Northwest of my little home town a lonely hill stood guard over the murky waters of Cheyenne Creek, the Santa Fe Railroad tracks, and the swampy liquid of the Caney River as it moved lazily southward towards Bartlesville. A rutted, rocky, road that scarred the side of that hill led upwards to a small brick building which housed some pumps, pipes, and gauges. Standing next to the building there was a steel cylinder about thirty feet in diameter and eighty to a hundred feet tall; easily the highest point for miles around. The cylinder was old and coated with faded black paint and had a skinny steel ladder attached to its side. The word “CANEY,” in faded white paint, barely visible, ran down alongside that ladder. This hollow cylinder was called a “standpipe”, which inevitably led to the hill being known as “Standpipe Hill”. This standpipe was Caney’s version of the water tower that almost always stands somewhere in every small town in America.
The water inside that standpipe had been sucked from the fetid soup that ran between the banks of the Caney River. This terrible liquid was pumped under the Missouri Pacific Railroad (the “MOP”) tracks that ran alongside a primitive dam and into a water treatment plant where it was strained and made loosely potable with chemicals. There was nothing to be done about how this water tasted, we just got used to it.
At the mid-point of the twentieth century in “The Heartland” sanitation often gave way to expediency. Accordingly, the Caney River was the last stop for raw sewage from each of the little towns upstream from us. We in turn contributed our raw sewage to the river a mile or so downstream from the inlet pipes that ultimately provided water to the standpipe.
Boys who claimed they had climbed the ladder to the top said the standpipe had no cover on top. I couldn't vouch for the truth in that statement. The one time I attempted to climb the rusty steel ladder riveted to the side of the standpipe my courage died at about the twentieth rung. My most impetuous and closest friend, Wes Atkinson, was among those who said the standpipe had no cover. He told me that one winter day, after several days of sub-freezing weather, he had climbed to the top of the standpipe slithered over onto the surface, which was now solid ice, and walked around on it. I marveled at the thought of that deed for a long time until it occurred to me that if the top was a sheet of ice he would not have been able to pull himself from the topmost step of the ladder over onto the ice. I never challenged his story. He was a good friend and was extremely impulsive in those days. If that feat could've been done Wes could have done it.
From time to time a few of the more ardent high school boys went out in the dead of the night and scaled that frightening ladder with a paint bucket and brush in hand. Their goal was to emblazon their girl friend's initials or name on the pipe’s faded black surface in the hope that such a bravely executed and symbolic expression of passion would seal their romance. It truly was a foolishly brave thing to do. Aerosol spray paint were years in the future. The Romeo who wanted the world (and his “Juliet”) to know how brightly his love for her burned had to carry a paint can and brush with him as he climbed the rungs of the ladder. When he got as high as he wanted, or dared, he had to hold on with one hand, dip paint brush into paint with the other, reach out into space and repeat that until he had lettered her name or initials. There's no telling how many maidens were seduced after seeing how much their boyfriend had risked to announce his love.
Other painter/climbers risked their lives for far less noble reasons. Over the years boys from various senior classes had climbed the ladder to paint “SENIORS OF 19** as high and as far out from the ladder as they dared reach. The lettering on the standpipe told a tale. Many senior classes were not represented on the standpipe. That meant that no boy in that class felt strongly enough about memorializing their graduating class to risk that climb. Only a few senior classes left their mark on the standpipe. My class, the Seniors of 1950 was not among that small group.
Like many romantic artifacts from bygone times The Standpipe fell victim to that amorphous idea called "progress." It was torn down and sold for scrap iron. No watchtower has stood guard over the scene for many years. More acceptably, Caney's citizens no longer wet their whistles with a liquid liberally laced with purifying chemicals. Wells were dug. Pure water from the bowels of the earth, only slightly modified, now slakes their thirst, waters their gardens and washes their cars. Few who live there today remember or know of the people who climbed that rusty ladder. Progress has again proven herself to be a jealous lover whose kisses are bought at a high price.
Good story - but being a mother, I couldn't help but shudder at the danger these foolhardy but brave lads put themselves in. I guess the real danger was drinking toxic chemicals, wasn't it? Today's environmentalists would have a fit, no doubt.
I'd bet there are few parents who, if they knew the risky things their kids were doing or had done, would not shudder in horror. Ironically, very few of the kids with whom I went to school were ever hurt in "playtime" activities. I believe God appoints guardian angels to watch over "kids." I don't suppose any of the chemicals used to kill all the bacteria in the Caney River water were actually toxic but they may have been. I know the EPA back in the sixties declared the pond in which I and most of my friends swam all summer to be a toxic dump site. It was buried under many feet of dirt using "Superfund" money. Still, I don't know of anyone that ever suffered anything from swimming in that water. Around the mid-point of the 20th Century the world, society, lifestyles, etc, were entirely different than anything most people living today have ever known. I tend to think modern society is trying too hard to make life entirely safe. But then, I'm an old man.
I can imagine myself being there with my friends and writing something of importance for our class too. You put me right there bud. Thanks!