Back when water flowed
Whiling time away I took up a key position on a shopping mall bench. My wife’s relentless search for bargains often gives me ample time to watch the world go by.
As usual, I saw shoppers of all shapes and sizes in a seemingly endless parade. Some lugged bulging shopping bags, but many carried no sacks. Then it struck me. Nearly everyone was toting a drink container. Although some were coffee or soda cups the vast majority grasped tightly to bottled water.
I know most people will simply roll their eyes at such a realization. After all, everyone drinks bottled water. It’s as normal as checking one’s smartphone every couple of minutes. But for an old geezer like me ... well, it’s something I never thought I’d see.
As the steady stream of humanity dawdled by, my thoughts suddenly skipped back nearly 80 years to main street in Slater, Iowa. I was standing on my tiptoes attempting to slurp water arching out of the public drinking fountain. My tongue was extended to maximum length. Behind stood my buddies, Slick and Kooker, impatiently waiting their turn.
That scene at the fountain was hardly an infrequent happening. Public water fountains could be found on the majority of main streets throughout the Midwest. Although I’m sure their original intent was to clench the thirst of the adult population, the cement drinking fountains drew kids like metal to magnets.
Slater was actually a two fountain town. The small main street fountain was dwarfed by a long cement water drinking fountain located in the town park a couple blocks to the south. Both fountains were designed to allow the flow of water only when a knob was turned and held. As soon as the drinker released pressure on the knob the water would cease to flow.
Although the main street fountain probably attracted more people during a given day, the park fountain was much more attractive to the town’s younger set. It was all in location. The main street fountain was located within close visual distance from Peterson’s Clothing Store, King’s Station and Pautvein’s Grocery. Anyone spending too much time at the fountain immediately drew the attention of one or more of the self-appointed fountain guardians.
The park fountain was much isolated. Sure, an adult or two might stroll by on occasion, but for the most part there was little scrutiny. So it was there where most of the major water fights took place.
Although squirt guns were available back then, most of the town youth were more inclined to use something that could displace a lot of water in an instant. This required sneaking out a bucket or pan from Mom’s stash under the kitchen sink.
Although it took time to fill such a container using the water fountain, it was far from an impossible task. Then, too, if one positioned one’s finger in exactly the right angle the stream of water coming from the fountain could be intensified to extend over a much greater distance.
Yes, town drinking fountains were more than simply a thirst quencher. They were a sort of entertainment center. They rarely sat idle during the heat of summer. I’m sure that’s why the grass in the town park remained green up until late fall.
Fall always caused a traumatic time in the lives of small town youth. With the coming of colder weather the town man would shut off the fountain’s water supply. The fountains would then go into hibernation until next May. A sad sign of the times.
With that thought evaporating from my mind I was thrust back to the mall and reality. The water bottles continued to pass by. Hard to believe how modern trends can take the fun out of life!
Ed Rood is the former publisher of the Tri-County Times.