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By Staff | Oct 30, 2009

The arrow of Progress hurtles ever onward, gathering speed as it streaks toward our gleaming, George Jetsonesque future. Which is good, but I’m just wondering: where the heck is my flying car?

Mankind’s progress over the past century has been startling. A hundred years ago horses were the main source of horsepower on the farm. Equines have since been supplanted by infinitely incomprehensible, computer-controlled, GPS-guided behemoths that have more snort in their starter motors than an average horse.

There are still plenty of horses out in the country, but they’re mostly kept for pleasure and companionship. I just hope that we husbands will someday be deemed worthy of similar treatment.

Even my half-century of living has seen some huge leaps.

For instance, my potty training took place in an outdoor privy. This was pretty much normal at that time and was not as bad as one might think.

There was no waiting for the privy in the wintertime. When it was deeply cold outside, you learned to hold off until you really, really had to go.

Another upside was the total lack of bathroom envy. We might be a wee bit jealous of someone who had seats in their privy instead of crudely cut holes, and we might say “My, how fancy to discover that a neighbor’s privy was equipped with a Sears catalogue instead of a basket of corn cobs.

But that was it. There was none of this “The Olsons bathroom has a shower the size of a car wash. And their toilet has so much power they had to put a warning sign on it regarding small children. Why can’t we have a bathroom like that?”

The simple act of obtaining water used to take planning and patience. A rock-walled cistern below the house held our water supply and a hand pump was our delivery system.

The planning part was due to the fact that the pump often needed priming. This meant thinking ahead to save water for priming, which is somewhat akin to coming up with a name for your child before he’s born instead of scrambling for a suitable moniker from the phone book. Not that I would know anything about that.

It was an unbelievably Big Deal when our parents installed indoor plumbing. We flushed our snazzy new toilet dozens of times, marveling at the whirlpool, wondering where the water went.

But the system had its limitations as we still depended on the old cistern for our water. A jet pump in the basement had merely taken over pumping operations.

The amount of water we could use was contingent on the rain. A system of eaves troughs funneled rainwater from the roof to the cistern, which was great when it rained, not so much when it didn’t.

When it got dry we’d call Hank De Knikker, a school bus driver and seed corn dealer who also had a little water hauling business on the side.

It was a joyous event at our house when Hank’s truck came to replenish the depleted cistern. He would crack the valve at the back of his tank and the sound of water rushing into the cistern filled the house.

My parents always invited Hank in for a cup of coffee as the cistern filled and Hank always accepted. He was consuming a bit of our precious water, but it somehow seemed fitting. It was like sacrificing a little water for future pump-priming.

At one point it was determined that the cistern leaked, although the fact that we had cleanliness-obsessed teenagers in the house may have had something to do with water disappearance.

Our cistern was allowed to go empty and its concrete lid pried off. A ladder was slid into its depths and I was “volunteered” to climb down.

The cistern was cool and damp as a grave. And it even had a dirt bottom Actually, it was a layer of mud. It must have accumulated from all those billions of raindrops that had each trapped a single mote of dust. The stuff that birds had deposited on the roof might have also played a part.

Gnarled tree roots had forced their way through the stone walls.

These roots had to be chiseled out and the resulting gaps plastered over. A new plaster floor was laid, after which the cistern was painted with waterproof varnish.

This all created a mighty stink in the cistern. But I was lucky that our Norwegian bachelor neighbor Martin was down there with me. He was a world-class water miser, so his personal aroma pretty much cancelled out all the other smells.

A few years later we installed a well near the house and learned what

It’s like to have an unlimited supply of water.

And the future suddenly appeared positively gleaming. Or maybe it was just the glow of our much-cleaner faces.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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