Harley Rotbart is a pediatrician, parenting writer, frustrated shortstop, and dad of 3 semi-launched kids. He and his wife empty nest in Denver, CO. Harley’s new book, No Regrets Parenting, is a time management blueprint for stressed-out parents. Read his blog, and more about the book, at: www.noregretsparenting.com
March is spring break month, so I thought it timely to share my kids’ favorite spring break activity: watching Daddy empty the RV septic tank. First, a brief history. I did not grow up in a camping family. My Eastern European father and first generation American mother were grateful they put a roof over our heads; why would anyone intentionally sleep outside? In contrast, my wife Sara’s family went tent camping throughout her childhood. They still regale us with the story of the night it rained so hard that Sara’s dad had to run to the car naked because that’s how he slept and the tent had collapsed in the deluge. And other stories that have a similarly emasculating effect on me.
Marriage is all about compromise. How do a backwoods mom from America and a backwards dad from the shtetl compromise on outdoor adventure with their kids? Easy. RV camping has something for everyone. Hiking, campfires, s’mores, indoor plumbing, a galley kitchen, and beds (of sorts).
Our kids were 6, 4, and 2 on our first RV trip. At our sixth or seventh stop for gas on day two (an RV gets about 4 miles/gallon on the open highway) we pulled into a Sinclair station that had a life size (really!) green Plaster of Paris Brontosaurus in the parking lot. This would be a momentous stop even aside from the dinosaur – it would also be our first family “dump.” RVs have septic tanks that sit under the belly of the cabin, an indicator gauge in the cabin providing real time updates as the tanks fill with waste, and outlet valves protruding from beneath the camper. The RV rental company provides ample instruction on emptying the tanks, which some novices apparently think is particularly challenging. Ha!
What can be a little tricky is finding a dump station when the gauge says you need one, so stumbling on a spot with a Jurassic photo op and a dump station was pretty cool camping karma. Our younger kids got out of the RV to stand on the feet of the dinosaur with Sara, but I held our 6 year-old back with me to teach him about dumping the septic tanks. Parents should take every opportunity for a teaching moment. I put on double gloves and removed the waste hose from the storage bin. Making sure the valves to the tanks were shut tight, I opened the caps on the tank outlets. Wow, that was a rich smell! I attached the hose to the first tank outlet, the one for “non-sink” waste. The idea is you attach one end of the hose to the tank outlet, and put the other end into a dump hole that leads to a deep underground cavern, or some such thing. The dump hole was covered by an iron lid with a foot pedal. “Son, why don’t you step on the pedal and hold the lid open while Dad puts the hose in the hole and opens the valves,” I said in my best lumberjack voice. My young assistant, now gasping for air with his face buried in his shirt, stomped on the pedal which immediately snapped from the lid and clanged to the ground, the lid still closed. My son shrieked, terror in his eyes. “I broke it, I broke it,” he sobbed and ran for the RV, convinced the next step was a Wyoming jail.
“This was not your fault, sweetie. The lid was rusted and would have broken no matter who stepped on it. You just happened to be at the wrong dump hole at the wrong time.” With which he took no comfort whatsoever. “Let’s go, let’s just go, drive away, pleaaaassse!” Now, what kind of lesson would it teach our kids if we just drove away? No, we’re not going to drive away. We’re going to go inside the gas station and tell the nice man what happened, and that it couldn’t have been our fault because how could a 6 year-old possibly break an iron lid if it wasn’t already rusted through? “No, no, pleaaaassse, Dad, don’t make me go inside! You go tell him, pleaaaassse!”
Sometimes a parent has to be the bad guy when there are lessons to be learned. So, my mortified son and I picked up the rusty pedal, with double gloves, confessed our crime and explained the circumstances. The nice man couldn’t have been nicer. Don’t worry about it, kid, we’ll just get a new lid. Shoulda done it months ago when it started to crack. Go ahead and use the dump hole since you’re all hooked up already.
“You see, son, that’s how you handle an accident or mistake. Confront it honestly and things will work out,” I said wisely. We put all the kids back in the RV, and I went to finish the job. Our son, greatly relieved that he wasn’t going to be arrested, stood with our other two at the window to watch the official first family dump, with Sara filming for posterity. I confidently propped up the lid with my foot, slipped the end of the hose into the hole, and opened the valve to empty the waste tank.
In retrospect, I think I must not have tightened the hose onto the outlet valve. It was, after all, my first dump. The giant sucking sound we and everyone in the next county then heard was the hose being viciously yanked from the open valve outlet and inhaled whole by the dump hole. That huge underground pit exerted quite a vacuum effect! As the hose disappeared into the dump hole, the open valve began spewing two days worth of “non-sink” waste. With the kids laughing uncontrollably from the window of the RV, Sara ran out to help me, still filming. I intercepted her and nudged her back into the RV, nervously glancing over my shoulder to see if the nice man was watching. I slammed the cabin door shut, jumped into the driver’s seat and tore out of the gas station like Vin Diesel in Fast Five. The RV dropped untold gallons of solid waste and toilet paper, all bright blue from the disinfectant pumped into the tank with each flush, across the entire Sinclair parking lot, at the feet of the Brontosaurus, all along the highway access road, and ultimately onto I-25 North.
I don’t know how many miles we drove before the tank was finally empty and the blue goo stopped leaking. I do know that our kids didn’t stop laughing for 3 days. My son was too kind to say anything about confronting our accidents and mistakes honestly.
We took more than two dozen RV trips after that, until the kids were too big to sleep in the crunched beds anymore. Never again did our waste hose get sucked into the hole. But on every spring break trip, at every dump stop for the next 12 years, the kids were hoping.