When I was in elementary school we heard the story of a brave Revolutionary War-era woman who carried water to the troops during the Battle of Monmouth. “Molly, Molly, bring us your pitcher,” the men would call on that hot July day. That’s how she became known as “Molly Pitcher,” we were told.
Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley did follow her husband, a barber who enlisted in the Revolutionary Army, and apparently helped him load cannons. But “Molly Pitcher” seems to have been just a generic nickname for women who carried water to the colonial troops.
The truth is so limiting. I like the legend better, especially after what happened to me yesterday.
My brother picked me up from my second bus ride of the day (New York/Philly via the Megabus, then Philly/Bridgeton via New Jersey Transit) and drove me to our father’s house. Dad had turned off the power to the water heater while he was out of town, and when Glenn turned it back on he noticed that the basement floor was wet.
The source: a slow drip emanating from a pipe at the base of the pump tank. Out here in the land of No City Water everyone has a well and a pump, and a pump tank. The thing is, the water is supposed to stay in the tank until you ask it to come out.
Reached by phone, Dad told us to call the plumber first thing in the morning. Glenn was late for dinner, so he asked me to keep an eye on the drip. If it got more noticeable, he said, I should just shut off the water supply entirely.
Water, water, everywhere
Soon after he left I got jumpy enough to check the drip. It was now a trickle, and a not-very-slow trickle at that. I turned off the water supply — and the trickle kept trickling. I put a bucket under it and called Dad.
He had me shut off the power to the pump. Otherwise, it would keep coming on to refill the tank as the water level dropped. While I was at it, he had me turn the water heater back off – no sense wasting energy on something I wouldn’t be using.
We had no way of knowing how long the pump tank had been dripping, or how much water might have been wicked up into the foundation. The 100-plus-years-old sandstone foundation. I wasn’t sure whether the walls in that corner were dark and damp or just discolored and cold.
What I was sure about is that I didn’t want more water going anywhere near those walls. When I was a kid, part of the foundation of our old house caved in during a particularly rainy summer. Unlikely in this case, I thought, but I’m just hypervigilant like that. I can remember the boom of the foundation giving way and collapsing into that long-ago cellar.
I timed the leak and found it filled the two-gallon bucket about seven-eighths of the way in 15 minutes. So every quarter hour I went “down cellar” (as we say here), removed the bucket, put another container under the leak, brought the bucket upstairs and emptied it into the bathtub.
Why the tub? Because now I had no water supply, and I needed to be able to flush the toilet.
Up and down
Call it the Molly Pitcher Workout: down the stairs, back up with 14 pounds of water, dump the water, back down cellar. Repeat every quarter-hour until the tank is depleted. Or until you are.
Around midnight it occurred to me that I could just let some of the water come out onto the floor. How much damage could a relatively small amount do, really, even if it was wicking up into the walls? But I kept seeing that caved-in cellar of my youth, and stubbornly hauled on.
By 2:30 a.m., I was whipped. My guesstimate was that I’d done at least 40 gallons’ worth of up-and-downs. Maybe more, since I didn’t know exactly when I’d started. At that point I was exhausted not just due to the unaccustomed exercise but also the schedule I’d been keeping since leaving Alaska at 5 p.m. Saturday: overnight flight with maybe an hour’s sleep, a day of shoe leather with an old friend in Philly, the bus to New York, a bunch of meetings and walking, and two buses down to Jersey.
“That’s it. The last however-many gallons can just go out on the floor,” I said to myself as I clumped down the stairs.
When I bent to pick up the bucket I noticed the trickle was now a series of hesitant drips. Yay! So I emptied it one last time and put the bucket back under.
The miracle of the flush
This morning that bucket held a skim of water that scarcely covered the bottom. I brushed my teeth with water from the Berkey filter that I’d filled up as soon as I arrived. (My dad and Priscilla like their well water purified.) I flushed the toilet with water from the tub, just as I’d done a few times the previous evening. Then I cleaned up with the baby wipes (aka “shower in a pouch”) I always carry when I travel.
I went to see my Aunt Dot and picked up a few regional treats that I can’t get in Alaska. (Hint: None of them are good for me.) The plumber showed up around 2 p.m. and diagnosed the problem, which was with the pressure relief valve. Less than an hour later he’d replaced the valve, the tank drain and the pressure gauge, and collected the $125 fee. I said goodbye and turned the water heater back on.
What have we learned?
Always have a house-sitter, or at least someone to look in on the place when you’re out of town. That is, unless you want a swimming pool in your basement.
Never take water for granted. The hot shower I took and the load of laundry I just ran are absolute luxuries.
Choose a low-flow toilet. Not only is it ecologically sound, it’s a lot easier to re-fill by hand. Since the Colonial Army used privies (or bushes), I’m sure Miss Molly wouldn’t have minded carrying water for that purpose, either.