Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 17, 2009


In 1953 or so, Mom and Dad moved to their first house in the countryside of southwestern Ohio. Mom was a city kid. If the move to the little burg where her new husband lived had presented her with new challenges, moving to this more remote spot was a shock: gravel road, septic system and, incomprehensible to her, two novel sources of water: for washing, a cistern filled by runoff from the roof and, for drinking, a well with a hand pump.

The drinking water sat in a blue plastic 2-gallon bucket on top of the washing machine in the kitchen, covered with a metal lid. When it got low, you carried the bucket out the back door, turned right and circled around the concrete block pumphouse, out to the fenceline to the pump, pumped the bucket full of water from the well, and carried it back into the house. This, by the way, was the most delicious water on the planet, filtered through layers of loam and sand deposited by glaciers millennia before, specifically for our enjoyment. (I was there at the time of this story, but being scarcely a year old, I don’t get a speaking part.)

One summer day, Dad left for work, telling Mom as he left that the Water Man would be there. Mom had no idea who the Water Man was but accepted it as one more of the mysteries of her new Rural Life.

According to Mom, some time in mid-morning a huge truck resembling nothing she’d ever seen, nearly the size of the little house itself, backed up the driveway.  A compact, wiry man climbed down from the cab and knocked on the door. (This was Walter Larrick. I will bet this month’s paycheck that his name has never appeared on the World Wide Web, but he merits a spot in our memory.)

When Mom answered he knock, Walter said, “Got your water. Want me to put it in the usual place?” One can assume that there was a wink associated with the delivery of this line. I will take any odds on his having been set up for the fun by my dad.

Not having an earthly clue about what was transpiring, Mom, the cool urbanite, probably said, “Sure.”

I can picture the scene: Mom would have stepped out to watch what was going to happen. Heck, she may have been holding little Me in her arms as she stood in the side yard and watched as the wiry little man slid a big flexible hose off the bed of the truck and clamped it onto a spigot at the base of the big tank. He dragged the other end of the hose to an inlet in the foundation of the pumphouse and fed it in. Crunching back along the gravel drive to the truck, he pulled a lever, and there was the sound of rushing water.

He was filling the cistern: a little underground cube, maybe 8 feet square and 6 feet tall under the pumphouse. If there wasn’t enough rain for a while, then they had to buy water from Larrick, who bought it from the city which, as it happened, sits on top of an immense underground aquifer and has (or had, then) plenty to spare.

I can picture Walter tearing off a little receipt from a pad and handing it to Mom, thanking her and wishing her a good day, climbing into the truck and, blowing up dust from the little country road, heading off back to town. There she stands, holding little Me.

Mom was dumfounded. Having grown up in the big city of Cincinnati, it had never occurred to her that any more effort was required to access water than turning the tap. I absolutely know from having heard her tell this story many times with great gusto that this was a seminal moment in her, then, 24 year-old life. Water was a commodity the value of which she had never questioned.

I live now in a metropolis that dwarfs the Cincinnati of Mom’s girlhood: 10 million human beings, each of whom, whenever we please, go blithely to the kitchen or bathroom and turn on that little tap to summon water.

This story took place 20 years after The Great Depression, and the world was buzzing with expectations of Progress and a new, energetic postwar boom. I AM the baby boomer, but I have also had to carry a bucket of water from the pump to the house before we had water to drink. Whether you live in a city, where the water comes from a vast system of canals and aqueducts from a river several hundred miles away, or whether it is lying 100 feet under you in a limpid, artesian pool, it’s not infinitely renewable. Use a broom instead of a hose to clean your walk. Turn off the tap when you don’t really need the water. Adjust your sprinklers to water the lawn and not the sidewalk and the gutter. And, here’s a radical thought: while you’re running the water until it gets hot, catch it in a bucket and use it to water your garden.

Someone else could use that water. And so could our grandchildren.

Here’s worthwhile reading about water use: <a href=””>Cadillac Desert</a>. And using up the water isn’t just a problem in the west, you know.



  1. sweeeet!
    similarly, during summers on the look out, we had water out of 5 gallon milk cans which we filled from a creek down the hill from the tower, but, you know, that was just summers. woodstove cooking, my sister still does at her house, we all have indoor pluming now, thankfully. i usually win in the “old phone number” contests that come up now & then, since our number at the look out was one long ring and two short rings, which even for those of us raised with black rotary phones, pre-dates AL3-5088 and even the 5088 numbres.
    up here in the rainy pacific north west, we don’t water the lawn anymore, just a few potted plants and the garden, sweep the drive, and watch the usage. thanks, for the nice bolg, i’ll try to read about the accident later today.


    • Wow, you must have been a mighty tyke to carry a 5 gallon milk can full of water up the mountain. I keep forgetting that you had a TRULY rural upbringing. We had a 4-digit number: 2171, but it WAS a party line. Indoor plumbing went into that house before Mom & Dad bought it, tho the outhouse was still there at the very edge of my memory.


  2. that was the royal we, meaning dad.
    there was nothing quite like ice cold mountain water from a dipper though.
    we had a party line too, thus the need to know which “ring tone” was ours.
    anyway, that was part of our upbringing, most of it was in towns, and with television.


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