I remember a morning many years ago-twenty years and more. I stood in the lower end of my driveway, just where the woods open out into the field, in the early morning sun, talking with my friend the road commissioner. That man was not he who now inadequately maintains my road, but his father, who did quite a good job of it, such was the price of hot top and labor then and the willingness of the voters in a somewhat less spiteful time. I don't remember what we talked about.
It might, of course, have been roads. But it could have been firefighting. Or local politics. I was then a selectman in this minor municipal entity and what I thought and did about those things mattered. I had somehow earned the acceptance, the trust, even the faith of the estimable force that was our road commissioner, fire chief and for many years principle plow truck operator. Perhaps he even felt some amount of admiration for my ability or temperament, but neither of us discussed that day, or possibly ever, how we felt about each other.
After some minutes had thus pleasantly passed, our exchange was interrupted by the appearance of my wife, whose approach I first registered by the subtle change in expression on my friend's face, as he stood facing up the driveway toward the house. She turned before reaching the point where either of us would have had to move aside, went to the dug well we had discovered and renovated a couple years after moving onto this old abandoned farm and woodlot, drew up a bucket of water and started the hundred yard climb up the drive.
She did say something during the brief time our conversation ceased to mark her passage, but as I don't remember it precisely, I shall not attempt to reconstruct her statement well enough to occasion quotation marks. Paraphrased, I'd say the thrust of her brief yet pointed remarks might have been to the effect that I had been sent after water, not discharged to jawbone with a short, round truck driver. So forceful was her delivery that my robust friend recoiled as though struck, and for many years thereafter, indeed until he died, he spoke of the moment with awe and remembered shock.
Speaking of short and round, and recognizing that by including this detail I may make myself (or myself as I then was constituted) look even more unfeeling and insensitive than you have already surmised I may have been, let me say that I believe she was pregnant, she who hauled that water (sixty-two and a half pounds per cubic foot) that distance up our hill as I enjoyed the brotherhood of my fellow man under a benevolent, balmy sky.
I relate this brief, bucolic anecdote not to injure any person or to open long-scabbed wounds. Indeed, some of us are now beyond hurting, others damaged more horribly otherwise, so that whatever outrages were perpetrated or anger engendered that morning must now be recognized as merely the rhetorical tool for which I resurrect it here. I tell you this instead so that you will know that water came to us only after some years without, during which we imported all we drank in steel milk cans, and that when it did arrive it did not do so by pipe and pump and power, but by the agency of our own hard work. (I did often, perhaps even more often than not, carry my share of the burden, I hope you will accept.)
Eleven years after we established our family upon this ground, Mr. Larry Oakes backed his truck up onto the ledge in front of our living room window one September day and upon my promise of payment with money I would borrow from the bank, drilled a hole one hundred and ten feet into the bedrock, from which would issue ten gallons per minute of cool, clear water, forward unto this day and beyond. Even now I do not turn a faucet without some delight that so effortlessly do I gain a commodity so necessary and so valuable.
I said I was a selectman. One Wednesday evening a man and a woman came to our meeting. They were taxpayers, moved to register their displeasure with the valuation and tax burden I and the other two board members had settled upon their household. I remember that they were then about the age I am now, that is to say, sixtieish. Retired, give or take. They owned a large old home with river frontage that, time would reveal, we had in fact considerably undervalued, but at that moment they believed we had done them a terrible injustice. They may still believe it, although they are long since moved away and, in fact, I think are quite dead. But outrage may persist into the great beyond; it is certainly a deeply felt and warmly cherished emotion.
We were unmoved by the cries of economic hardship this well-off couple emitted. Selectman Ross offered his usual brilliant ploy of suggesting he would take their property gladly in exchange of the sum at which we had it valued. Predictably, they were offended that he would think them foolish enough to relinquish so fine a farm at such a low price, and they loudly and eagerly talked up its virtues, from which contrapuntal colloquy Assessor Ross derived notes for the next year's valuation.
Having excited each other into a fine lather, these citizens wished us to understand further burdens life had placed upon their heads. At this juncture the husband, already the less powerful orator, fell silent and the whole of the burden was henceforth carried by his Mrs., a task for which a lifetime of self-assurance had obviously admirably fitted her. Her attack upon the injustices accrued to her as a result of being domiciled in the town of Alna, Maine included this most potent and unfair cruelty: for more than a day and a night she and her sad mate had had to live without running water!
I don't remember if pipe or pump had failed. Possibly the good Earth itself simply tired of supplying such an indignant, self-pitying old bag of misery with life's elixir and stopped the flow from the very fissure from which it issued. At any event, a plumber had not come or would not come until the morrow, or had come but would wait for parts or the turning of the tide or the raising of whatever spirits men who plumb provoke. This grand old pair of privileged white Homo sapiens was temporarily without easy access to water and it was for damned certain somebody's fault, and somebody (us, that night) would hear about it.
So here's what I think as we close to the cusp of the coronation of our new King of Change and the overdue retirement of Dick Cheney's personal hand puppet. Bush and Obama have found common ground in turning together the lever designed to let flow the second surge of bailout bucks from the accounts of babies not yet old enough to tax and gametes as yet uncombined into pre-born citizens. Beyond that three hundred and a half billion, Mr. Obama promises much greater "stimulus." Things are bad all over. The Market is down, unemployment is up, confidence is gone.
Well, I've been out of work before. And hungry. No, really hungry-no food, no money. I didn't like it. It wasn't so much the boiled macaroni, day after day, as it was the sense of hopelessness, the feeling that nothing we could do or think or say or try would bring work or prosperity. But having survived a couple hard winters, having spent so many bitter days dragging home fallen limbs and beaver-killed standing stems to feed the fire one night at a time, having lived without water or phone or much food or decent fuel or any but occasional odd jobs, we have not forgotten that even at our lowest, most forlorn, most desperate, we lived better than millions do.
If you lost a pile in the stock slide, if Bernie Madoff fleeced you, at least you had it to lose. And when it is half gone, or even all gone, you're still better off than the man or woman who has worked a lifetime for wages only-no pension, no insurance, probably no sick days, definitely no "personal" (tend your sick kid on your own time, lady!) days. This world, this country, this community is full of persons who have raised their families and paid their bills and found joy and humor and hope and satisfaction in life on a fraction of the income and with none of the security recommended and enjoyed by the (all well-paid, well-protected) politicians and pollsters and publicists for the modern, Western lifestyle.
If we are lucky, we will relearn what once we all knew. There could be a great falling-away of the useless and the harmful and that which demeans our lives and purpose. We might emerge from the coming months poorer in money and things money brings, but richer in understanding and able to function in proportion to our neighbors and our world. Or some of us might eat the smaller and weaker and seize their land and drive their kind, their race into obscurity or extinction. We have proved well enough we can go either way.
With the economy constricted and customers cautious, Mr. Cooper is not overburdened by paying jobs this January. On tolerable weather days he takes to his woods and improves the land as he gains firewood against the inevitability of a winter yet to come. When it's just too cold, and the snow is too deep, he reads your E-mails.