When I was about five years old I fell into a well.
This is not as wildly dramatic as it seems, as “well” in this case does not mean the classic visual trope of a moss-encrusted piece of masonry, a chthonian portal mortared together by our pioneer forefathers and slowly crumbling into dust ever since, waiting patiently in the middle of the forest or meadow to gobble up young boys such as I and/or your telepathic demon daughter who wants nothing more to be a ghost in the television. No, what I mean by “well” here is a large metal tub, maybe about three feet in diameter and a foot high, with a grated bottom and a water spout rising over it to one side, said water spout being the actual “well” part of this device, tapped into the aquifer below and constantly pumping forth a heady stream of absolutely frigid water into the basin, where it drains through the grate and returns undrunk to the chill, stygian darkness. Experts call this sort of thing an Artesian well.
So: there is this Artesian well on a campground-cum-park area near my hometown, as I just described it, pumping constantly all year and exposed to the elements, accumulating since time immemorial a patina of characteristic rust. The pipe that spills the water into the basin has this nifty thing where, if you bend down over the well and put your palm over the open end, the water redirects to a smaller aperture at the top of the pipe, sending a vertical stream of water straight up into the air and into your mouth or probably your nose as the case may be. However, at age five, I was slightly not tall enough to make this method of operation feasible, and so if I wanted to drink I had to cup my hands below the pipe’s larger opening, spooning the water into my mouth in this way.
Fun fact: I am picky about water. Like, super picky. I’m very sensitive to the way water tastes, and when I was younger my parents thought I was just being a brat and bullshitting them when I said water from this faucet or that faucet or this house or that city tasted bad. But it was God’s honest truth, and it never made sense to me how some people can just, like, drink water from anywhere. Anyway the point I want to make is that the water from this Artesian well tasted absolutely rad.
It was untreated, of course, which I think had something to do with it. I’ve discovered that the harder water is, the more it is essentially some sort of sand/mineral suspension, the more I like it. Up until the time I was about 12 and my parents divorced we lived in the country, in a house with its own well, and that water was harder than an AP Calculus exam. Part of me has never forgiven my father’s eventual decision to buy a water softener, as that water is probably some of the best I’ve ever tasted.
The water from this Artesian well at the park area was a pretty close second, though. We were at the park this particular day in late summer for what I believe was a family reunion, which was being held a bit of a ways away from the well in a largish shelter, where there were tables decked out with deviled eggs and potato salad and iced tea and a particular Midwestern delicacy called “hamloaf.” I had aunts and uncles milling about, and some cousins, but I ended up in some strange generational gap on both sides of my family so there were no cousins precisely my age — they were all notably older or younger. This meant I had pretty much no one to play with during functions like this, and I was particularly sensitive to when I was becoming a nuisance to adults, which translated into me hanging around on my own an inordinate amount of the time.
And so: this explains why I ventured out to the well on my own, at the tender age of five. This was in fact no great journey, since the well was right next to the road and at most maybe a hundred yards from the shelter. Because I 1) was bored, and 2) absolutely fucking love drinking good water, I decided at some point that what I really needed was to head out to the well and fuel up. I’m five years old, so at the moment I’m making some educated guesswork about my exact thought process here, but it seems good enough.
Now what I remember is having no concept of the dimensions of a circle (though of course I did not know this at the time). What I mean by this is that it did not occur to me how a point on one side of the circle is the furthest distance from a point on the exact opposite side of the same circle, which is to say, I completely failed to understand the concept of a diameter, esp. how it is the longest chord of a circle. How this played out in real life was me standing exactly opposite the well’s spout, leaning over the rim of the basin with my hands cupped, grasping handful after handful of water. Because I was the greatest possible distance from the object of my desires, I was leaning forward pretty damn far.
Too far, it turns out, as the relatively low rim of the basin and my relatively large forward bent plus the sudden weight and pressure of a powerful jet of water on my tiny five-year-old arms meant I tipped right the fuck over into the well. My trajectory, then, consisted of more and more of me being pushed into the path of the water jetting from the spout, soaking me as I fell down into the basin, splashing all over my face and doing nothing to help my sudden, panicked, ultimately useless burst of adrenaline as I smacked right into the metal grating.
This is it, I thought. I’ve fallen down a well.
As if it were an eventuality for every child.
I had been conditioned by years of television consumption and cultural osmosis to know that the only way to be saved from a well (any type of well!) was for a brilliant, golden-furred dog to witness the event and rush back to the old family homestead, where its worried barks would be correctly interpreted by one’s salt-of-the-earth family as an oddly specific yet ultimately effective and timely warning. The immediate problem this posed was, of course, no dog had witnessed my accident — in fact, I did not own a dog.
I was doomed.
So I lay there, a torrent of water slamming into my back, too pressurized for me to actually stand up with the leverage afforded me, and my head throbbing where I’d bumped it against the side of the basin. Like the greedy man who wishes for infinite riches and drowns in gold, that wonderful, mineral-infused H2O I had so loved and desired would now be my demise.
Except of course there was a grate in the bottom of the basin so the water was basically just running over me, back into the ground, and only getting into my mouth/nose because I was trying to shout for help instead of concentrating and trying to like, you know, move out from under the goddamn water.
Now, you will recall the depth of this basin is only, like, a foot, so there is no way it could have swallowed me entirely. In fact, what any passersby would have seen (should they choose to look) was about the final third of a five year old boy, being mostly the legs, sticking up awkwardly into the air, Kermit the Frog adorned Velcro sneakers waving manically.
Luckily, a passerby did choose to look at this particular sight! Some woman who happened to be driving by (remember, the well was pretty close to the road) saw me fall in and immediately slammed on the brakes, pulling over and dashing to my rescue. From my perspective this meant that I had been in the well for roughly half of my life (in reality: maybe 20 seconds) when suddenly something grabbed the back of my shirt, yanked me back through the gout of water, and into the land of living, non-doomed five-year-olds once more.
The woman, I remember rather distinctly, was for some reason wearing a lady’s business suit.
She slammed her palm into my back a few times to help me expel any water I may have swallowed (not much, really), and then helped me stagger back to the shelter, where some of my family members had noticed the spectacle and my older, more female relatives were positively flipping out at the way in which I had just brushed the edge of the mortal coil. I readily admit my memory of this bit is even more hazy, being completely panicked and cold and wet as I was, but I distinctly remember thinking that the woman who had pulled me from the well was some family member I hadn’t met before, and I think I asked my grandma (as she wrapped me in a fluffy beach towel) if my savior was one of my aunts or something.
My father and I believe my grandfather shot some stern words my way about the incident, making me feel like I was somehow totally and irrationally guilty for what just transpired (in retrospect I think they were angry this stranger saw what looked suspiciously like reckless child endangerment) and that, on top of the whole having-almost-made-peace-with-my-own-death thing, did not put me in a particularly good mood for the rest of the day.
A few years ago, during high school, I was at the park again and saw the well’s basin now had a grate on top, as well as on bottom, and I wondered if I was the sole purpose for that or, alternatively, how many kids through the years had ended up in my position.
The water was still really good, though.