected as we’d turned off the heat for the week we planned to be away.  As he explained things, I realized that I’d been caught making the classic mistake of letting water pipes freeze and nearly flooded the basement.  I could not believe it.

His wife checked the upstairs, but all looked well.  We had left a facet dribbling in each bathroom.  He checked the one on ground level then headed down stairs to check the  basement.  This house had a huge basement, but the stairs were steep and narrow.  Using them felt like you were going much deeper than reality.  The older kids loved that basement. Mark listened carefully as he descended, and the sound was a bit louder.  He wondered where the bathroom was down here and stepped off that last step and found his foot submerged in a couple of inches of nearly frozen water.  We had thick carpet down there and the water was right at the top, so until Mark didn’t realize it was there until he stepped in it.

burst pipe 2“I think I found the problem!” He called out to his wife.  She followed him down the long staircase, but Mark told her not to step down to the floor.  He did find the bathroom but all seemed well there too so he looked for signs of a leak, and there it was.  One wall was sagging from behind and water was carving a path out right at the baseboard.  A pipe had burst back behind the drywall panel.

Mark shook his head. “Gary’s going to love this,” By now his feet were soaked and freezing so he quickly found and turned off the water before it could rise to the level of a wall plug,  But the basement was fully dug into the soil and the only way out was via those stairs or several windows were installed with wooden boxes that were good only for the light they let in and occasionally the fresh summer air.


So, there I was mentally scrolling through all this and trying to decide, ‘what do I do now?’ pretty quickly settled to “what can I do?”.  I was two big states away, 2 days from Christmas.  A quick flight home would be super expensive even if I could find a seat, and if I did that – Our family Christmas would be ruined.  Time to call that insurance agent.  I really don’t believe this is happening to me. . .

Well, the insurance guy carefully made light of the problem and we had a great planning discussion.  Turns out they have relationships with services that do this sort of cleanup.

This part of the story is interesting only if you are dealing with this kind of mess yourself, so in short, I had Mark give his key to our neighbor straight across the street.  This guy was retired and loved being helpful.  Each morning he met the cleaning crew and kept an eye on their progress, but the cleaning service worked a miracle for us.

By the time we got home from our California Christmas, 6 days later; they had vacuumed the water out of the basement, torn out the damaged sheet of drywall, exposing the burst pipe.  Turns out it was not helped by letting the water drip in the bathroom sinks because that line fed the backyard water facets.

They dried everything out.  They brought in a plumber to repair the pipe, replaced the drywall, re-textured and repainted the wall so well that I could not tell old from new drywall.  All the furniture had been lifted up onto small blocks to get them above the water while the other work was accomplished and some big heaters brought in to evaporate and dry the rest of the basement.


When we got home, the only evidence of the event was: the 1 inch copper elbow that burst and caused all the damage, those little blocks  beneath all the furniture and a bill for the deductible on my insurance.

We got to stay with my parents as planned.  The kids shared none of my anxiety over the whole deal and when we got home, the two older kids helped me pluck out those little blocks.  Mark later rubbed it in, “Welcome to Colorado Springs,  Never – ever fully turn off the house heat in the winter.”  Opps!

servicemaster logoReflecting back, I find myself thankful for the friendships of people who barely knew us and the inconvenience they endured to save our home.  In 6 days, we would have had a fully flooded basement.  Our insurance agent was great and the staff at ServiceMaster of Colorado Springs repaired everything so we could hardly tell where the damage happened.

burst pipe ornament .jpg


Oh – and that blasted burst copper elbow; my wife tied a ribbon around it so we could hang it each year as a memorial to an almost ruined Christmas .  It is easily our most unique Christmas tree ornament and helps everyone enjoy retelling the story each year.

Given my insurance deductible was $ 1,000.00, this piece of pipe is certainly is the most expensive ornament I own.


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Gary photo n bio



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Autobiographical fun in 10 minutes or less

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