I don’t have a post for today as I’ve been rewriting this story for submitting to Country Magazine and Guideposts magazine, two of my grandparents’ favorites.
I can never come across a drummer boy quarter and not think of Pappaw. When Pappaw finds them he hangs on to them, and his line of work takes lots of quarters. In rural Western, KY, where the county lines haven’t yet made it to all the wells and cisterns, some folks still need to call a water man. In Livingston and Crittendon Counties, that would be Gene Walker.
Memaw takes his messages while he is out. They live on HW 60 behind an old brick service station. The gas pumps are long gone and the water line reaches up and over the service island, a metal pipe like a bent flagpole. A heavy hose hangs back towards the ground like a fireman’s I always imagined. I’m sure this sort of system has a name but I’ve only heard it called “water.”
A wooden step ladder and a pole lean against the brick column. Pappaw uses them to situate the hose into the tank when there aren’t two eager little boys to do it. He has just enough time to walk around the shop and back to the house, refill his coffee thermos and hear where Memaw says the next load is headed.
Rural farms, swimming pools, and sometimes even the Amish; anywhere that a well has gone dry, that’s where she’ll send him. This is Western Kentucky, in a bowl of the Ohio River where you can be South, East, and almost North of Illinois. Pappaw packs a lunch now and then for the river bank. Then rumbles down a two lane highway sitting on 1000 gallons in an old, white Ford F800 somewhere between Lola, Burna and Tolu.
An RC Cola machine is on one wall of the shop and wooden Dr. Pepper crates lie in stacks. They read “Madisonville, KY,” and that’s where we moved when I was small. If I remember really hard, I recall a man in a mustache and sideburns who’d give me the money from the register for an RC. The register is still on an empty glass counter, one door leading into the service bay and another leading straight back into the big shop.
Papaw used to park his core-drilling rigs and work trucks just behind, and right to the side of his house. They were enormous trucks which mounted cranelike-towers lying on their sides. The drills were made for digging exploratory holes, the dirtiest machinery you can imagine, and for two little boys it left an endless amount of discovering to be done. But Ryan and I each consider hauling water our first occupation. All the way back to when the water truck had been a 76’ 1/2 ton Chevy, my dad’s from when we’d farmed about 8 miles up the road.
Pappaw would come into the house, thermos in his hand, and that meant 8 minutes until one of us had work to do. I’d meet my brother along the gravel road somewhere between the house and shop. We’d have little to say, me taking note what candy he’d gotten.
An old work truck is a fascinating place for a young boy. Wooden crates full of dusty things filled the floorboard. No fewer than four yellowed calendars were stuck to the dash or glovebox. My seat and floorboard were full of socket pieces, rags, jars, wrenches, everything the color of age and sunburn. I’d squirm around, a little boy in bright kid clothes and a box of gobstoppers, Memmaw’s scrubbing all aglow. First thing on the highway I’d flip on the AC which meant pointing the little triangle window into my face. Or maybe out of my face, when we were too close to some hogs.
Finally we’d wind around to a trailer or a farmhouse. Pappaw would back up close to the cistern, and always from uphill. When we were situated he stopped and pushed the brake. Just over the gear shift, in the middle of the dash, was the red knob. When all was ready he’d give it a push and the entire truck lurched, the bed rose, and the tank lifted up on one end. We’d climb out of the truck and start pulling hoses, like firefighters I always imagined. Usually a concrete block covered the hole and maybe the farmer would be waiting with it already opened. I’d drop the big green hose down and Pappaw would always say something like, “This here’s my grandson. He’s my help today.”
Pappaw turned the nozzle and you could hear it coming. Only when it escaped could you know how deep the well was sometimes. The splash echoed, swallowed up in the ground, and the cool air pushed up with a crisp little mist. Irks and creaks came from the truck, the weight releasing until the last gallons rocked back and forth into a trickle.
Pappaw would unhook the hose and I’d help him lift it in the air. We got every last drop, wiggling and snaking until the final gush. The hose went back on the truck, horshoeing the sides of the tank, on top of three other hoses that I never saw used. Pappaw would clip them to the knozzle with an S hooked rubber strap. We climbed in and he pulled the red button and the bed came down as the crackle of the old engine rumbled into my shoulder blades. We pulled off the grass and back onto the gravel road or little highway. Pappaw raised his index finger from the steering wheel to say hello and good bye, even if the farmer had gone back inside. For that matter, he did the same for any oncoming vehicle if he knew them or not.
When we were on a double load across the county, we’d head to the other water line in Burna. It stood alone in a gravel turnabout beside an old school. Pappaw would fill the meter again and again. We’d sit in the truck and listen to the sing of water in the tank. For a while there was no sing. It was rush, like water running onto a rock. Then, and I suppose it was when the water rounded the widest of the tank, it began to hum. In a minute or so it would change to a sing. And eventually the sing would be high enough to become a screech. At last it was a steam whistle, and that meant I had only seconds.
I’d swing open the door, step onto the gas tank and jump back onto the bed. Then hurl myself up the boarded side and climb two steps of rails behind the cab where I could then reach a chain hanging from the top of the tank. I’d hoist myself up just as the water gushed over the edges and Pappaw would hit the lever below. The whistle stopped as I freed the dripping hose, swung it away, pulled the tank lid shut, and latched it by a turn of a rusty nut. Water would roll off the rim of the truck bed like a roof with no gutters. I’d climb back down the rails, step onto the sideboard, jump to the gas tank and swing into the cab without touching the ground, maybe only my shoe-bottoms wet on a good day.
Pappaw could have found a drummer quarter or two. He’d put them in a cloudy mason jar in the floorboard. Other mason jars were full of washers and screws. The truck crackle started again, and with the new weight of water we roared back onto the highway with no speed at all.
Once for Christmas Pappaw gave Ryan and I, plus each of our Ashleys, a U.S. map with every state quarter placed in the cardboard cutouts. I don’t get to help haul water nearly as much as I’d like to anymore. We might share some peanuts from the store, not my regular gobstoppers. Salem has a new travel plaza up the highway a bit on the other end of town. We go there now to get our coffee thermos filled. Old farmers sit at the booths wearing overalls just like Pappaw’s. “Loafing,” Pappaw calls it. He comes here everyday.
Handing me the green Stanley thermos, he says, “Bud, go get us some coffee.” I’ll come back in a minute and Pappaw is telling someone he’s glad to finally get some help.
“Okay, Walker. Better let you get movin,” the farmer says.
The county has been busy building new water lines over the years which hurts business. Only the most remote customers are Pappaw’s remaining clientele, and swimming pools in the summer. His core-drilling outfit discovered fluorspar and minerals within three states. He farmed too and kept the service station awhile. When he was a young man he delivered ice for people’s ice boxes. He never complained when it came time to do something else.
The city lake of nearby Marion, KY was dug on Pappaw’s boyhood farm. Not long ago Memmaw was busy in town and he waited for her, deciding to drive out to the lake. The water was especially low that day and he saw four wheeler tracks in the mud. He was driving his nice truck, but after thinking a second, he threw it in gear anyway. He got hung up and had to call a wrecker.
His buddy told him, “Course’ I’m not gonna charge you for this, Gene.”
“Sure you are,” said Pappaw. “An eighty two-year-old man outta be ready to buy some of his lessons.”