THE GROUNDBREAKING for my family’s long-awaited swimming pool last August promised to be a momentous occasion. The excavation crew unloaded a massive backhoe from a trailer, cranked up its thundering engine, and drove it across our lawn to the designated site.
“Before he starts digging,” my pool contractor declared, “you’d better sign the contract.” Now, I don’t mean to insinuate that because the heavy equipment was in place he thought I might just skim over the fine print, but that’s exactly what I did. Not that I had taken complete leave of my senses; about to put pen to paper, I turned to my contractor and told him to give it to me straight. “Where are the surprises going to come from?” I asked. “The extras? The add-ons? What’s going to drive up my cost?”
“No surprises,” he insisted, shocked that I’d even mention such a thing. “That’s the full price for a finished pool with a lifetime warranty on the shell.”
Even though this speech sounded suspiciously well rehearsed, I was reassured enough to sign on the dotted line. With a wave of his hand, he signaled the backhoe operator to start work. What a thrill! Down went the bucket and up came a massive scoop of soil and grass that I would never have to mow again. In a matter of weeks, I’d be splashing with my family and swimming laps, supermodels would be dropping by for our famous pool parties … Suddenly the backhoe’s engine fell silent.
“Turn off the power!” I heard someone yell. Then I saw that on its very first scoop the backhoe had pulled up a thick gray electrical conduit that seemed to lead directly to my main breaker box. I ran to the box and opened the cover to find a spaghetti tangle of wires and broken breakers. The backhoe had pulled the power cable to my well pump out of the box and busted nearly every other breaker to my house as well.
I tried to remain calm. After all, we live in a 65-year-old house, so I’d known that we might find some underground surprises. While waiting for an electrician, we decided to dig in another spot, which proved equally disastrous: On the second scoop of the day, the backhoe pulled up the main water line to my house, a propane gas line, a bunch of sprinkler-control wires, and several other large pipes. Water gushed from the broken pipes—but not for long, of course, since the power to the well was off.
“You’d better get a plumber out here to go with that electrician,” I told my contractor.
“Okay,” he said, “but remember, you’ll have to pay them.” I was dumbfounded. What had he said ten minutes ago? What about “no surprises”? “We’re not responsible for things hidden under the ground,” he retorted. “Check your contract.”
Dazed, I stumbled back into the house, took some aspirin, and began to search for a magnifying glass with which to read the back of the contract. How had I come to this pass? How could I have committed all my earthly resources to something as absolutely unessential as a swimming pool?
Well, for starters, my wife and I are lap swimmers who rarely find time to drive someplace to swim. Also, our eldest child, who is now eight years old, started clamoring for a pool when she was five, and we finally decided the only way to silence her was to fulfill her dream. So we designed a pool, found a contractor we liked, and went so far as to cut down an oak tree that was in the way. But then we got cold feet,