"A Man Came Through the Woods"
We were late, but late is a relative term. Most people consider noon to be "lunch time," and so did Mom. It is in that sense we were late. But since Mom typically arrived with lunch about an hour after noon, we were right on time. That’s how it mostly went. Why not just decide that lunch time is 1:00PM? Sounds logical, but if the agreed time were 1:00, try as she might to honor it, Mom’s day would be such that she’d arrive with lunch around 2:00. It was just that simple, and the fights about it had faded long before in the endless ebb and flow of married life.
So through the years we spoke of lunch at noon but set our stomach clocks for 1:00. And on this particular day, since Mom was coy enough to carried her banana cake with butter-cream frosting first from the car to the old Duncan Phyfe in the shade of the barn, there was nothing but smiles from Dad.
After lunch, we took some swings on the rope
[which I wrote of two years ago but really should include in these chapters] and then went to the well.
In the forty-five minutes we took for lunch, over a foot of water had seeped into the well. We lowered the long hose, pumped it out, lowered the long wooden ladder, watched Dad descend, pulled out the ladder, and lowered the shovel and bucket with the rope.[By the time we were six crocks down, the well looked very much like this photo of another well. Ours did not have the ladder built into the side.]
“Wow, Dad’s got it all cleaned up around here,” Mom said.
“He did that last week when we were gone,” said Paul, pulling up a bucket. “Next one’s yours, Tom.”
He dumped the bucket out a few steps away where a small pile was already forming from the morning work. Walking back with a smile, he handed me the empty bucket. I hooked it to the rope. “Heads up”I hollered down the well, and let the bucket’s weight free-fall with the rope half-way down and then squeezed the rope to let it slowly pass Dad and thud in the wet dirt at his feet.[I've shown this drawing in previous chapters, but just as a reminder, our bucket system looked something like this. Our well was twice as deep, and we were lining it with cement crocks as we dug. There was a pile of pea gravel beside the well that we kept shoveling around the upper perimeter of the cement sleeve so the gravel would act as "ball bearings" as the stack of crocks sank into the ground.]
Dad had the digging down to a science. While the bucket was up, he’d turn shovels of dirt, stepping backwards in a tight circle around the narrow perimeter of the cement culvert. Then when the bucket was there, he simply scooped up a dozen or so shovelfuls of the loosened dirt into the five-gallon bucket. Step back and yell, “Okay!”
I pulled the heavy bucket up knowing my brothers were watching to see if I had the strength to do it as smoothly as they did all the way to the top. I did.
I rested the bucket on the edge of the top crock and began to unhook the rope.
“Nope!” Dave said, grabbing the bucket handle. “We do it different now. Put the bucket on the ground and then unhook it. Dad’s deep enough now that if you accidentally dropped the un-hooked bucket… that would not be good.”
He lowered the bucket to the ground. “Okay. Now unhook it.”
“Did something happen?” I asked.
Paul and Dave’s eyes met and they motioned Mom’s direction to shut me up. Mom was about ten steps away watching Jim playing with some sticks.
“Tell you later.” Dave whispered, but then he added, “It didn’t happen but we had a close call, but we’re not going to talk about it. Just unhook the bucket on the ground from now on.”
Up from the well came the rhythm of steel cutting into gritty, wet dirt. The sound stopped momentarily as Dad caught his breath. I dumped the bucket and handed it to Dave.
“Head’s up” he said flatly, letting the rope slip through his loosely gripped hand, then squeezing it to slow the bucket past Dad, and another round began.
I looked Mom’s direction and knew she could not hear us.
“Did you guys almost drop a bucket on Dad?” I whispered. Paul just smiled. Dave looked Mom’s direction then turned his face from her and closer to me.
"Paul and I were fighting over whose turn it was to pull,” Dave said, “Dad kept yelling up ‘Okay’ but we weren’t pulling. He was getting mad so I went ahead and pulled it up, rested it on the edge, and told Paul to dump it.”
“I wasn’t about to dump it because it was your turn.” Paul insisted, “But I wasn’t going to keep Dad waiting so I went ahead, and just as I unhooked it. Dave grabs for it…”
“I still say it wasn’t my turn, but I didn’t want to hear about you bein' one ahead of me all day. Anyway, my hand hit the handle resting on the side of the bucket but I missed the handle and the bucket slipped off the lip of the crock.”
My eyes widened.
“But I grabbed the top of the bucket long enough for Dave to grab the handle. It was close. If that had dropped down on Dad-- Gsheesh!”
“Did Dad see what happened?” I said still whispering. They shook their heads ‘no,’ and the three of us looked at Mom who happened to look at us. We smiled as if to change the subject she had not heard.
“What?” she laughed. We just kept smiling. “Look at you three. My little babies all grown up.” She reached for Jim’s hand, “I remember when you were all this age, playing out in the sand box on Lapeer. And now look at you. Still playing in the dirt.” She laughed.
Dad hollered up “Okay!” and Dave began to pull.
As he put the bucket on the ground to unhook it, I thought of what he said, and it occurred to me for the first time the enormous amount of trust Dad had in us boys at the top of the well. I can’t think of a more vulnerable position to be in: twenty feet down a shaft with very little room to move. If anything fell down the well, it would almost certainly hit him. And because looking up was a risky thing to do (for almost always bits of dirt were dropping from the bucket above) there would be almost no way to get out of the way. It would be best, I reasoned in my mind, if the contents of a bucket spilled and rained down on him than for a full 40-pound bucket to hit him in the head. I shuddered at the thought.
“Would that kill you?” I asked Dave, as if he‘d been listening to my thoughts.
“Would what kill you?” he said.
“If a full bucket hit you in the head from up here.”
“Probably not,” he dumped the bucket and handed it to Paul. “Unless..." His eyebrows rose as if with a brilliant idea.
"Unless, you were resting your chin on the top of the shovel handle when the 40 pounds hit--WHAM
!-- squarely on the top of your head. That would force the handle up through that soft part behind your chin,” he grabbed my chin and pressed his thumb up into the spot he meant, “Right here. Then it would go up through the tongue and soft palate
and the sinuses and into the brain... That would kill you.”.
I stood speechless. Dave always had an uncanny knack at describing weird ways to die, but in this case, I was equally impressed by his grasp of anatomy and physics. [Many years later, Dave would become a high-school science teacher who could regain his student’s attention with vivid tales of freak accidents that all ended with the line…“That’s the one thing you don’t want to do!”].
Then as if inspired again he added, “You’d be dead instantly but probably stay standing ‘cause the shovel handle jammed in your head would kind of prop you up.”
“Enough!” Paul laughed, lowering the empty bucket.
"Good thing Dad never rests his chin on the end of the shovel," I whispered.
"Hello," Mom said looking past us. It was as much a warning as a greeting because she could tell that we had not yet seen a man coming through the woods toward us. If the man heard Mom, he chose not to wave.
This was no one that we knew. In the three years of Saturdays there at the property, we had gotten to know all the men who might happen by. We could also tell who they were from a distance. Mitch lived north of us and had a club-foot limp. Russ lived across the road and always came down the two-track with a wave and toothy grin. Harry owned the land south of us, but we always saw his parked car if he was there. This man was a stranger, dressed too warm for summer it seemed to me, with a ratty army jacket and his hands hidden in the patch pockets.
"Hello," Mom said again as he approached. The three of us boys just stood in awkward silence. Strange that Mom, because Dad was out of sight, by default became the spokesperson, while three teenage boys stood gawking. The man nodded his head and began to veer around us as if avoiding conversation, then stopped and looked directly at Mom, who by then was standing beside us with Jimmy in her arms.
"You don't mind if I pass through here, do ya?" He spread an unshaven smile. His eyes had the shallow gleam that comes from a bottle.
"No, go right ahead," Mom suggested, and he took two steps just as Dad hollered "Okay" up the well.
"What the..." He stepped toward us. "You got somebody down there? I wondered what the..." he censored himself. What are you doin'?"
"That's my Dad," I said as Paul pulled up the bucket, "We're digging a well. It's almost done."
"Lemme see..." He stepped closer to the cement crock but did not touch it, leaning slowly toward it until his eyes were past the brim. "What the...?" He leaned away from the well as if afraid of heights. "He's a way down there. That's for sure. But you can't dig no well 'round here."
Mom and I walked away from the well, hoping he'd follow and be on his way.
"We don't mind if you pass through." Mom said again. "That road there will take you down to the Fish Creek
. There's a bridge over the creek and a path on the other side. Looks like that's the way you were headed."
"Yep. I'm headed east a couple more miles, but don't you know nobody has a deep well like that 'round here. The water's no good."
"What?" Mom asked.
"Mom, I'm sure Dad knows what he's doing. It's okay. This man's in a hurry."
"I'm goin' boy," the man winked. "Just warnin' you that's all. That well's no good. All you'll get is salt water. All the water 'round here tastes salty. I'm headed to the Salt River
right now. Why do you think they call it the Salt
"I don't know. But we've gotta have a well. Where else'll we get our water."
"They say city water's coming in a couple years. Just wait for that."
"We can't wait for that. We're building a house." Mom said as if some sort of discussion could change these facts if they were true. The man turned to me.
"Tell your old man he's wasting his time, boy." He turned and walked away, "Salty water," he laughed. We watched him until he disappeared over the rise in the hill.
"Paul, go make sure he doesn't snoop around the barn." Mom whispered.
"I'll go, too," Dave added, "Tom, come get the bucket."
"Don't tell Dad a word he said, Tom," Mom whispered, and I agreed.
A moment later, Dave and Paul came running back.
"He's already across the creek--didn't even look at the barn." Dave said.
"Did he see you watching him?" I asked.
"No, he didn't even turn to look our way--just kept walkin'" Paul said.
"Good," Mom sighed. "I was just telling Tom that we're not going to say another word about this. Don't tell Dad a word he said."
"He was probably drunk," Dave suggested,"Looked like there was a bottle in his right pocket."
"I saw something in there," I added, "but I was afraid it was a gun."
"Oh, he's just a drunk know-it-all passing through," Dave said, "There's guys like that at school. Never actually done any work but always in a hurry to act like your work is a waste of time."
"Dad knows what he's doing, Mom." I said once more. Jimmy who had pretty much just observed this whole thing added, "Dad knows," with a big smile. And we all laughed and went back to our rotation..
"You boys keep an eye on Jimmy for a while. I'm going to clean up the table and put out a snack for later on. Then Jimmy and I are going home to make supper. Why don't you see if Dad wants to take a break in a half hour or so before I leave?"
About an hour later, we talked Dad into that break, and we all walked back to the barn. Mom had dragged the table inside the barn under the bare bulb by the stove. It wasn't dark outside, but it was around 4:00 and the mosquitoes were starting to get bad. (The last thing Mom needed with her skin-picking issue was mosquito bites.) When we got to the table, she was seated there reading her Bible. (She often carried her Bible with her in the car whenever we went to the beach or the property, in case she had time to read.).
"Look, Don," she said, "Listen to this." And she read Proverbs 9:17
"'Stolen waters are sweet and bread eaten in secret is pleasant
.' I'm not kidding, Don, I opened my Bible just like this and put my finger down on a verse, and that's the verse it was. So I said, 'Okay, Lord. That might have been coincidence.' And I opened it again without looking, dropped my finger on a verse and it said--well, here, let me read it. I marked it, but it wasn't marked before. Listen 'Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh
.' Look at me! I've got goose bumps! It says that right in here James 3:12
. Isn't that something?".
Dad just stood with a big smile, not wanting to take the wind from her sails but also not having a clue why those verses mattered in that moment. So mom turned to us boys who did have a clue and added. "You know why I'm so happy. Can you believe this?".
"You sure you didn't use a concordance
?" Dave joked..
"No, David William, I didn't!" Mom said indignantly, "It happened just like I said, so I know the man was wrong."
"What man?" Dad said, no longer smiling.
"Mom, I thought we weren't going to say anything," Paul warned.
"We weren't, but now this... now I know he was wrong." She looked at Dad, took a deep breath and said, "About an hour ago some stranger walked past us up there at the well."
"I think he was drunk," Dave added, and we all nodded as Mom went on.
"He said that the well was no good. That you were wasting your time because the water around here is salty and that's why they call it the Salt River."
"He said that?" Mom nodded. "That the water was salty?" She nodded again.
"But I don't believe it, and that's why the Lord gave me these verses." Mom said.
"Bev, I'm not so sure you can just use the Bible like a Weegee Board --just opening and pointing. It doesn't work like that. I mean... it did in this case for you, but..."
"Don, I wasn't using the Bible like a Weegee Board. Don't even talk about those wicked things. I prayed for a verse and there it was, and I did it again and the second one was even better."
[Mom knew very well how to properly study scripture, and she knew this was not the way, but neither was it the last time she was blessed by a random, point-to-print, passage in a time of need.]
"Okay, Bev, I didn't mean it like that, but I'm just wondering why you put any stock at all in what some stranger said." He walked over to the pitcher pump and filled a glass of water and drank it down. "I don't know why they call it the Salt River, but it's sure not salt water, and besides--it's downstream from here. We've been drinking from this little well in the barn for a year and it's not salty."
"I know but that's just a shallow well. I was afraid the deeper well was what he was talking about. He looked down at you and said something about it being deep where the water's salty."
"But, Bev, every morning when we come out here, that well is full to the top. And if the sun's up and the light's just right you can see all the way down to the bottom. It's crystal clear. And before we pump it out, we can scoop up a bucket of it and drink it. It's cold and good, isn't it, boys? Best water you've ever tasted." Dave and Paul agreed.
"Well, why didn't you boys tell me it wasn't salty?" Mom pleaded.
"You said we weren't going to talk about it." Paul said.
"You said 'not a word,'" Dave added.
"Well, you picked a fine time to obey!" she laughed.
"I didn't say anything because I didn't know, "I said apologetically, "I've never been here in the morning when they pump it out. I just figured Dad knew."
Mom looked down at her open Bible. "Well, I've underlined 'em," she smiled, "And I'm still going to claim them. I was a nervous wreck this whole time until God gave me those verses."
"Honey, I don't doubt that a bit," Dad said, washing his hands at the little pump. He was moved, I think, that Mom cared enough to worry. After all, in the middle of this hard summer with all her mixed emotions about everything, she could have shrugged it off... but she cared enough to worry, and pray, and find these verses.
"Read the first one again about the sweat bread," he said as he took a knife and cut six pieces of banana cake, Mom read it again, and he put the pieces on plates and passed them around. "And what's that verse in Psalms that we all learned a few months ago. 'O taste and see that the LORD is good," he began, and we all joined in, "blessed is the man that trusteth in him."
To be continued...The Day was Far From Over. Chapter 15 coming next weekend.
Time for the Super Bowl. I'm pulling for the underdogs, Kurt Warner and the Cards. He used to stock groceries in the Cedar Falls Hy-Vee grocery store in "our home town" back when we lived in Iowa. Post game update: Rats! Arizona lost a close one, but they clearly disproved all the hype, and I was proud of the way Kurt Warner conducted himself before, during, and after the game.