Commentary: If it starts with ‘um’ and ends with ‘dad,’ I know it can’t be good

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William Carter

William Carter is a retired longtime Franklin city employee and published author. He may be contacted at

“Um, Dad,” Other Boy says from the doorway into the den as I’m sitting in my easy chair probably reading something very important but definitely not watching “Real Housewives of Orange County.” 

I tear my eyes away from the screen — I mean the page of the educational and mind-expanding book I’m reading — and look up at him just as a cold tingle forms and begins to crawl up my spine and any expectations of a heretofore stress-free day remaining that way completely vanish. 

“Um, Dad,” Other Boy repeats and then raises his right arm to point down the hallway. 

I hate “um” so much. And I especially hate “um” coming from the mouth of one of our kids followed by that pause, because that pause seems to last forever. That pause is laden with portent and gives you an excruciating amount of time to imagine unimaginable horrors but never enough time to run out of the house and hide in the shed with your hands over your ears so you won’t have to hear what’s coming next. 

If you’ve ever produced spawn — uh, children of your own — you know exactly what I’m talking about. 

“Um, Dad, why is there water pouring from the ceiling?” he asks calmly, still pointing, as if water pouring from the ceiling was a scheduled event I’d simply neglected to inform him of and he was just asking so he’d be in the loop regarding our day-to-day family goings-on. 

The memory of how I responded verbally while leaping up from the chair is now lost in the mists of time, but the next thing I do remember is standing in the hallway watching water stream from the ceiling where water was not designed to be streaming. 

Knowing that I was standing directly beneath our bathroom, I howled and then howled some more and then raced up the stairs and into our bedroom. I yanked the closet door open and the carpet was squishy and all of Love-Weasel’s clothes and her many pairs of shoes were soaked and kind of bobbing around. 

I went to the closet because that’s where the access panel to the plumbing is, but water was gushing from around the seams of the access panel, and even though I’m no plumber, I knew it wasn’t supposed to be like that. 

I knew the best thing to do was to turn the water off at the street access. After I did that, I took a deep breath and, mumbling arcane curses, I trudged back upstairs to stare at the plumbing for a while. 

One of the universal truths about men is that we all like to pretend we know what the hell we’re looking at even though we, more than likely, don’t know what the hell we’re looking at, and that if whatever the hell it is we’re pretending to know we’re looking at is broken, it can be fixed with the testosterone-driven delusion that duct tape, zip ties and Gorilla glue are cure-alls.  

I, however, as one who has, on occasion, fallen into the trap of subscribing to that universal truth and has actually used duct tape, zip ties and Gorilla with disastrous consequences, wisely chose to curb my testosterone, grab a flashlight, peer into the access panel and then pretend to know what the hell I was looking at. 

Behind-the-scene plumbing fixtures were never, I’m pretty sure, meant to be looked at, much less deciphered by people who are not plumbers. 

It was dark beyond that access panel, and dank, and the gangly, brass contraption clinging to the wall between the wooden studs bore an eerie resemblance to the creature in “Alien” that ejects itself from that giant egg and attaches itself to the face of whatever nosy person was pompous enough to think they knew what the hell they were looking at. It was terrifying. 

I won’t go into the subsequent horrors of having to trek to one of the big-box home improvement stores — the nearby locally owned hardware store staffed with people more than eager to help where I normally do business was closed by this time — and wandering up and down the mile-long aisles for an hour looking for nonexistent assistance. We all already know that story. But I finally made it back home with, hopefully, all of the parts I needed, as well as the nagging question at the back of my brain of why — even though I’m smart enough to know I’m no plumber — I was being too stupid to call a plumber when I knew I needed one.   

Yeah, I’m pretty sure that one, too, is covered by yet another universal truth about men.  

I did a lot of cussing the next couple of hours and a lot of praying, too. The way I figure it, if the Good Lord is instrumental in who comes in first in a NASCAR race or the outcome of any other sporting event, surely he would not have any problem guiding the successful completion of my minor plumbing project. 

Finally, it was done. I held my breath and turned the water back on. There were no leaks and the water was going where it was supposed to be going and not streaming from the ceiling or treating Love-Weasel’s shoes to a cruise across the closet floor.  

I high-fived myself.

The next time I hear “Um, Dad,” though, I’m heading to the shed with my hands over my ears. 

It’s a lot easier than having to pretend I know what the hell I’m looking at.

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