The Priest in the Water Treatment Plant

Thanks for honoring my Father with this commemorative plaque on the face of the Sweetditch water treatment plant.

As a child in 4th grade he was on a field-trip to the water treatment plant and fell in. He spent two hours in the primary treatment vat avoiding the automatic rakers and trying to climb out, but not before one of the rakers claimed a toe. Then he spent several hours lost in the inner-workings of the plant. It became a mythologically significant moment for him. He had descended into the lower parts of the earth and come back. He was Orpheus. His father had trained him in the Greek myths, relentlessly.

It was a small town. So in sixth grade they went back to the water-treatment plant. My father did not want to go. But his father believed it’d be good for him. His father had lost three fingers in his job as a carpenter. He was a carpenter for one month, and was fired for his own protection. But he hadn’t given up. And look where it had gotten him. He’d become a housepainter and been impaled twice at different job sites. He was once again fired for his own protection, and became an excavator.

At the water-treatment plant, my father did everything he could to stay away from the railing of the primary vat. He stood in the center of the walkway, out of the press of children, his elbows tucked and arms at his collarbones to make it harder for him to be pulled or snagged and to thus fall in the primary treatment vat. However, his arms grew fatigued in this position and, as the director of the treatment plant, Vance Strongenberry, asked for volunteers, he stretched. Mr. Strongenberry called on him to assist him in testing the current pH of the water. My father nearly succumbed to his fate and did as he was told, but at the last second started violently and pulled away, stumbled backwards (perhaps his missing toe was the cause of his unsteadiness), and fell into the primary treatment vat.

He was recovered quickly, but suffered a nasty scrape on his elbow which became infected, due to his exposure to sewage, and somewhat limited the mobility of his right arm.

He arrived home to discover that his father had suffered a third, and finally fatal instance of being backed over by a backhoe. He was crushed, and so was my father. However, the accident resulted in a massive settlement in favor of my father and his mother.

Instead of Orpheus, my father began to see himself as Job. But, given much opportunity for contemplation in his bereavement and convalescence from his elbow infection, he followed Job’s argument with God very thoroughly, and found his outlook braced by God’s answer to Job. He committed himself to religious study.

Raised in the Episcopal church, exempted from sports by virtue of the diminishment of his arm and the loss of his toe, buoyed by a comfortable living drawn from well-invested settlement money, my father pointed himself at the Anglican priesthood, and away from the water-treatment plant.

He did everything he could to not come back to Sweetditch. But after he attended seminary in Wisconsin he was ordained and appointed to minister as the priest of the church here. In fact, he’d pursued the post. He’d met my mother during one of his trips home. She was a student of veterinary dentistry, and committed to finishing her degree—another three years of schooling. My father was nervous.

In the first week of his post he did not find himself within a half mile of the water treatment plant. The second week, third, fourth—he avoided it successfully. Three months into his post, the week after he and my mother were married, duty summoned him. Vance Strongenberry, devout Anglican, suffered the proverbial (and actual) “massive” coronary. He was not expected to recover. My father stood in front of the door to the plant. He stood there for a while. Then he opened the door, barely registered the form he immediately tripped over as Vance himself, and went into the primary treatment vat.

Vance laughed at my father’s misfortune, and we all know that he made a full recovery and is present with us even today.

My mother says that at this point my father gave up. When he came home he emanated a divine light, she says.

He fell into various vats in the water treatment plant six more times.

He stopped thinking of himself as Orpheus or Job. He thought of himself as nothing. Someone destined to fall into vats of sewage. He became a conduit of joy.

When he died, I found that he’d asked for his memorial service be conducted here. Some of you may remember it.

It was a terrifying experience for me.

I carried the urn of his ashes here. Placed it on the stand erected for the purpose. I assumed I would drop the urn. We made it out fine.

When I got the urn home, I put it in its place above the mantle. I noticed a smudge. I took it down. I went into the bathroom. I turned on the sink faucet. I reached for a towel. I wetted the towel in the water. I applied the towel to the urn. The urn slipped from my grasp and emptied into the toilet. I lost my balance. I flushed the toilet.

I think this is what he would have wanted.

The Priest in the Water Treatment Plant

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