The Well

In 1938 my family moved back to Fayetteville from Stakerag. Daddy had just bought a dry goods store on the Courthouse Square. This was quite an accomplishment considering he had little or no money, but he had been able with the help of a couple of friends to borrow the needed funds.

Mrs. Jenny Farrar rented us three rooms in her house located just south of the Courthouse Square, directly across from the Fayetteville Grammar School. Although living space was small, the location was ideal. I would start to school the next year and would be able to walk to school. Daddy could walk to work. This was important since we didn’t own an automobile.

Mrs. Jenny was an elderly lady about as wide as she was tall who waddled when she walked. She was very kind to us, especially to me. When she was not working in her rose garden, she sat in a rocker next to her radio and listened to the “soaps.” She had a handy man, Elmer, who milked the cow, cut stove wood, cut the grass, and took care of all odd jobs. He was also special to me .

Mr. and Mrs. Cap Travis lived next door. Their daughter, her husband, and their granddaughter, Shirley, lived with them. Shirley was my age and we became close friends. We were like brother and sister.

The back porch to Mrs. Jenny’s house was very high off the ground. There was a well curb on the back porch with a well shaft that went from the porch floor to the ground. The shaft had a door at the ground level that provided an entrance into the well for periodic cleaning. I was told never to open the door, never to even touch the latch.

One day as Shirley and I were playing in my backyard, Shirley’s curiosity prompted her to investigate the forbidden zone. I told her we were never to open the door to the well and added the frightening stories that I’d been told of what could happen if we did. That seemed to only entice her more. As she reached for the latch, I screamed at her, but she paid no attention to me. I raced into the house to tell Mother. Mother ran back with me into the backyard. Shirley was not there, but the well door was standing open. Mother looked into the well through the door. The water level was about ten feet below the ground, and she could only see a black hole and her reflection in the water. Mother ran next door and told Shirley’s mother. Someone was sent to town to ring the bell in the courthouse clock.

When there was a fire or any kind of emergency, someone would ring the clock bell very rapidly by pulling a rope which hung at the south end of the courthouse hall. The bell could be heard for several miles in all directions. The local telephone operator was called and given the information concerning the emergency. Hearing the bell, people would call the operator to get the details. People of the community knew this procedure quite well and it worked very successfully.

In a matter of minutes a crowd had gathered in the backyard. A man was lowered into the well. I could hear water splashing and his yelling to the men at the top of the well.

“ I don’t see a trace of her!” I heard him say.

They then lowered a long wooden pole for him to use in probing the bottom of the well. The large crowd was quiet. All you could hear were those working at the well.

“Do you feel anything?” one of the men at the top of the well shouted.

“Not yet,” echoed the voice of the man in the well.

Shirley’s mother was standing near the well door screaming and crying to the top of her voice, “My baby, my baby....”

Shirley’s grandmother was supporting her by the arm and quietly crying. By this time Mr. Cap Travis, Shirley’s grandfather, had come from the other side of town where he worked at John M. Jackson’s general store.

After about twenty minutes of probing, the man was pulled from the well.

“We can’t give up!” Shirley’s mother was shouting.

“M’am,” the young man responded, “I don’t believe she’s in there.”

A sigh of relief rose from the crowd. However, Shirley’s mother was not convinced and she begged the young man to go back down into the well.

During all this time my mother, thinking that Shirley might have responded to my telling on her by hiding, was looking everywhere for her. Mother went up to the Travis’ house and entered the living room where the back of a large sofa covered a window facing Mrs. Jenny’s backyard. She looked behind the sofa. There was Shirley with her little elbows on the window sill watching the crowd. At first she was startled, but Mother told her not to be afraid that everything would be all right.

Mother went to the door with Shirley and shouted to the crowd, “I’ve found her and she’s all right!”

The relieved crowd quickly dispersed. I followed Shirley’s mother up the rise to the Travis’ house. Shirley’s mother was fit to be tied. Mr. and Mrs. Travis, Shirley, and Shirley’s mother gathered on the Travis’ front porch which was made somewhat private by a large wisteria vine. No one noticed me, behind one of the empty rockers, as I watched to see what was going to happen.

Shirley’s mother had cut a switch and was threatening to switch Shirley. Shirley ran and jumped into Mr. Cap’s lap. Shirley’s mother followed her and began switching. As she switched, I noticed Mr. Cap’s hand slowly covering Shirley’s legs to absorb the bite of the switch. He never said a word. Shirley cried aloud as though she felt the full impact of each pass of the switch. It seemed that Shirley’s mother never realized Mr. Cap’s involvement.

I learned a big lesson from this episode. I realized for the first time, what Shirley already knew, the value of grandfathers in times of crisis.