11/05/2012 11:52 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2013

Courage Under Plumbing: A Veteran's Day Tale

It's almost Veteran's Day, so I wanted to share a story about my boyfriend Steve, a Navy vet.

A few years ago, Steve and I were napping -- OK, we were in a nacho-induced coma -- when I heard a grinding sound coming from my kitchen. I jostled Steve awake. "Do you hear that?" I said. "Mmm hmmm," Steve said, rolling over and resuming his nap. I elbowed him awake. "Go see what it is," I said.

Now, this was a fair division of labor, as Steve is a large, take-charge guy, whereas I am a coward. He obligingly got up and trundled, naked, toward the kitchen. The grinding got louder and more insistent.

"Grrrraaa Grrraaaa Graaaaaa," said the sink.

I peeked out from behind Steve and wondered if, all this time, I'd had a garbage disposal and not known it.

Black water began gurgling up from the sink. Then, something wiggly and thin began poking out of the drain. It grew longer and longer, and began thwapping around, splattering my walls and the nacho leftovers with a viscous black substance.

Acting quickly to save the snacks, Steve grabbed the thing and yanked. "Hey," he said. "Stop!"

After a long battle, Steve defeated what turned out to be a plumbing snake. A plumber knocked at my door, and explained that he was trying to clear the adjacent apartment's pipes of a clog. "I guess your drains are connected," he said with a shrug. I handed him some Windex and a roll of paper towels and demanded he clean my kitchen. Sadly, the nachos couldn't be saved.

It's times like these that you learn who you really are. In an emergency situation, I discovered that I am a natural leader -- the person who boldly steps up, makes a plan, and delegates the dangerous job to someone else.

That, or I just save myself.

A few years prior to the plumbing snake attack, I was asleep in that same apartment, but with a different boyfriend, a skinny Washington Post editor we'll call Ed. It wasn't long after 9/11, so when I was startled awake by a sound like a building collapsing, I knew I had to think fast.

Why Al Qaeda would target my shabby, 200-unit apartment building, I don't know. What was clear, however, was that I had to get out immediately. So I leaped over my still sleeping boyfriend, wrapped myself in a blanket and ran out the door.

As I stepped into my hallway, naked except for that blanket, my mistake became clear. The building wasn't falling down, but a livid man in a bathrobe was systematically bashing in my neighbor's door. I tiptoed back into my apartment and climbed back into bed with Ed, who hadn't stirred.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have confronted my hammer-wielding neighbor or called the police. I should at least have given Ed a courtesy shove as I fled to safety during the imaginary building collapse.

After many hours of self-reflection, I'm proud to say that I probably would wake up my boyfriend if that situation happened again, but let's be honest about why. You want your large military-trained boyfriend around during a terrorist attack. A nerdy newspaper editor, on the other hand, is just going to slow you down.