The orange ball of the sun remained low on the horizon, as if it were on vacation. Perhaps, it was ashamed of something, whatever the sun could be ashamed of, I couldn’t even guess. Embarrassed kind of ashamed, trying to stay out of sight. It definitely did not contribute much warmth to raise the frigid temperature that had been lingering well below freezing for nearly a month. It was quite apparent to me on that January day that it was only there at all to aggravate my already sour disposition by reflecting off the piles, hills, and valleys of umpteen tons of powdered snow, dumped on the entire Midwest by Old Man Winter. My bloodshot eyeballs rebelled against the intense glare as I asked myself the same question once again: why did we have to move to the farm?
I couldn’t sleep the night before, sinuses draining down my throat and pouring out my nasal passages made my life miserable. I sat in the kitchen on a rickety old, indeed ancient, wooden chair, it’s seat as well as mine, softened by a tick covered chicken feather pillow. I tilted it back, leaning against the wall a mere three feet from the cast iron wood-burning cook stove, listening to the flickering flames devour the sticks of oak, watching the firelight that escaped from around an ill-fitting lid. My flannel pajamas covered woolen long johns, and above those two layers, I shivered in my fleece-lined denim coat and knitted stocking cap. Every hour or so, as I would start to drift off with my chin resting on my chest, the burning sticks would make a clunking noise as they did their thing in the firebox. That would be my signal to stoke the fire and add another chunk, or two.
The next morning, early, found me trudging through the drifted snow, pulling “the box,” which was another of my grandpa’s masterly built works-of-art, heading west up the short hill to the woodshed. In actuality, it was a wooden rectangle, made of poplar boards, two inches thick, tongue and grooved together. “The box,” was probably 48 inches long by 30 inches wide and 30 inches deep. The sturdy runners had a steel strap nailed to their bottom, which enhanced their ability to glide across the snow covered tundra, and increased their ruggedness as well. A sturdy rope was attached for pulling.
If I knew what cursing was back then, I probably would have been doing it. My non-sun-glassed eyes were itching and burning with a wild abandon. The knit scarf that mother had tied across my nose and chin, gave little relief from the cold and only served to make my breathing more difficult. Blackie was smart and did not venture out with me. Sam, my Heinz 57 dog, peeked out from behind the old towel that served as the door on his doghouse, and whimpered encouragement. Indeed, I was suffering alone. . . alone, that is, alone with the creeping crud.
My gloves were thick, but not thick enough. By the time I reached the woodshed door, my fingers were starting to freeze. I shoveled out the door, using my hand-me-down black rubber galoshes as the snow mover. The left one boasted three patches, permanently borrowed from the inner-tube repair kit, and glued there by my father, Hank. My bib overalls were bloused inside my boots, yet the snow managed somehow to sneak inside anyway. After an eternity, or so it seemed, the door could at last be pried open. With as much speed as I could muster, I loaded the box full of various kinds and lengths, and headed down the hill to fill “the cavity” as we called it back then.
The farmhouse was indeed too little, even for a small family; ours was far from small. Four years previously, Hank, in his infinite wisdom and with his tools of trade, had enclosed the back porch. Voila! The result was an 8 feet by 16 feet kitchen, with the southeast corner set aside for an enclosed 3 feet by 4 feet floor to ceiling wood-box, known to us kids as “the cavity.” There was a butterfly-hinged door access both on the inside and out. A new chimney was also constructed adjacent to the box along the outside wall. The stove-pipe was then cut, adjusted, and connected.
After three trips up and down the hill, “the cavity” was filled to the overflowing, the excess was left in “the box,” covered with an old braided rug. I stumbled through the back door. My mother was at the stove, punching the bread dough in an earthen crock bowl that had been in the warming oven, allowing the yeast to rise. She called out, “aren’t you cold?
Shivering, according to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, is “to undergo trembling: QUIVER.” I was shivering, quivering, quaking, but only where it was not visible.
“No, mother,” I answered. “I am quite comfortable.” My hue was blue, but my training would not let me utter reality.
She said “Fine, that is good, very good. Then you can help your brother, Dave, carry the water for the horses and cows.”
* * * * * *
Let me explain the situation to you in laymen’s terms. The barnyard, as well as the entire area for miles around, was an expanse of ice, had been for about a week, ever since that ice storm blest our world. On the front side of the barn was a concrete apron, dangerously sloped, especially with an inch thick layer of ice. Livestock are not known for their gracefulness, and seeing that ours had no ballet training, they were ungraceful, also. We were poor farmers which could not afford to have an animal with a broken leg, for it would have to be put down (killed). Letting them out to drink from the stock tank adjacent to the pump house was definitely out of the question.
The pump house and well were 93 feet from the wooden stave tank in the haymow, just inside the exterior wall of the dairy barn. The tank was of medium size, capable of holding 450 gallons of water. An enclosure, made of oak planking, surrounded the tank. This was covered with an enormous heap of timothy hay, so thick that even a Wisconsin winter’s cold could not penetrate it. The chance of the water in the tank ever freezing was less than nil. Piping connected pump to tank. So why did we have to carry water?
Mainly, there were two problems: the designing engineer was from Miami, Florida and the plumber was a local drunkard who believed what the engineer told him to do, and explicitly, without question, obeyed those words. The instructions arrived by mail, ordered from an ad that blanketed newspapers nationwide. “It is so easy anyone can follow the words and picture illustrations” touted the large print. Roy, always in a stupor, and his slightly retarded 33 year old son, completed the masterpiece in less than three days.
The 1½ inch galvanized pipe rose straight up from the well casing, extending five feet above the horizontal run that entered the tank inside the barn, four inches below the top of the tank. The run itself was 18 feet above ground level. The drop on the pipe was five inches, which was sufficient. That and the vertical stack insured drainage – “no water would ever stand in the line,” as per the ad. The pipe was braced and supported, properly and safely. So far, so good.
Now, let’s look at the barn itself. It was built in the year of our Lord, 1910, as the numbers on the side of the copula proudly announced. I can’t recall the exact size, but it was a small, yet typical, mid-western building, constructed of oak plank, 1½ inches thick, nailed on massive timbers and beams. A hillside was carved out to accommodate the structure, allowing ground level access to both the haymow from the west side, and to the animal domicile beneath, from the east side, via the barnyard. Cedar shingles adorned the roof; the paint was, naturally, barn red. A silo, almost as tall as the barn itself, held ensilage, or i.e., chopped up corn, that became more and more sour and fermented as time went by.
The thirst of the livestock was to be quenched by a practical and simple means. Plumbing was run from the tank via a network of ¾ inch galvanized piping, terminating in fairly large cast iron drinking bowls that were mounted between every other stanchion. The cows, using their nose, could get as much water as they desired by simply depressing a metal pretzel that actuated a valve, allowing gravity to fill the bowl. The flow stopped when the nose no longer depressed the pretzel.
A thin hemp rope was attached to a cedar 2” X 10” about 12” long that floated on top the water. The rope was threaded through a hole in the tank’s cover and, by utilizing a couple of 2” pulleys, the rope’s other end appeared in the livestock hotel below, providing a means of measuring the depth of water in the tank. When the level dropped to a certain point, someone would start the pump, filling the tank until water came out the overflow pipe.
Testing of the system was concluded by Roy and his boy at dusk that Thursday evening in June. It had worked beautifully! Flawless! That engineer was to be complimented! Payment was made for materials and services rendered. Roy argued with himself over which bar he should frequent, for definitely a celebration was in order!
* * * * * *
How much water can a cow drink? How about a horse? How much water can two young boys carry? The boys can, or rather will, carry all that is required. All that the cows want. Likewise, the horses, too. Hank said so.
Four galvanized buckets awaited us, Dave and I, stacked upside down, just inside the entrance door of the pump house. They each have the number 10 dimpled on the bottom, the same ones that in the summertime see unlimited action in the green bean patch. A four-pound sledgehammer with a long handle is used to smash a hole in the ice of the tank, large enough so that water can be dipped out. The cold weather ritual begins anew. The buckets are filled nearly to the brim, and the trek to the barn begins. The icy path causes an occasional slipping, and with that, the water in the buckets starts to slosh around, spilling some of it. Needless to say, it drenches the legs of my bibbies, and some of which finds the seclusion of my rubber boots. By the time I slip and slide to the barn door, my pants legs are frozen. The frigid cold water in my boots soon becomes two blocks of ice. Frostbite, actually ice-bite, evolves, numbing my legs and lower body. Worse yet, the more that is spilled, the more trips are required to complete the watering chore. Morning and evening, twice a day the buckets of the frigid liquid are placed and held in the concrete manger in front of each of those bovine critters. And don’t forget the three work horses.
Why is this water carrying necessary? Cows need water to produce milk. That is a given fact. But why not utilize the water system already in place? The answer to the question became obvious that first year of the systems existence when that wintertime rolled around. The story goes something like this: the rope gauge told the farmer that his tank was nearly empty. The pump was started. The thermometer, as if one was available, registered 3 degrees Fahrenheit. The galvanized water line, 18 feet in the air, registered the same amount of coldness. The diesel engine coughed and sputtered, then died. By the time the farmer got back to the pump house to restart it, the water in the pipe had become frozen. The partial blockage caused the water to geyser out of the stack and rain down on the pump house. The result was a spectacular cascade of water that froze instantly into a remarkable likeness of the Patron Saint of Ice Sculpture. It truly was a spectacular event, but mostly, it was heartbreaking.