Our Cow’s Christmas Prayer
A Near Noel Christmas
Written by Hulda Franklyn
Edited by Reg Quist
Our usually happy, farm Christmas Day had all been planned. Our sister’s family was coming for dinner and most likely, a neighbor or two. Mother’s baking was done, and the all-important plum pudding had been maturing for weeks. The tree was up, and the plump turkey was ready to be stuffed and roasted to that delicious golden brown. Yes, no doubt, Christmas was in the air, even for those of us who could no longer be classed as “kids”.
Then, two days before our festive celebration, we awoke to a real December snowstorm, driven by the Arctic, northwest wind. Soon the swirling snow was packing into drifts, making outside chores more difficult by the hour.
Brother George and I managed to milk our small herd of dairy animals, feed the outside stock and the hundred or so hogs, while the roaring wood and coal fire in the tank heater took the chill off the water in the large, covered stock tank. From this source, all our livestock were watered.
Before George opened the trap to let the outside stock drink from their end of the tank, he started the pump to keep up the water level. This was routine procedure. But this morning, of all mornings, no water came as the pump jack moved up and down. Something was wrong! George disconnected the jack and put on the pump handle. Yes, something was radically wrong away down in that two-and-a-half-inch hole. Somewhere in those seventy-four feet of wooden pump rods, there was a break, or a coupling had given way.
“By the weight on the handle, it feels like the trouble is quite far down. I was hoping it was close to the top”, remarked George, as he made ready to pull rods.
Now, pulling wet well rods is a tricky undertaking, even at best. But pulling wet, wooden rods in windy, below zero temperature, is almost hopeless. The minute the rods are lifted into the frigid wind, they start to freeze and crack. We couldn’t have pulled them at all, had it not been for our big, eighteen-foot kitchen where the west door led right in from the pump about seventy-five feet away.
As George lifted, I clamped at the wellhead. We had to work surely and quickly. Each rod was fourteen feet long, made of inch-and-a quarter fir. As he unscrewed each coupling, I set fast the clamp, and then ran to throw open the kitchen door so he could slide the already-freezing rod onto the floor.
As each rod was taken up, we hoped the break would appear. But no such luck! At the base of the last remaining fourteen-foot length, there it was – a long sharp-pointed break. George measured the remaining rod. It was about twelve feet long, which meant that the plunger was attached to a sharply pointed, two-foot stub more than seventy feet down that two-and-a-half-inch hole.
By that time, we were cold enough to follow the sodden rods into the kitchen, where Mother had made some hot soup to both warm us and cheer us up, if that was possible. Already, the outside stock was letting us know their immediate need.
Well, we knew, in spite of wind and cold, we’d have to start fishing for that plunger. Our fishing rod would be the fourteen-foot lengths now stretched out on the kitchen linoleum. But first, George must fashion a steel grappling device to go over the pointed wood attached to the plunger and sink its sharp points far enough into the wood to pull it out.
Fashioning this contrivance was a time-consuming job, and daylight was spent when he finished. Meanwhile, I stoked the fire in the tank heater and scooped the drifting snow into the tank to melt. With our amount of stock, we had to have some water. I watered the cows and calves, and I also gave some to the fat hogs.
I did think that the cattle outside could lick snow, if they got too thirsty. But they had no notion of licking snow in a storm like that! In their way of reasoning, it was much more convincing to stand with backs humped, glowering in protest at me while I tried my best to bolster the dwindling water supply. In the house, Mother helped us out by melting snow in the washtub for the chickens and small pigs.
It wasn’t a very merry three that went to bed that night. The next day dawned bright and cold, but the wind had gone down. And that helped some. Fortunately for us, the wind had kept up most of the night. So, there was plenty of drifted snow to replenish the melting slush in the tank.
Quickly, we did the most essential chores, going easy on dry chop to cows and fat stock. Then with high hopes, we went fishing.
Before going to bed, George had sawed off the broken rod, and had securely fastened the fishhook made from three short pitchfork tines.
That rod went down first. Then, one at a time, the other fourteen-foot rods were carried out and attached.
George had made a new rod to replace the shorter length at the top. So, he had plenty of handling room to maneuver his fish pole. Patiently, he lifted up and down, trying to make the necessary contact. Ah, he had it at last. Carefully, he pushed and pulled, trying to ease the plunger out of the cylinder, but the hooks slipped.
Over and over again, he tried. Then, on an almost last try, the stubborn plunger came away. Once again, we started uncoupling wet rods and hurrying them into the kitchen floor. But now we were so happy; we had our fish.
Then, it happened. Just as we were pulling the next to the last rod, that illusive plunger must have caught on a rough spot on the pipe. The hooks lost their grip and down the plunger went.
With sinking hearts, we put those rods together again to make still another try. Several times that afternoon, the hooks refused to budge.
We were anything but happy that Christmas evening, when we carried the freezing rods in for the last time and laid them down to drip on the already messy floor. To get a well driller with the necessary tools was out of the question. Our roads were completely drifted in. Not even our brother-in-law’s Model T could make it (and when a Model T can’t make it, roads are really bad).
But we had our usual Swedish rice pudding, nuts, candy and Japanese oranges. And, water or no water, George wasn’t going to miss out on Lionel Barrymore in Dicken’s Christmas Carol. That was a real Christmas treat of the late 1930’s.
George was up early Christmas morning, and, despite our rather critical situation, he had a surprise for us, as up through the stairway floated the strains of Holy Night sung by a beautiful contralto singer. It was the new record our mother had been wishing for.
At breakfast, too, he was cheerful. The idea for a different type of grappling hook had come in a dream and he was so sure it would work. There is an old story handed down in our family that, at midnight on Christmas Eve, the cows can be seen kneeling in prayer. Our cows must have asked the Good Lord for water.
After breakfast, George constructed a spiral of steel wire. At the lower end, the wire was crooked inward into a sharp hook. This he attached to the rod that had held his other grappling device.
Again, the rods went down the two-and-a-half-inch hole. Again, he started maneuvering to get this spiral over the pointed stub. At last, he was sure he had it. He pushed down as far as it would go and twisted to tighten the spiral and push the sharp hook into the wood. Next, carefully, he pulled until he was sure the spiral had the stub in its grip. Then, with a good pull, the plunger came away. No one said a word, as rod after rod was again brought to the surface and carried to the kitchen, we hoped, for the last time. At long last, the rod bearing the spiral and, in its firm grip, the stump to which was attached the all-important plunger.
It didn’t take George long to get the plunger attached to a new rod. Then, for the last time, we carried those rods out and eased them down the well pipe. Everything was soon assembled, George tried, first with the pump handle, and “Merry Christmas”, water poured out the spout.
As soon as the tank was filled, and the other chores done up, we made our weary way to the house. Ma had cleaned up the kitchen floor for the last time, and as we opened the door the delightful odor of roasting turkey met our nostrils, helping us forget the cold, and the hard work that keeps a pioneer prairie farm moving forward.