I do believe that people who grow up in West Virginia grow up with a kind of “hardness,” that ability to handle life’s annoyances with a bulldozer attitude that just doesn’t happen in a lot of other states. Being so rural, we have to navigate a world that has become increasingly used to fast internet, consistent public transportation, and DoorDash (restaurant food delivered right to your door. The closest I’ve ever gotten to this in West Virginia was meeting Dominos Pizza in the parking lot of the old B&B Market). But even among West Virginians, there is another level of hardness, the line of which is drawn in one clear way: did you grow up with city water or well water?
Now, I’m not trying to say that just because you grew up with city water that your life was easy, and all the advantages of the world came your way because you got a lifetime of city-water fluoride under your belt. I mean, your teeth are probably amazing, but city water alone doesn’t an easy life make.
But frankly, unless you’ve ever had to run outside in the yard, in your towel and with one leg still covered in shaving cream, to prime a well pump so the water comes back on, well then you just don’t get what it is to live on a well. People on wells, even good ones, always have just a tinge of apprehension every time they go to the tap, just wondering if this is going to be the moment in the day when your well goes “Yeah, I got nothing for you, buddy. Try me again in an hour, I might have something then.”
Now I know you “City Water” people are reading this and going “Hey, we have water problems too! I mean, the hot water runs out after so many showers. Nothing’s worse that a cold shower!” City Water people, I’m not talking about not having hot water: I am talking about No Water. I’m talking you turn the tap on, and all it does is groan at you, like its screaming “You did this to me! You and your whole dang clean family!” Well People would love for their biggest problem to be between cold and hot water, because at least the choice is still water. But so often the choice is water and an hour’s wait for more water.
Full disclosure: I thought everyone had these problems growing up. I just assumed everyone, in town and out, had their own little well, and very family-specific well-water math that determined your water usage. Like it was just known in our house: two showers and the dishes, or one shower and a load of laundry. One time we didn’t adhere to that maxim, and my dad had to shower outside on the deck before he went out one day. Which, it should go without saying, is also a difference between City Water people and Well People: you aren’t going to catch many people on their decks on First Avenue, soaping down in a rain storm. And if you do, there’s a city ordinance to deal with that; outside the city limits, it’s really just a matter of what trees are blocking whose view.
But it’s not just the rationing of water that makes Well People grow up harder than City Water people: it’s what Well People have to do when there’s no water at all. We’re coming up on blizzard season, and there will be at least one day when the power goes out. Now what do City People do when the power goes out? Treat it like a camping opportunity. “Oh, isn’t this fun!,” they tell themselves. “We’ll make a little fire in the fireplace, and read and snuggle, and just make a day of it!” And when the power comes back on hours later, they give themselves a little mental gold star for knowing they can live through such an ordeal.
You know what Well People do when the power goes off? Tell everyone in the house not to flush the toilets unless they absolutely have to. Because, in case you didn’t know, when the power goes out when you have City Water, you still have water. Faucets run, toilets refill. When the power goes out for Well People, and you don’t have a generator, your well pump stops running. That means no running water, and a power outage is all fun and snuggles right up until you’ve flushed all the toilets once and you realize ain’t no more water coming back. Then you’re using every bottle of water you have in the tanks, you’re melting snow over your fire, and you’re robo-calling AEP to see when they are deigning to come out and get your power back on line, because trying to explain to a kid you’ve recently potty-trained why suddenly they can’t go potty is basically impossible.
And well pumps are the worst part of being Well People, because they are the heart of your water system, and that heart is a finicky beast. If you aren’t careful, you can burn a well pump out just by trying to get it to pump more water, which is literally its entire function and it can’t be bothered to do it somedays. Or you can be like my family and have your well pump be a magnet for lightening strikes. Our well pump was hit by lightening three times. That’s three different well pumps in a twenty-year period. I’d say we put a well-tender’s kid through college with our well-repair money, but those kids probably saw how much specializing in water wells paid, and said “Yeah, I think I’ll get my degree in ‘Telling Well People They Need to Choose Between A Vacation and Taking a Bath in Their Own House.’”
But City Water people, again, don’t think I’m saying you’ve lived a cake life because of your total access to water all the time. I would never say that, because I know eventually a Well Person who has been without water for far too long is going to show up at your house with a week’s worth of laundry, all their dirty children, and they’re going to need some of that sweet, sweet municipal water. They are going to run that city water like that stuff is free (because theirs is), while you sit in your house listening to all your toilets flush, and try to figure out how much your niceness is costing you.
So yes, whether you grew up on a well or on city water does help differentiate between which West Virginians grew up harder. But fear not, City Water people, you do trump Well People in one category of hardness they will never know, don’t want to know, and will go to ridiculous lengths to avoid: writing a check to the water company every month. You may never know the struggle of figuring out how many flushes you have left during a power outage, but Well People will never know the agony of finding out via your monthly bill that someone left the garden hose tap running.
We’re all so different yet somehow, so much the same. Just two different kinds of people, both mad over someone using all the dang water. Shared annoyances: that’s what really brings us all together.