Water! I went into the bathroom to use the facilities and wash my face and hands. I was maybe 6 or 7 years old. I was about to flush the toilet when my dad’s voice rang out: “Don’t do that.” I was perplexed but without thinking about what had just happened I turned around and reached for the sink and the tap to fill the little sink with water, so I could wash my hands. Again: “Don’t do that.” Because I was always obedient, I turned the knob and there was no water.
That was the scene in January of 1952 or 1953, when the old clay pipes gave out in my hometown. Those old pipes broke and cracked because of limited snow (no natural insulation) and extreme cold. A part of my hometown was without water. It was our neighborhood.
My dad’s family owned 40 acres of land about ten minutes outside of town. It had been in the family for as long as I can remember. On the 40 acres of land were three freshwater springs. As a child it was fun to drink spring water from the cup that hung on a branch of a nearby tree. One of the springs was 50 feet from my grandfather’s shack.
My father, in his practical way, had decided that water from those springs would be used to flush toilets, drink and be heated for washing both bodies and clothes. When the pipes broke, and word spread through the streets of this small town that many people would not have water, he had already thought about those springs.
I knew nothing of his plan, nor had I even thought about water. I was a child. I had always used water pouring out of a tap. It had always been there. Milk and orange juice, breakfast staples, came both in glass bottles that in turn came from Block’s market. Water came from the tap.
I was eating my cereal and toast, when my dad asked me if I wanted to go for a ride to the forty. I said, “Yes.” He added, “Put on your snow pants and heavy coat. It’s cold out.” Ten or fifteen minutes later, dressed so warmly that I was now sweating inside the layers of warm clothes, we were out the door.
The pick-up was parked next to the garage (really an old shed that was divided into two sides with winter’s wood stacked on both sides, one for my grandparents and one for our family). I climbed in, reaching up on tiptoes to open the door. Then off we went. It was cold. I could see my breath and the air was crisp to the touch.
When we got to the forty my dad began shoveling the little bit of snow off the path on the old road that ran from Popko Lane to the shack. He had opened the tailgate of the pick-up and I saw a couple of washtubs and two very large cooper boilers. There were also some pails.
When he finished the little bit of shoveling he wanted to do (there wasn’t much snow) he picked up the pails and we walked toward the shack and the spring. In-spite-of the snow pants and the heavy coat I tried my best to run around and explore on the short trip from the road to the spring.
When we got to the spring my dad explained that we were going to fill the washtubs and cooper boilers with water and bring them back home. Some of the water, he said, would be for grandma and grandpa and some would be for us. He then added we would have to make one more trip today and maybe every other day for as long as we don’t have water.
My father carried pail after pail of water to the truck. Carefully pouring the water into the larger containers. I asked if I could help so he filled a pail about 1/3 full and I carried a pail. Probably spilling most of that amount as I jostled the pail in my hands.
I don’t remember how many trips we made. I made only a couple. But soon the washtubs and boilers were 3/4s full. The trip home took a long time. My father drove very slowly trying not to spill any of our precious cargo.
When we returned home my grandfather and father carried the larger containers into the two houses. From the washtubs and boilers, the water was put into pails in the bathroom, an additional pail next to the kitchen sink and a cooking pot or two next to the bathroom sink. Both families had soup pots and they were filled and put on the stove to heat. Both of the stoves were wood burning. And so, it began the days that turned into weeks when we had no water.
During those days and weeks, my father made many trips to the springs on our land outside of town. He brought water to neighbors and he invited neighbors to go to the forty and carry their own water. The widows who lived near us, my father supplied with enough water to drink, flush, and cook. I don’t remember how long we went without water, but I do remember it as a great adventure with friends and neighbors working together to survive the cold and the lack of water. I remember that I was relieved that we did away with the Saturday night bath.
As I listened to the news reports, watched television, and read the articles on the lack of water in Texas because of the extreme cold, I remembered when the pipes broke in my hometowns when I was child. As I remembered, I thought about how we take water for granted. How much water I probably waste! Thinking about water I thought again about Texas, and I thought about Michigan where bad water caused so my health issues. I thought about the states in the western United States and their lack of water.
Water! It is the gift of life, necessary for survival. We are made of water. Perhaps we all need to reflect, the next time we turn on the tap, stand in the shower, or take a bath, or water our lawns, what a precious thing water is. As one economist suggested a few years ago, “Water will be the new oil.”