When Washing Machines Go to Die
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When Washing Machines Go to Die

Jul 09, 2023

News News | Jul 27, 2023

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Last spring, during one of the April blizzards that blew through the Dakotas, I happened to notice my washing machine making a Very Bad Noise. In ranch life and motherhood, there is never a good time for one’s washing machine to make a Very Bad Noise. There is always, always laundry piling up! But the possibility of losing my washing machine during a spring storm, when clothes get wet and muddy even faster than usual, had me nervous. I added the washing machine to my prayer list: “Please, dear God, don’t let anyone calve, and please don’t let the washer die now…”

I fully expected that horrible grating noise to result in a dysfunctional washing machine in short order, prayers or no prayers, but, mercifully, it held together for a couple more weeks. And then, sure enough, the agitator stripped out. The Very Bad Noise stopped, and so did clean clothes.

This was not the first time my washing machine has broken down. In the early years of our marriage, I used a wringer washer, because the original builder of our house had not thought it necessary to install plumbing compatible with a modern washing machine. That was fine, until a few months into matrimony, it quit swishing. My thoughtful husband had purchased me an old washboard at an auction a few months before our wedding, teasing me that it was ‘just in case’ my washing machine quit. I rolled up my sleeves and went to scrubbing, and the old washboard fell to pieces faster than I could scrub one pair of his dirty Wranglers. A trip to my mother-in-law’s house resulted in clean clothes, thanks to her washing machine, and another used wringer from her basement.

Some years, and several children later, we moved back to that house and the wringer washer. The boys thought it was great fun to run the clothes through the wringer. I, on the other hand, was a bit spoiled after living in a house with a ‘normal’ washing machine. Laundry for a family of five was a bit more daunting than laundry for a pair of newlyweds. We were managing well, though, diapers and all, when about three weeks after our move the wringer emitted a sudden, sharp CLUNK! and was still.

Ben went to town and brought home a new, normal washing machine. The lack of proper plumbing proved challenging, but not insurmountable provided I kept on my toes. The sound of the washing machine spinning out soon caused me to make a panicked dash into the bathroom every time I heard it. If I had forgotten to put the drain hose into the bathtub, the gradual flood of water coming through my bedroom and into the kitchen reminded me. And then we mopped and scrubbed the floor with every towel I owned and did more laundry.

That washing machine, though brand new, seemed to go through agitators almost as fast as my growing brood of children got their clothes dirty. Each subsequent agitator lasted about half as long as the previous one. Toward the end of its tenure of service, each agitator lasted about six weeks. One of the more memorable strippings occurred the day after I’d been told by my perinatologist that our youngest child needed to be born ‘immediately if not sooner’ and the day before my labor was induced. Thank God for a good neighbor who ran several loads of my laundry that day!

Other used washers came and went (and proper plumbing for the drain hose was installed) before a very nice, very large, very newfangled and brand new washing machine took its place in my bathroom. It worked like a dream for a year, a month and a day, and then made a Very Bad Noise—the agitator had stripped out, and the warranty on such parts had expired a month and a day previously. This washer was so new and fancy (think WiFi compatible) that my husband wasn’t sure he ought to just tear into it. At his advice I hunted up a phone number for the company and called customer service to try to get some repair suggestions.

The lady who answered was clueless in more than one way, but she really wanted to help. She didn’t know anything about how the washer was put together, but she said she’d find me a service person to come check it out. I told her that I was a long ways from anywhere and that what I really needed was a parts schematic, but at her request, I provided my address and waited. There was a Long Pause. She asked my zip code a second time, and a second Long Pause followed. At which point she confirmed what I had known all along: I live in the middle of nowhere, I am too far from anywhere to expect a repairman to venture out, and we were on our own as far as figuring out how to fix the washing machine.

It turned out that it was only one bolt holding the ruined agitator in place, and I managed to find a replacement online. Meanwhile, about six weeks had passed since the washer quit. We were in the midst of one of the snowiest February/March weather patterns I had ever seen and the children were stir crazy with cabin fever. I was in survival mode, just getting the cows fed without getting the tractor stuck was a challenge. And my bathroom was full of laundry. Eventually I filled the bathtub with dirty clothes, added soap, had the girls put on their swimming suits and start stomping and swishing. Then we’d drain the water, add clean water, they would swish some more, and then we’d spin it in the washer (that function still worked) and start over. That process killed two birds with one stone; it got some clothes clean and burned off some of the energy that children too long cooped up in the house are full of!

When I ordered the replacement agitator, I opted for the expensive expedited shipping option. The website guaranteed two day shipping, but this was a Wednesday and I was pretty sure that even with the expedited shipping it wouldn’t arrive until the following week. On top of that, it was shipping Fed Ex and that carrier was notorious at the time for leaving packages in Lemmon, fearful of venturing any further lest they should fall off the edge of the earth. The next day, Thursday, at long last our road got plowed out. Friday morning, to my great surprise and deep gratitude, a FedEx truck drove up the hill with my new agitator.

I thought of this when the latest breakdown occurred. This time, I knew what I needed, ordered it, and my son replaced it before we even ran out of clean underwear!

Taps for the Death of a Wringer

Faithful Machine, thy tireless swish

Hath weekly turned out laundry fresh,

Whose churning, muddy watered bowels

Have held my sheets and shirts and towels,

Have wrung out diapers thousandfold

For me to hang in heat and cold.

Thy labors eked out grease and oil,

Yea, every varied form of soil;

Our clothes thou cleaned.

Alas, in time, thy swishings slowed,

Thy belts grew weak, thy motor, old,

Thy firful groanings, thumps and squeals

Bespoke of pains that would not heal.

One fateful ‘CLUNK.’ Thy works stood fast—

Alas, my wringer’d wrung its last!

Sleep on in peace, thou servant true.

When I wash clothes with washer new

I’ll think of Thee.

–Ruth Wiechmann, 10 June, 2009

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Taps for the Death of a Wringer