a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

We drew our water home by hand

My cousins Terri, right, and Denise, goof off in the 1970s around our backyard hand pump that went from having been an ordinary kitchen utensil to becoming a symbol of home before it disappeared this year. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

WEBSTER, Pa. –The old cast-iron hand pump in our backyard wasn’t there for decoration in the 1960s.

We needed that contraption to draw water for drinking, cooking and the bathtub, mostly on those long, hot July and August summer days when our rain-fed cistern had run dry.

My obsessive-compulsive dad was especially cranky during dry spells and would grumble about the expense of water at the kids who dawdled too long over an open sink faucet with the cistern level dropping.

“Running water is gold down the drain,” he’d bark, repeating a phrase rattled by his father during the miserable Great Depression.

It’s impossible, now, to imagine our having relied upon the water that pump supplied in our scrappy village of Webster along the Monongahela River near Donora.

No one apparently had told our grandpa, who lived there before us, it was a bad idea for him to dig a hole below the outhouse directly upstream from the spring that fed the pump. 

Needless to say, the family’s privy would soon contaminate the spring water and require the family to boil it for drinking.

It would take a few more years for the local board of heath to determine the folks in Webster needed to boil all of the spring water in the area to destroy any E. coli it contained.

It’s even harder to imagine that my two brothers and I – the youngest then a toddler – had bathed in that water on those days when water conservation was a high priority in our home.

We were dropped into recycled bath water, which was first used by our parents in the tub mom would then top off with boiled water from a teakettle.

Eventually public water was brought to town in the early 1960s, rendering useless our hand pump, underground water storage tank and the outhouses in the neighborhood.

Yet mom held onto her pump that stood a stone’s throw from our back porch since the late 1800s. She found a section of a round concrete underground street drain about 18 inches wide, and planted it on its side at the base of that pump she painted fire-engine red.

Mom then filled the turned-up drain with dirt to create a planter in which she nurtured beds of hens and chicks, morning glories and other flowers.

The pump went from having been an ordinary household utensil to a nostalgic landmark that helped to define home.

Young cousins dressed in their best clothes for church on Easter Sunday would proudly stop beside that pump to pose for family photographs. Others spent the summer afternoons of their awkward teen years dancing around that pump, hoping to attract the attention of potential suitors.

Happy memories about such pumps were shared the other day among a group of older women taking in a lunch at Monongahela Senior Center.

“I’ll tell you a fond story about our pump,” said Lois Phillips, 84, of Monongahela. “We always had water and we didn’t have to pay a utility bill. We were fortunate.”

Gertrude Gray, 62, of nearby New Eagle, giggled and said she took pride in her pumping skills.

“I had fun with it,” she said. “I used to get water and throw it on my brothers.”

My father and mother kept their pump freshly painted, alternating its color between forest green and white, until they died in 2007 and 2010, respectively.

The relatives have grayed while others have moved on. About a month ago I went looking for that pump after my parents’ estate had fallen into limbo. I was looking for closure.

But the pump had disappeared like a late autumn rose snitched from its thorns before the first frost of winter.

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