When I was 7, we lived with my grandparents in a house that didn’t have running water. Our pump, which stuck up through the boards on the back porch, had a long handle on top and an opening on the side where the water came out – the spout of the pump. To get water, we placed a metal bucket under the spout and pumped the handle up and down. After a few pumps, water gently came out of the pump spout and into the bucket. If you pumped really hard, the water poured out. If you were 7 and couldn’t pump with much force at all, it trickled into the bucket and took a lifetime to fill it up.
One winter morning when I awoke, I could hear tense voices in the kitchen, discussing something I couldn’t make out. I had to know right then what was happening. I opened the bedroom door to find all the lights in the rest of the house turned on. I hurried, shivering, to the kitchen, warm feet against the cold floor, anxious to discover what was going on. The wood fire in the cookstove made the room cozy and warm.
My grandmother and grandfather sat at the kitchen table, looking more worried than usual. As I reached for the water pail, ready for my first drink of the day, my grandmother saw me with a glass in my hand ready to grab the dipper.
“Just take a sip,” Grandma said. “We have to be careful how much water we drink for a while. A skunk fell in the well last night, and the only water we have is what’s in that bucket.”
I opened the door to the back porch, and there was no mistaking a skunk had been there. Skunk scent was thick in the air. I checked the bucket of water sitting on the porch: smelled just like a skunk. The victim was probably one whose paw prints we had seen in the mud previously, and whose scent we had smelled in the night air.
I listened in as the adults tried to figure out why the skunk had taken his dive.
My aunt Margaret, who had a flair for drama, drove over with my uncle Evart to check out the situation. “Maybe it thought the well was a creek, leaned over to take a drink, and fell, plop!, into a lake with sides too steep to climb, doomed to a watery death,” she suggested.
My grandfather made a sour face at her and said, “Maybe it was a skunk with rabies. It could have lost its sense of direction and fallen.” That scared me.
We couldn’t take a chance, so we were on immediate water rationing. Besides, the water smelled so bad no one wanted to drink it.
On the same day as the discovery, some men came with a net on the end of a long pole. They fished around in the water until they retrieved the skunk corpse. I found out later they were from a county health agency. Everyone in the family was happy to get the skunk out of there, but it took a long time before the water stopped smelling like skunk.
Meanwhile, our water came from the skies. My uncles helped my grandfather put wooden barrels under the lowest points of the roof. When it rained, which was often, water flowed down the roof into the barrels. Those barrels became our temporary well, where we filled our buckets with water.
We put away the tin washtub – also our bathtub – and took sponge baths. We didn’t change our clothes very often. When we ran out of clean clothes, the dirty ones were taken to the laundromat in town. We managed this way until the well water became clear again and didn’t have that skunky smell.
It took about three months for the well to recover, but it seemed much longer. At long last, enough fresh water had flowed into the well to flush out the stinky stuff.
Finally, my grandfather said, “We can start using water from the well again.”
What a wonderful day that was. Pure water came out of our pump. We drank glass after glass of it, and what a relief to take a real bath after all those sponge baths! I never again complained about taking a bath or not having a real bathtub.
In this day and age, we sometimes complain of the most routine of obstacles – the weather causes the cable to go out, or maybe the washer or dryer finally gives out – but remembering the grit and resilience of our ancestors can lend a little perspective and remind us of how fortunate we are.
Ruby Long is a docent at the historic Mountain View Cemetery in California.