The Spring, Chinee and Me
Life for us took place on 57 acres of useable farmland; an average size for the area and time in which we lived, many had far more acreage, many had far less. Even so, we only used about 20 acres to produce and provide crops for both our family and the livestock. At various times that livestock included: horses, pigs, chickens, turkeys and every once and a while a cow or two. Everything we did was by design and clockwork. This was made all the more difficult because we had no access to running water. We relied totally on the graciousness of God and nature to irrigate the fields, orchards, garden and water for the animals. But, we had to rely on simple backbreaking, manual labor to provide water for our intimate and personal needs; drinking, laundry and bath water. It didn’t seem so terribly laborious at the time because it was all that we knew, however now, having been exposed and accustomed to indoor plumbing lo these many years, it’s difficult to imagine how we actually managed to get along without it.
Every Tuesday was “washday”. Our day began at dawn hauling water from the creek to fill our wringer washer, which sat looming and unquenchable on our back porch. We also had to fill the two #3 galvanize tubs needed to rinse the laundry after it had been beaten into submission by an unyielding agitator. At the end of the wash cycle, we would guide the washed but saturated laundry, piece by piece, into a medieval torture device called rollers to squeeze away soapy wash water and prepare for their rinsing. The #3 tubs were the types used for the much more enjoyable pass time of bobbing for apples. Between the washer, the galvanized tubs and also the huge, black, iron pot we used to boil and disinfect our white linens and personal items, it could take upwards of 70 gallons of water to complete this weekly task. No modern appliance has ever produced a whiter, fresher or more sanitized batch of laundry than that old smoke pot which is really quite ironic and amusing giving how dirty & soot encrusted that old pot was. Never judge anything by its outward appearance.
Huge barrels were placed strategically around the farm to catch and hold rain water. This water was used mainly for our livestock. But every morning & afternoon, before and after school, rain or shine, in blistering heat or icy cold, we had to walk the half mile, the last 1/8 of which was a steep decline down to a natural bubbling, self-filtering, cold water spring. It was the job of us three kids to make sure that our Mother and grandparents had enough water for drinking, coffee and cooking throughout the day. My Papa’s serious coffee addiction notwithstanding, we could usually get by on just one trip each to the spring per the twice daily sessions. This was accomplished by Chinee carrying two 2-gallon buckets, my sister carrying one 1-gallon bucket and I was proudly, the deliverer of my grandfather’s coffeepot water, which I did by carrying a small, recycled Steen’s syrup can. It held a bit more than a quart and the can itself was about six inches tall and had perhaps a four inch opening. Laugh if you like, but that little bucket became impossibly weighty and the bail cut deeply into my small fingers as I endeavored to climb that steep hill without losing its contents. To do so, meant going back down that treacherous hill, filling the container again and quite possibly trudging back up alone. If you couldn’t keep up, you could be left behind.
On one particular winter morning at precisely 4:30 a.m. (we were always awakened at 4:30 a.m., Monday through Friday without fail! No clock or rooster required.) The temperature outside was below freezing and the temperature inside the farmhouse was even colder! Mother had already given us the first warning call to up and at ‘em as Papa was just beginning to get our old wood-burning heater fired up. Even the smell of something warm and sweet drifting in from the kitchen was not enough to persuade us to crawl from beneath the piles of woolen blankets and heavy handmade quilts which were so far, supplying the only warmth in the house.
We groaned at the booming sound of our grandfather’s voice announcing the second and final warning to “get up”. We hit the floor and raced toward the heater, holding blankets around us. After warming somewhat, we dressed in as many layers as possible to protect ourselves against frigid weather and still allowed for movement. By the time we were finished washing up, brushing our teeth, dressing, and putting a heavy protective layer of Vaseline on our faces, the sun would be yawning, stretching and trying to figure out why the heck he or anybody else was bothering to get up this early on such a cold, cold morning. (I agreed wholeheartedly with this imagined assessment).
Four pairs of socks and 2 pair of pants for Chinee along with several tee shirts, a mackinaw, a heavy wool coat, a bib cap with ear flaps and he was ready for the trek to the spring. I really didn’t care what my sister wore because whatever she had on would not warm me one whit; but I would be allowed to walk with at least one of my hands in Chinee’s warm coat pockets. Pants for little girls were not yet popular and as such they were not easily obtained. Therefore, I was dressed in at least 2 old woolen shifts, the better to keep out the wind, 2 pairs of tights, at least 3 pairs of socks on my feet and another 3 on my hands (no mitten did we have). I tied an extra long scarf around my head and neck and finished with a sweater and coat. The only real difference between myself and a mummy, other than the obvious, would have been that a mummy would have moved infinitely more graceful inside its swaddling.
The trip down hill was beyond treacherous because it had no steps carved into it. There were no railings or ropes onto which to hold and assist our progress. There were only uneven footholds created by years of use and overgrown limbs and branches on which to hold. The ground was slippery with sheets of ice and the falling sleet pricked our faces. Undaunted and focused on the task at hand, we dared not tarry.
Arriving at the spring, Chinee dropped his bucket onto the spring’s frozen surface to break the thick layer of ice formed overnight. The sound of metal meeting ice reverberated and echoed throughout the still, silent morning. He carefully filled my sister’s bucket first and passed it back to her. He repeated the task for me. Lastly, he filled his two muscle fatiguing pails and we headed for home. If we had thought the trip downhill was treacherous; the trip back uphill was damn near life threatening. It was almost next to impossible to gain any purchase on the icy slope and one misstep could cause us to go sliding backwards downhill. As Chinee led the way breaking a path in the ice for us to follow, my sister would match his feet path and I would follow in hers. I was mere steps from the top as I began to slide uncontrollably. I could not regain my balance no matter how many branches I reached out to for stability. I fell hard on the frozen ground and slid backwards the total way down the hill, spilling my bucket of water over my clothes as I went. Bruised, scared and half frozen at the bottom of the hill, I laid crying from pain and embarrassment. The water had spilled on my dress and caused it to freeze and splay out from my body almost instantly. I had on so many layer of clothing that I could not right myself on my own. My sister stood at the top of the hill yelling grumpily for me to get up because she was cold and wanted to get home, (as if I wasn’t and wanted something different than she—older sisters, geez). Chinee yelled at her to go home and that we’d follow. He sat his huge buckets down on the top of the hill, the water in them quickly turning to ice, and headed downhill for me. He made it to me safely but he first picked up my bucket to refill it. He then picked me up and placed me piggyback on his body and climbed again the hill. He did not put me on the ground when he reached the top. He simply asked me if I could now hold my little bucket, to which I answered yes. Not only did he carry his two buckets of water but me and my bucket on his back as well and he never once complained.
So, What was the lesson here, you’re probably wondering? Well for me, it was that no matter how far I ever fell, no matter how slippery the slope, no matter what troubles I found myself surrounded by, no matter how cold or dark the situation, Chinee was always there to help pick me up and carry the load.
Without a doubt, without a single lifelong doubt, I loved my brother but even more undoubtedly, I KNOW that he loved me.