The Water Boy
The dirt under the back porch of our ramshackle tenant house had been fluffed by the chickens until it was as fine as talcum powder. It was the coolest place a five-year-old could find to play on a hot summer morning, the perfect place to make a network of roads for my little toy cars.
By this time in my short life my brain had grown to the size of a peach seed and my attention span was way up there—at least 10 or 15 seconds. Although I was not the dullest knife in the drawer— a rising First Grader, I could already read a good many words and count,well, pretty high—this day I was not at my sharpest.
I could hear the floorboards creak above me, as Mama did her house work, causing tiny motes of dust to fall from the cracks as she moved about the kitchen. The only other sound was the hum of bees in wild flowers across the dirt road.
Slowly, my developing brain sensed something new. From far off, wafting on the hot humid air, there came a stream of indistinct sounds, like wavering syllables of human speech, so faint their direction could not be ascertained, even by an intelligent being—had one been present. It sounded like “…a…no..” something, something.
I shrugged and returned to my toys… Wait, there it was again, this time a little louder, a bit more insistent: “..a…no…wa…er.” But whatever it was, it was too far away to command my full attention.
Three or four chickens approached, clucking and picking, wondering what I was doing in their fluffing spot. I scared them away with a clod. Then I heard it again, a little more distinctly: “..Hey…no…bring…um ….ter.”
Like Bambi in a forest glade sensing danger, I came to full alert, then began to put it all together.
On the porch above my head was a quart Mason jar of once-cool water.
Down in the field below the crest of a slope and out of sight was my daddy, plowing our cotton with Beck, grandpa’s mule, and no doubt miserable in the withering heat.
Over an hour ago he had told me to bring him water every 30 minutes.
Oh Lord, I forgot. What time is it? Am I gonna get a whuppin’?
By now I was out from under the house, my ears tuned for optimal reception. “Hey, Reno! (pause) Bring me some water!” It was a command uttered with more urgency than mere words on paper can convey. And as I sped across the cotton rows, water jar in hand, with daddy now in view, I heard a final yell—a criticism really—that is still burned in my memory: “What do you think I am, a G… d… camel?”
I don’t remember what happened next, but I know now those stinging words revealed one of the essential qualities of my dad. As mild and unassertive as he usually was, he could not abide trifling jugheads like myself who don’t carry their part of the load, who don’t do their best at whatever they do. And to this day, thanks to his example, neither can I.
Byron Bailey, the “daddy” in this true tale, was a sometime farmer in addition to working in the mill. Employed by Cliffside Mills from 1936 until the mid 1970s, he was successively a weaver, loom fixer and second hand. Forced to retire early due to the heart disease that killed him in 1977, he is buried in Cliffside Cemetery. As of this writing, 39 years later, he’s still remembered fondly by many of the hundreds who worked with him, and deeply missed by those of us who loved him.