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The Bath

We didn’t have electricity or phone service on our wilderness farm.  Nor did we have sewer, or even a septic tank.  We did have running water . . . only in summer.

The running water made Mom’s life much easier.  That’s why Dad did it.  He rigged up an enormous galvanized tank outside our house.  It was perched high on a platform between the first and second floors. Downspouts from the roof gutters directed rainwater into the tank. A pipe through the wall carried the water to a tap above the kitchen sink.

Among many other things, Mom was the chief purveyor of water for our Saturday night baths.  We all used the same galvanized tub.  We dragged it out weekly onto the worn linoleum floor in the kitchen.  Everyone used much of the same water.

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My little sister bathed first.  Then, as the second youngest, I was next, followed by my older sister.  From time to time, Mom would enter the kitchen to discourage playing in the tub and to add hot water from a kettle simmering quietly on the big old cast iron wood stove. Then we’d be sent up to bed, and it would be Mom’s turn.  Then Dad.  Our poor parents had to skim the accumulated grimy soap crud off the murky water we’d left behind.  Often, water in the tub was getting cold by then and the hot water was all gone

Dad’s water tank was very clever but in winter it had to be drained.  So, during those long cold months, my older sister and I supplied the running water – that is, we ran buckets of it into the house from an open air hand pump and to troughs for the cows and horses, even in 40 below zero weather.

Sewer service was different from today, too.  It had two features: Us, and an outhouse located across the back yard, tucked discretely behind our garage/workshop.  The grey weathered wooden ‘one-holer’ was at the end of a well-worn path. In winter, that path could be waist deep in snow.  The ‘us’ feature was my sister and I, and our legs.  Sewage from the sink went into ‘slop pails’ that we carried out and dumped over a shallow bank into what in spring became a pond.  And we took turns dumping the family’s chamber pot we called the ‘thunder bucket’ down the outhouse’s one-holer.

The arrival of spring brought flooding.  Nearby rivers often burst their banks.  We kept hoping a creek on the way to our one-room country school would flood and force us to skip a day or two.  It never happened. One of the runoff creeks flowed into the pond that formed behind the garage/workshop and our outhouse.

Not surprising, the pond was an irresistible attraction.

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One spring, my sisters and I built a wood raft from an old crate.  It didn’t float very well.  Before setting sail the first time, we took off our shoes and rolled up our pants.   We launched it and climbed on board.  The raft promptly sank.  There we were, up to our knees in water our mother swore would give us ‘lock jaw’, or visit upon us some other calamity so awful it was even beyond her considerable ability to imagine.

The proximity to Dad’s workshop must have generated the idea.  We ‘liberated’ an inner tube found in the shop . . . a perfect flotation device.  We installed it under our raft and took turns with a hand pump filling it with air.  It worked well . . . too well, actually.   Soon we were out in the middle of the brackish pond, nicely dry but with no way of directing or stopping our travel.  A breeze pushed us to shore.  Off we went into the woods, returning with two freshly cut poles that moments earlier had been unsuspecting sapling trees.

Next, an anchor seemed in order.  We knew nothing about rafting or anchors.  Besides, we didn’t have any rope.  I began to wonder if some other device might work as well.  We tried the poles but we couldn’t get them to stick into the murky bottom.  Back to Dad’s workshop.  There we found a four-foot metal rod, once a truck transmission shift lever.  It had a round plastic shift knob on one end and was sharpened at the other.  Dad used it to chip ice from the animals’ water troughs in winter.  Perfect!

One Sunday afternoon while awaiting the arrival of company we decided to go sailing on the pond.  Full disclosure: calling it a pond is an exaggeration.  The water came from a cow pasture behind our barn.  It flowed through the barnyard and behind our outhouse carrying a rich mixture of cow manure and who knows what else thinned ever so slightly by spring runoff water.  Little wonder our mother feared all manner of disease and pestilence befalling her offspring.

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That day, we were determined to go sailing, despite being dressed resplendently in our hand-me-down Sunday best clothes.  Those days, there were only two occasions when we dressed up: visitors and church.  We simply couldn’t wait for the company to come . . . and go . . . so we could change and go sailing.  Besides, we were confident in our tube-supported raft.  It was working just fine.

Soon, the three of us were out in the middle of that interesting liquid when we decided to anchor.  I grabbed the steel rod we’d taken along.  My plan was to jam the sharpened end through the wood slats of the raft into the bottom of the pond.  I proceeded to do so.   My aim was off, just enough.  The steel rod went through the upper side of the tube, then through the bottom, creating two large air leaks.  I realized what I’d done, and reactively pulled the big steel rod out of the tube.  Wrong move! With the rod pulled out, the air escaped even faster, of course.  We needed to get to shore, and fast!

We poled as quickly as we could.  Not fast enough!  The water rose steadily over our ‘dress’ shoes and then our ankles and then up to the knees of our Sunday best clothes.  We jumped overboard trying to get to shore quicker.  We’d misjudged the depth.  The murky water was up to my waist . . . and our little sister’s chest.  The expletive, ‘Oh shit!’, came to mind.

It would be a gross understatement to say Mom was displeased with us.  We shouldn’t have been surprised when she ordered us into the bathtub fully clothed, despite the imminent arrival of the company.  There we were to scrub our clothing, disrobe and then scrub ourselves. My little sister was first.  I was next. The water had become quite grimy by the time it was my older sister’s turn.  At 10, she was the eldest.  The arriving company had to walk behind her through the kitchen to the living room, chuckling as they went.  Meanwhile, she crouched in the tub trying desperately to protect her pre-pubescent modesty.

My parents came to the conclusion correctly  I was the main culprit in this failed marine adventure.   After all, I’d poked the holes in the tube.  My sisters eagerly agreed.  Worse, yet, Dad had just bought that inner tube.  We hadn’t thought to ask permission.  As punishment, Mom decided I should empty the tub, all by myself.

The first few buckets were okay.  Dad insisted I dump the buckets in the pond.  I could have dumped them in the garden .  Hey, fertilizer plus water!  And it was much closer.  Seemed logical.  The pond was 250 feet farther away . . . Dad’s idea of a richly deserved added punishment.  With each trip to the pond, the buckets seemed to grow heavier, and definitely became more brackish.  At long last, I was finally scooping the remnants from the tub.  It was mostly brown mud . . . ah . . . liquid manure.  I propped one end of the tub up on some firewood, to get the last bit.

Just then, Mom came into the kitchen to put water on the stove for tea. Suddenly, the ladle I was using was snatched from my hand.   I felt a firm whack on the top of my head.  It sounded like the ladle.  Turned out, it was.  Evidently, she objected to me using the ladle I’d borrowed from our bucket of drinking water.  I would have rinsed it.  Honest!  Well . . . I’m pretty sure I would have.

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“The Bath” is Copyright 2013 By James Osborne   All Rights Reserved

6 comments on “The Bath

  1. roypipes
    April 14, 2013

    Great story James. I grew up with the washtub and outhouse.

  2. Sunni Morris
    April 14, 2013

    James,

    What a cute story! That brings back some memories. As you know, I grew up on a farm too, but thank goodness it was in the south. We did get freezes, but no snow. We did have an outhouse and we waded in the creeks as well, and took baths in an old washtub with hot water heated in a kettle on the stove. We had a hand pump on the well that was a good ways from the house.

    My dad also put up a storage tank for water. He ran a pipe into the kitchen and a smaller washtub was the sink. Everything had to be emptied by hand into the outhouse.

    I didn’t see snow for the first time until I was nine when we had an unusual winter. Usually just everything had several inches of ice on it, and large icicles hanging from the roof.

    Sunni

    http://sunni-survivinglife.blogspot.com/

  3. darlenecraviotto
    April 14, 2013

    And somehow among all those germs in brackish water you survived. It probably made you and your sisters better able to resist bacteria. Charming story!

  4. ianmooremorrans
    April 15, 2013

    Hilarious and well-written story, James. Is it autobiographical?

  5. Tim Young
    April 21, 2013

    Jim,
    Although I couldn’t read the first paragraph, me still thinks you tell a great story! Love the descriptive detail (I could see the brakish water). It touched on my emotions and then you finished with a fantastic ending!

  6. Maggie Thom
    April 25, 2013

    Thank you for the memories and the smile. it reminded me of a lot of cool things about my childhood as well. Wasn’t it fun to be so adventurous though? Ladle whacking and all. 🙂

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This entry was posted on April 14, 2013 by in Collected Short Stories and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .

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