Everyday Oddities

What's so funny about a well, a clothesline, a salad? These three true tales may tell you. What goes down, must ...

That old well out in the yard was a bother. Even though our house was connected to the town water system, it seemed to my dad there should be some use for that well. If he could water a garden from it, he could save a bit on the water bill and the grocery bill. And at that time, near the tail end of the Depression, saving even a bit was important.

The well was of the drilled, not dug, type and the bother was that when Dad lowered the special, narrow bucket down the casing it came to rest on some obstruction before it reached the water level. Neighborhood boys often passed through the yard as they went about their rounds and were known to drop rocks down the well to hear the splash. Dad concluded that, in the quest for ever more impressive splashes, they had finally used a rock so large that it had lodged in the casing. Subsequent rocks had simply enlarged the plug.

Fortunately, plug-removal means were at hand. Dad was sexton at the cemetery. Typical of the geology of that part of the Ozark Plateau, the cemetery had abundant sedimentary rock formations. When digging a grave, Dad often encountered a sandstone or limestone formation that defied mere human efforts to remove. To cope with these situations, he maintained a modest supply of dynamite.

It occurred to Dad that a judicious application of that compound would be effective at removing well plugs.

While pondering the situation, Dad realized that simply detonating the dynamite atop of the plug would result in most of the explosion's force being dissipated up the well. Something was needed to direct the blast down toward the plug.

Again, a solution was at hand. Our house was near the edge of town and it was a simple matter to stroll out into the countryside and cut a sturdy oak sapling 12 feet long and of a diameter able to pass freely down the narrow well casing. When set atop the dynamite, the green oak would provide all the weight necessary to force the blast downward.

Dad gathered the requisite supplies and invited my mother and me to watch. I was a babe-in-arms when this took place and have no direct memory of it. All I know is what Dad recounted to me many years later after any applicable statutes of limitation had run out.

The dynamite, with an electric blasting cap, was carefully lowered to rest on the rock plug. The oak sapling was lowered with equal care and set on top of the dynamite. Of course, once the plug was blown out, the sapling would fall to the bottom of the well unless it was restrained. To prevent this, the rope used to lower the sapling was tied to an old cast-iron cookstove nearby.

Upon modest reflection, it quickly becomes obvious that Dad had unwittingly contrived what was probably the largest mortar ever seen in the State of Missouri. But, completely entranced by the wiles of his own sweet logic, he was oblivious to that fact and blithely pushed the plunger to detonate the dynamite.

With a muffled whump! the sapling emerged from the well mouth with startling velocity. It reached the end of its rope tether, jerked the cookstove in two, and soared higher and higher and higher over the unsuspecting neighborhood until it resembled, in Dad's words "a broom handle with a string tied to it." He stood transfixed at the missile he had launched into the heavens and hoped that the thing would sail completely out of town.

It did not. It reached the apogee of its flight and gravity imposed its inexorable way. As he tracked its descent with understandably keen interest, Dad was giving considerable thought to the effect a couple of hundred pounds of oak sapling, arriving end-on with appended cookstove, would have on the roof, ceiling, floor, and perhaps occupants, of one of the neighbors' houses.

Thankfully, disaster was averted and sapling and stove came to rest draped on opposite sides of a large tree. After the commotion had quieted, Dad retrieved the evidence with a studied nonchalance and avoided both notice and explanation.

And so the most exciting ordnance display in quiet little Greenfield since Jo Shelby's Civil War raid ended with a whimper and no damage to life, limb, or property.

Oh, and with a well still plugged.

What fluttered in the breeze

WE used to live in a house close enough to our neighbors to string a long clothesline on a pulley between our back porches. It was great fun sharing the line with friendly neighbors. It gave us a chance to chat as we hung out clothes almost every day.

Then these neighbors moved away and for a few weeks their house was empty. On the morning that a new family moved in, my husband ripped his work pants and came home to change clothes. He was in a hurry to get back on the job as a mechanic, so he handed me the torn pants and asked if I could mend them. That was no problem, but the pants were so soiled that I immediately dropped them into my washing machine, which happened to be loaded with work clothes. I added an extra scoop of detergent and closed the lid.

A few minutes later my husband came back and asked about the torn pants. I told him they were in the washer. "Did you check the pockets first?" he asked. I shook my head. He hurried to the back porch where the washer was chugging away. I followed.

When he opened the lid, floating on top was a billowing mass of soapsuds and greenbacks, mostly fives, tens, and twenties. He had been too busy to go to the bank, so there were several thousand dollars in his wallet in the pocket of those torn pants.

We debated what to do with all those clean, green bills. The logical things was to hang them on the clothesline, which we did, one bill at a time clipped with a clothespin. They reached all the way to the neighbor's back porch.

It was a sunny day, so my husband got a folding chair and sat in our back yard watching the money flutter as it dried.

About then, our new neighbor looked out her kitchen window. She took a second look. Then she sat right down and wrote a letter to the family she had left behind in Big Springs, Texas.

"Believe everything you hear about California!" she wrote, as she told us later. "Only in California could you see what I'm seeing right out my back door!"

The Preposterous Tale of Mrs. Henderson's Toad

'SAINSBURY'S. As good as home-grown." This is what one of our British supermarket chains uses as a slogan. It's persuasive. We want our supermarket apples and onions "home-grown," don't we?

Well, maybe.

But whoever thought up the slogan had not reckoned with The Preposterous Tale of Mrs. Henderson's Toad.

Actually, the Sainsbury's campaign is applaudable, particularly when the ads go on to say the company uses "natural ways" to control pests on its British farms. They don't explain much about how, but it seems they employ ladybugs (we call them "ladybirds") as "natural predators." There is a picture of a delightful British ladybird perched on a plum-leaf stem. The implication is clear: Sainsbury's farms use biological pest control, not pesticides.

I phoned an organic-gardening organization to see if I could order an army of ladybirds for my plum tree. But I was told ladybirds can't be bought in Britain. The only way to get them is to grow plants that ladybirds find attractive. I conclude that we should not take the Sainsbury's ladybird too literally.

This may be fortunate. A book I have, called "Ladybirds," says the insects do not taste nice. So the thought of vegetables so "home grown" that they arrive in the supermarket with ladybirds attached does not appeal. "Natural" has its limits.

Mrs. Henderson would agree. The news broke a few days ago. It was not a fairy tale. At least, I don't think it was.

We will assume that Mrs. Henderson, a schoolteacher, had had a hard day curbing an unruly class. After work (I am improvising with scant information) she popped into Sainsbury's for some refreshing, as-good-as-home-grown green salad for the family tea.

De-packaging it at home, she touched something slender. The leg of a live toad. Said toad hopped happily onto her kitchen table. Sainsbury's is investigating, as well it might.

The United Kingdom has only two toad species. This specimen, reportedly four inches long, must be a female of the common type (Bufo bufo).

Toads may not win many beauty contests, but British ones (even in a hole) are harmless. Furthermore, they have an appetite for many garden pests, including slugs. But I think it is unlikely they are employed on Sainsbury's farms. And anyway, this salad happened to come from Africa ("as good as home grown"?), not Britain.

The salad was, however, packed in the UK. Shredded, washed, spin-dried at great speed, popped in a plastic bag, heat-sealed and weighed. It had been through the supermarket mill to ensure that although "home grown," it was clean beyond nature. Yet the toad was alive and well in the lettuce.

Is the incident a hoax? A fairy tale after all? I wonder if Sainsbury's has thought to enquire as to the incidence of princes listed as "Missing Persons"?

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