RUFFIN IT: THE DAYS OF HARD WAYS OF COMING CLEAN PART II
Getting back to this washtub binness . . . .
Remember, you’re poor only if you know you’re poor, and I didn’t. I thought that every kid in America bathed in a washtub. I always had before the new dispensation. Now, before that big cast-iron white-porcelain bathtub came floating into our lives, all of us had to bathed in a galvanized washtub (number 3, maybe, though my knowledge of tub sizes has fogged a little), which we kept in the wellhouse, where in time an electric pump would be mounted to lift the water from the well a lot faster than we could with a rope and buckets or with that old hand pump.
In the summer we filled the tub outside or in the wellhouse, but in the winter we bathed in the kitchen, only fifteen feet or so from a gas heater, fueled by propane from the submarine-shaped tank out by the driveway, and hot water was a matter of heating it on the stove and turning and pouring.
Those washtubs were round, too, and less than three feet in diameter, which means that there was no stretching out and luxuriating in fragrant bubbles, the way you see cowboys do in movies after a long, dusty trail drive, just before they get out and dry off and go and pick a whore.
We’d step in, fold our legs, and ease down into the water, which through displacement would rise all the way to a our armpits or neck.
There were forced tub baths two or three times a week most of the year, maybe one a week during the winter. In the dead of summer, when there was no school, I could beg off if I’d just come out of the Cold Hole, a spring-fed swimming hole backed up behind a gravel dam on a nearby creek, or out of the river. Sometimes, when the water was too cold to tolerate without too much griping, I was permitted to stand up in the tub and swab down a little, what Mother called a spit bath or a whore’s bath. (She was sternly against swearing, but she had no aversion whatsoever to dragging whores into a conversation. Her favorite term for some floozy she didn’t like was “that two-bit whore.” I asked her once about it, and she said that she got it from the Bible: the reference to whores, that is, not to two-bit. If the Bible used the word, so could she.)
Once the new bathtub was in the room and situated in its permanent position, nothing would do but to use it, so Daddy and I would lug in buckets of water from the well and fill it by a third or so, then let it sit there and come to a bearable temperature. It was easy enough in summer, when the water was tolerable, though in the winter half of it would have to be heated on the stove to raise the temperature to the point that we could stay in there long enough to get wet. Toting water in those big galvanized buckets was a big chore, but, hey, we had a bathtub! Most of my friends had always had them, and they even had spouts with handles, and all a prospective bather had to do was turn a handle and the water came streaming in. Some kinda miracle, I’m telling you.
Whoever got to take a bath last (this would be me or my brother) had to bathe in the water the other three had bathed in, which meant that he came out about as clean as he would have slithering out of the coffee-colored Luxapalila. You didn’t notice it so much in the washtub, but that white porcelain disappeared pretty fast after a couple of people had bathed. Once we’d all finished, we’d yank the stopper and the water would run down a drain pipe and out into the side yard. You, know, until the septic tank came along . . . .
The soap I had to use, selected by Mother according to the degree of grime I was wearing, was either lye, which she or Grandmother made, or Ivory or Octagon, none of them what you’d call easy on the skin, but they weren’t easy on germs either. They would all get the most persistent dirt or grease off of you and kill every germ within two or three feet and leave you clean enough for church or school. You know how the soap people boast about their products killing 99.9% of the germs? Well, this soap got all of them and a lot of skin cells. The fragrance was what I’d call Le Strong Soap, and none of it came in a fancy wrapper, if it came in a wrapper at all.
Then the day came that Daddy announced proudly the water was about to come. Mother and my brother and I stood in the bathroom with all the faucets open and listened to the sighing of air from the pipes after he turned the main valve on, then gurgling, and finally a feeble stream began in the tub and lavatory, then built to strength and finally gushed. The commode filled and shut off, and I reached and flushed it. It worked just like the ones at school. My, what a brave new world that had such marvels in it.
I don’t often think about that aspect of my life these days, but sometimes it used to cross my mind when in that big old house up on N1/2 in Huntsville one of the kids would start yelling to me about a commode that was stopped up or one that wouldn’t quit running or a lavatory faucet or shower head that kept dripping. I wanted to scream, “Five commodes and three showers and five lavatories on this place! What the hell would you do if . . . .” But I generally didn’t say anything, knowing that they could never fathom that old world I came from. To them it was merely the Dark Ages, and they didn’t believe half of what I told them about it anyway. I just dutifully fixed what was broken and took it all for granted once again.