The well was dry. Literally.
I had just returned from my Canadian trip, and my trailer was parked in the driveway of the little cabin I was moving into. But it had been vacant for years, and the well had run dry. Literally.
“Guess we’d better call Ivan,” said my brother-in-law.
A week later I asked my sister about this Ivan No-Show.
“Must be some backwoods shenanigans,” she said. I inferred that patience was in order.
A few days later a red pickup stuffed with pipes and rusty metal pulled up and a gray-haired man with a cane got out.
“Hi, Ivan,” said my brother-in-law.
“Hhhhnngh,” said Ivan.
A few boards had been pulled from the porch, exposing the well pit. Ivan limped over and peeked inside.
“Hhhmmmgh,” he said.
The next thing I knew, Ivan was limping aimlessly into the woods, muttering, “Can’t ever find what you need when you’re looking for it.” For a moment, I wondered if he were truly crazy.
“Do you have a saw?” asked my brother-in-law.
Ivan cut a forked stick from a young maple.
“Just want to make sure there’s still water where the the old well is,” he mumbled.
Ivan stood about 20 feet away, grasping the stick firmly. As he walked toward the well pit, the stick began to tremble, and then it began to shake. Or–was Ivan’s arm shaking? As he neared the well pit, the stick dipped and pointed itself toward the ground.
I’d never seen anyone witch for water, and I wasn’t sure I believed what I was seeing. After Ivan left, I picked up the stick. (Gingerly, I admit. I wasn’t sure about its secret power.) Imitating Ivan, I walked toward the well pit.
Nothing. No shakes. No dipping. I just stood there with a dead stick in my hand. Later, I asked Ivan about this.
“I couldn’t do it, either, at first. But once I worked with an old guy who could witch water. He showed me how, and then he touched me, and I could do it.”
Ivan said he’d return the following evening. I was cautiously optimistic.
Late the next day, Ivan pulled up with Billy, a good-natured kid with the letters of his name tattooed on his fingers. Billy was the brawn; Ivan was the brain. I was hopeful doubter.
Ivan pulled out an auger–basically a pipe with a screw at one end and a T-bone handle at the other. Billy began to screw the auger into the dry sand at the bottom of the well pit.
Now, I’ve had wells drilled in other houses I’ve owned. Big trucks with tall drill rigs park on the front lawn and chew through hundreds of feet of dirt while I made beds and vacuumed the living room. Then, I turned on the faucet, and water of varying quality came out.
This was horse-and-buggy stuff by stuff by comparison. This was how wells were drilled a hundred years ago.
“Hmmmmgh. Rock it back and forth, Billy,” said Ivan, peering into the well pit. “What does it feel like?”
Ivan could tell when the auger hit gravel, and he could tell when a rock was in the way. He was looking for “water sand,” the clean, filtered layer through which a vein of purest water runs. Eventually, Billy got the auger down 12 feet.
Then they dropped in a well point–a long pipe with sharp, perforated end–into the hole, and Billy began driving it in with a well driver–a weighted canister with handles. With brute force, he drove it in 12 more feet.
By the end of THAT evening, we’d reached a good vein of water. Ivan tested it by screwing his “pitcher pot” onto the well pipe and coaxing up the muddy water. He knew how many pumps it ought to take before water shot into the bucket.
Every step of the process was grueling. Every time the pitcher pot was screwed on, which happened a bunch of times, the pipe threads had to be cleaned and waterproofed. Then, the pipe was recapped to protect the delicate threads from the pummeling of the driver.
The evenings grew chill and dark. The work was dirty, and the water was cold.
During this time, I discovered that Ivan was smart and kind. He was a Vietnam vet who’d taken a hit of Agent Orange during the war, and who now had Parkinson’s and other nerve damage, presumably because of it. The Veteran’s Administration, however, wasn’t connecting the dots, so medically Ivan was on his own.
“I take about 30 pills a day, ” he said, “and if I don’t, I feel sick. My doctor says I have to keep moving or I’ll be in a wheelchair. So, I keep moving.”
He does. They always came in the evening because Ivan was trying to keep his rough-and-tumble hardware store alive in town. For the most part, he directed Billy, who was willing enough and strong enough, although inexperienced and a little clumsy. Billy had a good attitude, and I liked him. But sometimes, Ivan had to climb into the well pit himself to check things out.
Finally, the well pipe had to be cut off at ground level and threaded for capping off.
“I’m sorry, Billy. That’s a nasty job,” said Ivan. “Used to be, when the old guys were standing around watching a young guy do something tough, I’d hear them all grunting. I’ll grunt for ya, Billy.” As I’d discovered, Ivan is pretty good at grunting.
Threading a pipe IS a tough job, and Billy did plenty of his own grunting.
And when, at the end of three long nights, sweet, clear water gushed into the bucket, this wasn’t a ho-hum event. This wasn’t like setting machines to work while everyone stands around and kicks the dirt. This was a bloody celebration. This was a miracle. This was a task to which we had all bent our backs and put our minds, the outcome of which was never assured.
Now clear, cold water gushes from my kitchen faucet, and it tastes like nothing but water. No chlorine; no sulpher; no iron. Just pure wetness.
You can bet I don’t take THAT for granted.