Uh-oh. The pump froze. I raised the handle, poured water into the pump to prime it, and pushed the handle down.
The water I had poured into the pump ran into the sink, and no more water came up the pipe. The handle wouldn't push down a second time, and I knew why. Under the house, the iron pipe that brought water up from the well was so cold that, when my pumping drew water into the pipe, the water immediately froze.
As soon as it happened, I realized that I could have prevented it, but that clear hindsight didn't do me any good.
Despite bright early morning sunshine, it was very cold outside. Our thermometer read to 40 below zero, and it was bottomed out. During my preparation for winter I had closed up all access underneath the house, but our cats had dug access again to take refuge from the cold when we would go to town and they were left outside. The opening they had dug let cold air under the house, and I hadn't filled it in.
The pump by the kitchen sink fastened to an iron pipe that went down through the cupboard, through the floor, through two feet of air under the house, and into the ground to the water table.
Because the well was shallow and uncased, and because the water tasted strongly of sulphur, we didn't drink it. We brought our drinking water in gallon jugs from nearby springs or from Sumpter, Ore., 13 miles over Huckleberry summit. We did use water from the pump to wash dishes, take baths, and for household uses other than drinking.
We had more than three feet of snow around the house, and I started to melt snow and use it to wash our breakfast dishes. Any hope that I might have had about involving the whole family in bringing snow inside was dashed by the fact that the mercury still huddled coldly in the bulb of the thermometer. I wouldn't send Laura, Juniper, or Amanda into that cold, and I made my trips outside as brief as I could.
We sorted priorities. Laura, Juniper, and Amanda held their home-schooling classes as usual at the kitchen table, bundled in sweaters, hats, and wool socks. The first lesson was: Even a frozen pipe does not interfere with learning.
I kept the fires fueled with wood. I brought snow inside. While snow melted to water in canners on the kitchen stove, I closed up access under the house and banked snow against the house for additional insulation.
I opened the cupboard under the sink. I had been foolish to leave it closed through the night, preventing the kitchen stove from radiating heat to the section of pipe that ran down through the cupboard.
With no insulation in the outer wall, that closed cabinet shared temperature as much with the outside of the house as the inside. I just hadn't thought about that.
I opened the cupboard wide. As soon as I had enough hot water from melted snow, I filled plastic jugs and surrounded the pipe with them. There was no insulation under the floor. Heat from the house would raise the temperature under the house.
Meanwhile, life went on much as usual for everyone else in the house.
Lessons at the kitchen table gave way to lunch. I hadn't realized how much water a household uses. I kept bringing snow in and applying heat to the pipe under the sink, taking lunch in bites in between.
Late in the afternoon, ice thawed, and water retreated down the pipe with a marvelous sucking sound as air drawn into the pipe caused the pump handle to rattle and dance. And me. I danced in celebration and rattled with joy that the problem was solved and the cold, slow work of melting snow was finished.
My wife and daughters didn't seem nearly as impressed as I felt. They had assumed I would fix anything that went wrong and just went on with life as usual, without paying much attention to the problem. I hadn't realized how much confidence they had in me.
I primed the pump, and water spilled into the kitchen sink in abundance as I pumped.
I established new rules for my approach to cold weather. The house would be closed up tight underneath at all times. I would drain the pump every night and leave the cupboard under the sink open. Even more than usual, I would give thanks for our water supply. It was so much easier and so much more modern to have water delivered into the house via the pitcher pump than it was to melt snow.