Clash of Concepts

November 1 – Pail

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water…

I endured my greatest growing and learning experiences while climbing the mountains and strolling down the hollers of a poor, backwoods county deep in southeastern Kentucky, where wood- and coal-burning stoves were as prevalent as the lack of indoor plumbing.

When we first moved to Kentucky in 1977, about three months after my mom’s brother was murdered, we lived in a cinderblock house with concrete floors, no running water and a two-seater outhouse with no door. I can’t imagine who came up with the idea of a two-seater, but I was always grateful the person who built it without a door had sense enough to face it toward the mountainside instead of the nearby road.

Nestled on a flat spot cut out of the mountain, “the block house”—as we dubbed it—overlooked a railroad track and the Kentucky River. A narrow two-lane road crossed over the tracks and up the hill past our house. I hated that incredibly steep hill—up and down which I made endless treks on laundry day carrying countless pails—or five-gallon buckets—full of water from the Kentucky River to a wringer washing machine.

On bathing day, we made that same trek with our buckets, but the water on those days was deposited in pots on the stove, heated and then transferred to a round No. 2 steel tub. We made extra trips, because we wanted enough water to get a fresh bath. Being the second or third bather in shared water just wasn’t desirable, but sometimes necessary when weather prevented multiple trips. We worked hard for our cleanliness.

For drinking water, we didn’t rely on the Kentucky River, which was still a whole lot cleaner back then. Instead, we took gallon jugs to the neighbor’s house about a half mile away and filled them from his outside faucet. Yes, we had permission.

That isn’t the end of my tale about pails.

We used a bucket to break through the ice when our well froze over, and then let it fill before heaving it back up the side of the rock wall. That was the coldest and most refreshing water I’ve ever tasted.

We carried wood and coal in buckets to heat our home when we moved a mile down the road and up another holler. We drew water from a creek alongside our house for drinking or laundry or bathing when we didn’t want the well to run dry from overuse. We used a bucket to hold corn for the chickens. And sometimes, just for fun, an uncle would put a bucket on his head to make us laugh.

We gathered berries and pawpaws and nuts in our pails, and we even used them when picking up rocks and trash from the yard. We had endless uses for our five-gallon lard buckets that were recycled decades before we understood what being environmentally conscious meant.

Buckets were vital. We felt lucky to have them and grateful for their service to us. We seemed to appreciate more back then—I appreciated more.

I look back now and think of all the buckets I’ve owned as an adult, and I’m more than a little ashamed that I don’t remember them—many have been tossed aside, destroyed or simply forgotten—and none were loved or cherished. A tool that was so valuable when I was a child became a disposable commodity.

… Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.

If this little ditty were true, someone in my family—after laughing hysterically—would run to save the bucket.

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