Water boy

Farm Forum

It’s been said that you’re a true farmer if you can’t bear to throw away an empty five-gallon bucket. I can attest that this is not merely a theory, it’s an indisputable fact. For me, throwing away an empty five-gallon bucket is on par with scratching my right elbow with my right hand.

When I was growing up on the farm, Dad bought axle grease in steel five-gallon buckets. An empty bucket was never tossed once its contents were gone. The buckets became an integral part of our livestock feeding and watering system which consisted of two main elements: a.) the buckets, and b.) my seven siblings and me.

We carried buckets of grain from the granary to the barn, the hog house and the chicken coop. The buckets were also used to transport water from our water tank to the hog house, the chicken coop and the calf barn. The pails proudly bore their factory livery, so we were ambling advertisements for Skelly’s Supreme Multi-purpose Grease.

We made so many trips between our farm buildings with buckets of feed and water that great ruts were worn into the farmstead. Some rivaled the dimensions of the Grand Canyon.

Because of its weight – a pint of water weighs a pound, except when you’re lugging it in a bucket, in which case it’s twice that – water was by far the most challenging commodity to carry. It didn’t help that water is also a liquid.

In an effort to minimize the number of trips across the farmyard (and to get chores done in time to watch Lassie) we would fill our buckets to the brim with water. The tiniest misstep could result in a soaked leg, which wasn’t a problem in the summertime. I counted the accidental slopping of water onto my leg as part of my personal hygiene program. This argument held no sway when it was time for my Saturday night bath.

But in the depths of winter, spilling water onto your pants leg was as unfun as getting a root canal from a dentist who thinks that Novocain is an unnecessary frivolity. The affected pant leg would instantly become a stovepipe of ice. The sensation felt by the body part inside the pant leg was similar to being scalded, a bizarre paradox that I never understood.

A person soon learned to be careful when carrying water in the wintertime. You discovered that you were better off making more trips with something that was less than full. This is also the core tenet of bladder management.

All of our water was dipped out of an ancient wooden water tank. This tank was, in turn, filled by a creaky old pump jack that sat atop our well.

On hot summer afternoons the cows would saunter home from the pasture, crowd around the water tank and slurp down the water faster than a college freshman at his first beer party. The cows would often empty the tank, leaving us no choice but to wait for the pokey old pump jack to refill it.

While we waited, we might take a peek down the well, a square, man-sized, hand-poured concrete structure that plunged into the inky depths of the planet. We would drop a pebble down the well and wait. And wait. And wait some more. Shivers ran down our spines when we finally heard the distant and faint “ker-plunk!”

Our parents warned us to stay away from it, but that only made the well seem all the more alluring. Unlike little Timmy, we knew better than to fall down the thing.

Dad told me that the brothers who had homesteaded our farm dug the well by hand, using picks and shovels and a system of ropes and pulleys to haul the dirt to the surface. I asked Dad what they had used to hold the dirt.

“Probably five-gallon buckets,” he replied.

I was chatting with my cousin Greg recently when the topic turned to our respective offspring. We each have two grown sons.

“How is it,” I asked Greg, “that you and I and our wives are about average height, but our boys are all so much taller than us?”

“I know exactly why,” he replied. “When we were growing up, we had to carry five-gallon pails of water all the time. When our boys were kids, they got to lie on the couch all day and stretch out!”

I had never considered the effects of bucket-induced musculoskeletal compression, but it certainly makes sense. And even though they probably cost me several inches of adult height, I still cannot bring myself to toss out an empty five-gallon bucket.

If you’d like to contact Jerry to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can e-mail him at: jjpcnels@itctel.com.