Chances are, if you are not a part of “my” generation, you will never have experienced life without running water. You can also read that “without indoor facilities.”
My wife found it hard to believe when, during a discussion this week, that I was 7 years old before I even saw an indoor restroom. That came when my family moved from rural Webster County into Duncombe and I began my third grade of school.
While most can’t imagine life without running water, for many of us growing up in the years following World War II – and certainly most of those growing up before the war – it was the only way of life we knew in rural and even small town Iowa.
We got our water from hand pumps, on an enclosed porch if we were lucky, and we had those “little buildings” out back when we had to use the restroom. It was a mark of manhood when a youngster was old enough to head out there on his own, no longer with his mother or father in tow. It was really neat to hear a parent tell you that now you were a “big boy” for actually walking out there on your own in the dead of night with all the ghosts and goblins hanging ‘round.
We got our “baths” on Saturdays when mom would pump several gallons of water, heat it on the wood stove and dump it into a big water tub. It was in those things – normally used to catch rain under the eaves to use for washing clothes – where our mothers washed off the grime in time for us to look all bright and shiny for Sunday school the next day.
I don’t know of any country school in Iowa that was equipped with running water, either, although there probably were a few. When you were in one of those schools, normally with kids in all grades from Kindergarten through eighth grade, you always had to head outside when nature called. And, for some reason, you couldn’t just go out. No, you had to raise your hand with either “one” or “two” fingers held high so the teacher could see and all the other kids in the room would snicker.
It was always at the discretion of the teacher when, or even if, she would notice and give you permission to head out to the little wooden building. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Anderson, was really, really bad about giving permission.
The first time I’d seen an indoor restroom was the school in Duncombe. I was beginning third grade and discovered I had no idea how to use an indoor restroom the first time I visited. I really felt horrible when some of my new friends made fun of that.
We never lived in a house with indoor plumbing until we moved to Alleman in the fall of 1953. Even then, the house didn’t have facilities until the high school shop teacher (baseball, girls’ basketball coach and my first real hero other than my father) Frank Schill, who later began his own construction company in Ames, built one. As he worked in the small house, I’m sure I was a real pest, asking question after question and pretty much getting in the way.
It was then that Mr. Schill began calling me “Willy Willy Lump Lump,” a name that stuck until he evidently thought I’d outgrown the moniker a few years later.
Even though we had a working indoor facility, we still didn’t have running water in the rest of the house. We had a hand pump located in an enclosed porch from which we obtained all our drinking water, bathing water and water that mom used to wash clothes. The pump always required priming before it would work and you were in for it if you forgot to re-fill the small bucket that always sat next to the pump.
But, it wasn’t just indoor facilities that many homes lacked in those days more than 60 years ago. Many Iowans lived without telephones. One set of my grandparents never, ever had a telephone in their farmhouse and my other grandparents had one of those old crank handle phones that connected to a party line. I can still remember the phone ringing and my grandmother always knowing exactly whose home was being called. “That was two longs, two shorts and another long,” she’d say. “Somebody’s trying to get hold of the Williams.”
Sometimes my grandmother would actually pick up the phone to hear the conversation.
We went without a telephone far longer than we did indoor plumbing. The first actual bath tub we ever had in a house came when I was a junior in high school, about 55 years ago. The first telephone didn’t come until perhaps six years later, after my father had died and my mother and sister were living alone. By then, I was in the Army and my brother in the Navy.
And, you know what? We didn’t miss those luxuries at all. It was just part of the way we lived.
I wonder, though, what kids today would do without telephones, running water, tubs and showers. Most can’t even get along without their Smart Phones, Cars (and gas money) and every video game their parents can buy.