How a haunted water heater made me a greater mum or dad

Kevin Fisher-Paulson’s haunted water heater.

Kevin Fisher-Paulson

My son Zane is wandering around. At 19 he’s jobless, doesn’t go to school, and drives in and out of his home most days.

However, my son Aidan does not wander enough. At 17 he comes out of his bedroom just to get grasshopper cake ice cream and then returns to the world called Minecraft. Raising near-adults is difficult because you can’t give orders and you can’t give up. You can only give advice.

Zane and Aidan are mysteries, make wild noises, get up at 3am to make TikTok videos. But when the therapists come in, they are calm, quiet, and a little confused by their fathers’ attitude.

Which brings me to our poltergeist.

The Bedlam Blue Bungalow was built in 1926. It’s reasonable to expect a fair amount of weird noises in a 97-year-old house in the Outer, Outer, Outer, Outer Excelsior. The hum coming from our garage means the sump pump is working. A scratch on the window means it’s time to cut back the holly. A scratch on the bathroom door means Krypto’s spirit has returned.

Some sounds mean that a device has died. We have replaced the oven three times, the washing machine and oven twice, but the water heater only once. Seven years ago, either Aidan dropped magnets down the line or Zane shoved peanut butter down the burner. We will never know; It’s a mystery. But we did get a replacement, a 50-gallon model that allows me to run the dishwasher and washing machine at 4 a.m.

In the last seven years, our sons’ showers have gotten longer, but otherwise the device has hardly worn out. However, during the January rains, it began to moan. First a little, then for hours. Aidan shrugged. “It stops when I flush my toilet, but I can’t figure out why.” When Zane opened the door to the courtyard, it started again.

At 2am I noticed that it had the same sound as a foghorn.

The first European ship to enter San Francisco Bay on August 5, 1775 was the San Carlos, commanded by Juan Manuel de Ayala of Little Aid. Though numbers vary, between 300 and 400 ships are reported to have collapsed or capsized in the bay’s infamous advection fog.

The first lighthouse in the bay was built on Alcatraz in 1854. But with the fog fogging the lens, they needed a little audible help, so two years later they installed a fog bell that had to be rung by hand. Imagine standing on an island in the middle of the bay and ringing a bell every time a wisp of dew appears, about 500 hours a year.

They experimented with steam whistles and cannons but eventually developed electrically powered air compressor foghorns in the 1930s, just in time for the new bridge’s opening in 1937.

The Golden Gate Bridge has three foghorns under the roadway and two on the south tower, each with a different pitch. On average, they radiate about 2½ hours a day. In “Fogust” they can sound for five hours; in March we hear them for half an hour at most.

But our bungalow’s private siren continued to sound. We called the backup people for the water heater. “Doesn’t sound like a mechanical problem,” they guessed. “You may want to call PG&E.”

We called PG&E. The moment the soldier rang the doorbell, the buzzing stopped. “Shouldn’t happen,” he advised. “If this continues, call a plumber.”

Five minutes after he left, it started again. We called a plumber who said he could come Monday. By this point I had figured out that the Kettle Banshee’s wail is an E above middle C, having had the opportunity to compare it to all 88 keys on our piano.

And yes, it stopped just as the plumber parked his van. “Maybe you have a ghost in the machine,” he suggested.

Maybe he’s right. Perhaps our klaxon is warning us of a ship we cannot see, or telling us that not all wanderers are lost.

And maybe we parents are devices that are also foghorns. We roar in the fog so our teens know which rocks to avoid. We hum so they know their way home.

Kevin Fisher-Paulson is a freelance writer.

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