Americans have the safest, purest water supply in the entire world, and every day someone is trying to sell me a water filtration system or trumpeting the dangers of chlorine. I wonder if anyone in modern history who was coming to the United States for a vacation has ever been warned not to drink the water. I dare say not.
When I was a child, we thought we had struck it rich if we had a nickel to buy a “cold drink,” also known as a “Coke” – in some Southern states a “dope” or “belly warsher” – or in un-Southern states, a “pop” or “soda.” Regardless what you called it, it was only a nickel. Today, we pay $1 or more for a bottle of water and think nothing of it.
The best hotels supply bottled water in each room. A little sign attached to the bottle reads, “Please feel free to enjoy this refreshing bottle of water for only $5”… or $6 or $7. So far, I have managed to resist the temptation. There are two types of running water in most hotel rooms, hot and cold. Why do hotels offer a $5 bottle of water? Because someone will buy it. Go figure.
When I was a boy, we carried drinking water to the fields in a gallon jug. It was one of those big-mouthed gallon jugs. Before we left the house, we would fill it half-full of ice cubes. These were real ice cubes from ice trays. They were as big as square golf balls. Then, we filled the jug with tap water from the well. When the top was safely on the jug, we wrapped it in newspapers to keep it cold. Then we slipped it down in a brown paper grocery sack. We rolled the top of the sack over the jug to keep the cold in and the heat out.
Upon arriving at the hay field or tobacco patch, we set the jug in the shade until we needed it. By mid-morning it was time for a break. That water was so cold that it would give you a headache if you drank it too fast.
We never took a glass or cup with us to the field. Everyone drank out of the water jug. Family, friends, neighbors and hired help all drank right out of the same jug. I was always careful to get my drink before the snuff dippers and tobacco chewers arrived. Sometimes if I was late getting to the water, I would notice an amber stain on the lip of the jug. I either wiped it off with my shirtsleeve or moved to the other side of the jug.
The introduction of the plastic milk jug changed all that. My father, ever the innovator, began filling used milk jugs half-full of water and setting them in the deep-freeze. When we started to the fields, he would grab one out of the freezer and finish filling it with water. It was not necessary to insulate that jug of water or set it in the shade. It would take all day for the ice to melt. The water was head-splitting cold, too.
I promise this to be true. We had one hired hand who, from time to time, would study one of those milk jugs trying to figure out how my father got the ice inside it.
Sometimes we would run out of water toward the end of the day. If my brothers and I complained loudly enough, my father would challenge us by saying, “Go get a drink in the creek.” We always protested.
He would walk us down to the edge of the creek and say, “Now see that little bluff right over there? A spring is running out from under it.”
I will admit that a trickle of water flow could usually be seen. Our father knew exactly what he was talking about, but we never admitted it to him. Then he would say, “Just put your face down in the water right up next to where the water is coming out. It’s as clean and safe as any water that you could ever drink.”
That was easy for him to say. I always envisioned a snake or snapping turtle jumping out and latching on to my nose or lip.
But, at one time or another, somewhere along the way, each of us became thirsty enough to try it. My father would hold his tongue until we were down on our knees with our faces in the water, just ready to draw in a drink. Then, he would laugh and say, “Be sure to clinch your teeth to strain out the bugs.”
Jack McCall is a regular contributing columnist to The Hartsville Vidette and The Lebanon Democrat.