Greetings from the Ridge.
I was maybe 10 years old and a group of us had saddled up our horses for pleasant ride one Sunday afternoon. The heat was as oppressive as what’s landed on top of the Midwest the last couple of weeks and none of us had thought to bring water. When we rounded a bend in the road and saw the old well in Bugsy’s front yard the rusty pump handle veritably shouted “Oasis!” and we jumped off our mounts to get a drink.
This was back in the days when we appreciated eccentric characters instead of medicating them or locking them up. Bugsy was the very definition of weird . . . an old bachelor who lived at the far end of a nearly impassible road who came to town only once a month for groceries and made it plain to the world that he wanted to be left alone. His home was a two-room shack with a hole cut in the center of his living room floor. How do I put this delicately? With Bugsy’s hole he needed no outdoor toilet.
So it was with some trepidation that my little cadre of friends dismounted our horses and walked up to the water pump. Anyone who’s ever sipped water from a country well will readily agree with Socrates who said, “The best sauce for food is hunger; for drink, thirst.” If the only water around is twenty feet down a well and the pump handle works, then you’re in for a taste of sweetness. And the nicest thing about pump water is that it takes a spirit of cooperation. It’s possible for a long-armed teenager to pump while he drinks, but for a really outrageous slash of cool water you need to put your buddy on the pump while you sip.
We were young and our tiny hands wouldn’t hold much more than half a gulp, but there was an old tin cup hanging from the shank end of the pump. I’d just reached out and unfastened it from its baling wire hook when we heard a chuckle behind us. It was Bugsy. I’d never actually seen the old wild man up close, but had heard tales of him looking like a crazed demon. Such was not the case when I turned around to see a very small man dressed in bib overalls, shirtless, and wearing a crumpled hat that seemed to have been a part of his head for some time. The sweat stains ringed the cap’s brim, and his uneven growth of whiskers ringed his chin in uneven swaths. He looked at me and said, “Thirsty?”
“Uh…yeah, Mr. Bugsy.”
“Then have at it. Water’s free.”
I filled the cup while my friend Merle pumped hard and kept a wary eye on our host. That’s when I got a close look at Bugsy’s chin. I don’t know how many years you have to chew tobacco for a permanent brown crust to form on your whiskers, but the petrified gook had formed a solid cascade of tobacco juice that actually seemed to weigh down Bugsy’s head. I looked at his chin clump then I looked at the tin cup that had served as his only drinking vessel, and I was stuck. Do I refuse a drink from a crazed old man who had been known to shoot at passing UPS trucks, or do I touch my lips to rusty bit of tin that had played host to years of tobacco juice?
In what I thought was a stroke of genius, I compromised. I turned the cup around and took a sip right above the handle, the only place that might have escaped Bugsy’s bacteria. Then Bugsy began to laugh. More than laugh, he nearly went into convulsions, slapping his knee and dancing around the yard in what I thought was another fit of lunacy. Merle took his drink in a similar fashion and we quickly mounted our horses, wanting to get as much distance as possible between the old man and ourselves. As we rode off to the sound of Bugsy’s laughter he shouted out after us, “If that don’t take all! You folks are the only people I know who drink from a cup the same way I do!”
Whenever a heat wave hits us the media reminds us to drink water and water and more water, and it’s trendy to carry your plastic bottle with you wherever you go. It’s a puzzlement to me why suddenly every speaker and singer must constantly sip from their bottles, no matter the weather. It’s probably my stubbornness but I’ve gone my entire life without ever purchasing a bottle of water and I plan to make it the next hundred years without doing so. Some things should remain free of charge and although I’ll take the bottled stuff if you hand it to me, don’t expect me to every pay for what falls from the sky free of charge. And if I’m ever tempted, I think back to a beard-stained old man in a weed-covered yard, dancing around and laughing at my folly.
You ever in Coonridge, stop by. We may not answer the door but you'll enjoy the trip.