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The Water Tower

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One evening during his first semester at the department of architecture Peter’s studio mates get the urge to climb the water tower. It’s 4 :30 in the morning. In another six hours each of these grad students will present their work before a jury of critics. They’ve all been working almost constantly for three straight days. Most of them are very near to reaching their goal. For those who aren’t, another hour won’t make much difference anyway. It’s time to blow off some steam.

“Hey, Peter. We’re going up. You in?”

Peter looks up from his drafting table. He is building a small chipboard model. He’s holding several pieces of the model together with his fingertips, waiting for the glue to dry. His natural instinct is to decline the offer. He doesn’t yet know these guys very well. It is only the fourth week of the semester and they are all still checking each other out. He likes most of these guys well enough. It’s just his good Midwestern reticence holding him back; his inclination to never show too much of himself lest his assumed inadequacies be found out.

“Com’on Pete. It’ll be fun. You gotta’ get out more boy. You’re starting to look pale.”

“Naw. You guys go ahead. I gotta’ wait for this model to dry.”

“O.K. But you’re gonna miss one bitchin’ rush, man.”

This is Frank talking. He’s a second year student from Alabama. He’s just smoked a joint with his girlfriend out behind Brimley Hall. He is already floating several feet above the floor of the studio. Climbing the tower will be a snap.

Climbing the water tower behind Brimley Hall is a long-standing tradition at the department of architecture, intended as an rite of passage for students new to the program. Naturally, the university takes a dim view of this kind of highjink, insurance premiums being what they are, but the students just keep going up there. Sometimes they drop eggs or water balloons on unsuspecting members of the senior faculty. Other times, they paint slogans on the side of the steel tank. Architecture students rarely produce vulgar graffiti. Instead, they prefer to quote famous architects, scribbling “Less is More,” or “Form Follows Function,” in a neatly lettered, three-foot tall text. If nothing else, they stand on the tower’s catwalk 120 feet above the east-central Virginia hilltop on which Alabaster University is perched and stare out across a tributary of the Cokihominy River and in due distance, on to the clear waters of Chesapeake Bay.

“It’ll be bitchin’ man,” Frank repeats.

Peter shrugs and watches silently as his mates slip out of the studio. He will stay behind and continue working. This is a very Midwestern thing to do, particularly if you believe the commonplace myths perpetuated about Midwesterners.

There are many such myths. Some are actually true, for example: that Midwesterners are stoic, that they are hard working, pragmatic and rarely outspoken. In politics, they are conservative about social matters and taxation, but liberal when it comes to farm subsidies and foreign trade. And, as an idiosyncratic, American subculture, Midwesterners are not on the whole, particularly adventurous. There’s good reason for this. It's simply not a part of their genetic make-up.

If you examine the ancestry of longtime Midwesterners, one thing is true of them all. In the early nineteenth century when the great western migration began and America’s pioneers set out in search of a better life, some would make it to California. Others would not. The folks who didn’t manage to make it all the way West had decided more or less by default, to give up somewhere along the way. They got their wagons and mules got as far as, say Illinois or Iowa, looked around and said to themselves: “You know, I expect this will be good e’nuf.”

This is the legacy of the Midwest. It is composed of people whose ancestors lacked the fortitude to trudge further west than Nebraska’s Platte River. As a consequence, the Midwest is filled people who by their very heredity are just a little too easily satisfied. They are people with a real reverence for the phrase: “This will be good e’nuf.”

In this, Peter is a true Midwesterner. In fact, this has always been the rub about him in undergraduate school. He was talented. He was hard working. He was intelligent. But, he was also always just a little too self-satisfied; just a little too unwilling to go the entire distance necessary to make his work not just good, but spectacular. He could never let himself go that far. That would require too much risk, too much commitment, too much heart. And Peter had always been very careful to keep a very tight reign on his heart. It is a very Midwestern thing to do.

Which makes it all the more surprising that once Peter’s model dries, he gets up from his desk and follows his classmates out to the water tower. By the time he reaches the base of the tower, the rest of the studio is already a good eighty or ninety feet ahead of him. He cannot see them in the darkness, but can hear their giddy voices dropping down from above. He thinks about the wisdom of this. He rereads the University’s posted warning about such shenanigans:

“Warning. Danger. Unauthorized Persons Found On These Premises Will Be Prosecuted to the Fullest Extent to the Law. By Order of the Board of Trustees, Alabaster University.”

Peter isn’t worried about the danger, nor is he worried about being arrested. Lord knows, at this time of night the fogbound campus cops will be sound asleep at their posts. Peter worries only that someone might not approve of the act he is about to commit. This would be embarrassing for Peter. This would be embarrassing for any Midwesterner.

Nevertheless, in a moment of uncharacteristic rashness, Peter puts his apprehension aside and mounts the tower’s creaky iron ladder. He ascends steadily, enveloped in darkness. There is great comfort in the night’s embracing blackness. Peter cannot see the ground receding below him. He cannot see the horizon spreading out before him. He can imagine that he is not a seventy-five feet above the ground, but standing on a step stool in his kitchen reaching for a can of peaches. He continues upward, hearing the voices of his classmates who have already reached the catwalk above.

At about one hundred fifty feet, something unexpected happens. Peter has been moving along nicely. He thinks to himself how happy he is to be up here, doing something he would never thought himself to have the heart to do before. The night air chills his skin. A gull floats past. Peter smiles. He looks down. He looks up. He looks outward into the undifferentiated night. He smiles again. He looks down again. Someone far below is crossing central campus, lighting a cigarette. Peter sees how small this figure is and recognizes how high he has climbed. He stops. He grips the ladder’s rail tightly. He closes his eyes. He smells the sweat of his rising fear. He clutches the ladder’s thin, fragile rail. He is immediately filled with a violent terror. Peter is frozen eighty feet above the cool Virginia turf below.

Suddenly, Peter is no longer twenty-six years old. He is twelve. Peter is no longer in Virginia. He is in White Oak, Kansas. Peter is no longer clutching the water tower of Alabaster University. Peter is frozen, twenty-five feet above the ground on the windmill of his father’s farm.

Peter and his father have been out mending fences. It’s a sultry August morning. All around them, the broad Kansas sky is swelling with the makings of a spectacular, late-summer thunderstorm. Peter’s father works quickly. He has another thirty feet of fence to mend before the storm comes hammering down on them both. Jerry, Peter’s father, is a wiry roughneck, son-of-a-bitch. He could be tender when there was cause, like when his farming buddy was dying of cancer. But mostly, he is a tough as nails kind of guy. He surely never shows Peter anything but this. It wouldn’t be right.

As a young man, Peter’s father was the victim of a common farm accident. His right arm was caught in the jaws of a thresher. He nearly died from loss of blood. His buddy, Will, found him out in the fields and carried him into the emergency room of White Oak General Hospital. Every muscle of Jerry’s right arm had been ripped clean of the bone. His shoulder was dislocated. His collarbone was broken. He spent four months in rehab. His neighbors would put in his crops for him without complaint. This is something else about Midwesterners. They are unflinchingly loyal to one of their own in need.

This is why Peter is helping his father this morning. The accident left his father’s right arm lame. Peter will hold a strand of fallen barbed wire against a fence post and his father will nail it back into place with his remaining good arm. He and Peter work well together. Peter is conscientious. His father is swift and careful with the fourteen-ounce hammer. The chore is nearly finished when the first beads of rain begin to fall on the dry Kansas scrub brush.

“We best be getting back to the house son. It’s a gonna rain harder than a cow pissing on a flat rock.”

Peter blushes though he shouldn’t have. This is what his father always says whenever a good soaking rain is headed in. The two of them amble down the hillside. The storm clouds follow their descent. The wind begins to kick up. By the time they reach the farmhouse, the storm has blown into a full gale. Peter is frightened, though he tries not to let on in front of his father.

They have both just stepped onto the front porch when Peter’s father pauses, sensing something out of place. He raises his brow and seems to smell the trouble. He looks out over his farmstead. He inspects the barn. He checks the silo and the corncrib. He then looks out to the windmill. He nods fitfully. His wife calls out from within the house.

“Jerry, you best get in here with that boy. It’s fixing to blow up some ruckus out there.”

“Not now Adel. Not jes’ yet.”

Peter’s father looks again at the windmill. It is spinning madly in the swelling gale. The mill’s swivel base has jammed. It vanes cannot turn away from the direction of the accelerating winds. If the frozen pivot is not freed, the vanes will shatter, the windmill will stop turning, the pump below will stop pumping and the farm’s livestock will be without fresh water. This is a serious matter.

“Com’on, Peter. You an’ me gotta fix somthin’.”

Peter dutifully follows his father across the feedlot. The windmill is on a rise, forty yards beyond the barn. A wind gust tosses Peter to one side. He leans hard into it and moves forward. The rain strikes his cheeks like hammered chisels. There is a flash of lightning nearby and then another, each immediately followed by a bellowing thunderclap. Peter cowers. His father just keeps walking straight ahead without looking up, without looking back.

They reach the windmill. The swivel is still jammed. The vanes are turning crazy fast in the blowing gale. The frame of the tower groans against the wind, its top sways and the spinning vanes make a fearful sound, droning like an un-tuned jalopy. Peter and his father look up into the boiling clouds. Lighting erupts in near continuous slashes. The thunder is deafening. The rain falls harder.

“Peter. You gotta’ get up there and free up that swivel, “ his father shouts over the din. “I can’t do it. It takes somebody with two good hands.”

Peter looks at the windmill rocking wildly. At about thirty feet, a frayed cord is flapping in the wind. Yanking this cord will release the windmill’s pivot and allow the vanes to feather themselves into the wind, sparing their destruction. The cord should have run all the way to the ground but it had rotted out and broke off last spring. Peter’s father hadn’t gotten around to fixing it yet. He stabs at the earth with his steel tipped shoe, cursing his procrastination.

“Peter. You gotta’ get up there. I can’t do it. You gotta’ yank that cord before the damned thing blows apart.”

Peter’s father knows what he is asking. He sees the fear in his kid’s posture. He tries not to let on that he is frightened too. He thinks by not showing his fear, he’s helping Peter. He thinks by being strong, he’s giving Peter strength. Peter senses this. He recognizes both the danger of what his father is asking him to do and the reasons why it is necessary that he alone do it.

“I got it, Dad. I got it,” Peter says bravely, but with apprehension too.

He grasps the rungs of the windmill’s ladder and starts up. The ladder is wet and slippery with an oil film from the mill’s machinery. He falters on the third rung nearly sliding back into the mud, then grips the ladder more firmly and starts moving cautiously upward. Peter climbs to a height of about twenty feet. The release cord is waving out of reach, flapping another five feet above his head. The wind and rain tear at his bare hands. The tower is bucking like a drunken mare. Below, his father shouts encouragement through the howling wind:

“That’s it Peter. You’re almost there. You can do it, son.”

Peter climbs another two rungs. He takes each rung slowly, grasping the rail carefully, moving one foot up, raising himself, grasping the next rung and raising his other foot. Climbing up the remaining five feet seems to take hours. Peter’s father looks up at him anxiously. The wind blows more fiercely. There is nothing else he can do for his son now except watch.

Peter wraps an arm around the ladder. He wraps a leg around the ladder. He leans out into the space of the raging storm and reaches for the cord. It whips about his unsteady outstretched hand, taunting him like a cornered pig snake. He swipes at the cord but it dodges his grasp. He leans out further. He loosens his clutch on the ladder and now stands on only a single leg, his hand barely gripping the rail, the rest of his body swaying freely twenty-five feet above the ground, buffeted by the raging wind. He lunges at the cord again. His father shouts:

“Peter!”

Peter captures the cord in his fingertips. There is a blinding flash of lightning immediately above his head. He recoils involuntarily. The cord slips from his grasp. He lunges for it again. His foot slips from the rung of the ladder. He begins to fall. His father now screams through the howling wind:

“Peter! For Christ’s sake! Peter!”

Peter is hanging by three clenched fingertips. The wind slams his body, first against the frame of the tower and then back out into the clear space of the sky. Peter gasps. His father calls out again.

Peter is dangling twenty-five feet above the ground. He is not frightened. He is too scared to sense the awful depth of his fear. His mind races faster than the turbulence that buffets him in one direction and then the next. He closes his eyes. He grasps for the rope. He grasps for the ladder. He grasps for himself, for his own true self. He turns inward in search of some unknown strength he has never before been asked to summon.

At this moment, he suddenly no longer feels the wind. He no longer senses the rain. He no longer hears the thunder. He looks deeply within himself. He understands there is a choice to be made. He understands that he may release his grasp and float off into uncertainty. Or he may pull himself back on to the ladder and continue to live. He is overcome by an unexpected and deafening calm. He does not hear the voice of God. He does not review the events of his short life as they pass before his eyes. He is instead only at peace with himself and this world. He recognizes his choice but he also understands that whatever should happen, he will be all right. He doesn’t know why or how. He only knows that he will be all right, regardless of the decision he makes.

Suddenly, there is the thundering sound of a tremendous crack above. It is followed by the screech of metal grating against metal. The vanes of the windmill shatter into a hundred fractured pieces and rain down on Peter and his father.

Peter inhales and swiftly kicks his free leg back over the ladder’s edge, grips the rail with both his arms and then hangs on for all he is worth. He clutches the ladder like a mother would clutch a lost child. He shakes. He thinks he might begin to cry. He doesn’t. His father calls up to him again:

“Peter. You O.K.?” Are you O.K.?”

The storm subsides. Peter looks down.

“I’m O.K. I’m all right. Just let me stay here for a minute, O.K.?”

“O.K. son. You do what you need.”

Peter is soaked to the flesh. The rain now only sprinkles. The wind has died out entirely. He looks at his knuckles gripping the ladder. They've turned the color of skim milk. He still holds onto the rung fiercely. After a few more minutes, he relaxes enough to crawl slowly back to earth. Before he reaches the lowest rung, his father reaches up for him. He helps Peter to the ground. He puts his one good arm firmly around Peter’s shoulder.

“You O.K.? You aren’t hurt are you? Here, let me look at you.”

Peter’s father inspects his son.

“I’m O.K. Dad. I’m fine…”

“Good. That’s all that’s important…”

“I’m really sorry about the windmill, really sorry…”

“Don’t you worry about that none, Peter. We’ll get it fixed tomorrow. Let’s get you back to the house, O.K.?”

“O.K.”

Peter and his father walk back to the house. Peter’s father curses to himself . He should have fixed the cord months ago. He curses again under his breath. He should have never sent Peter up in that storm. Peter hears his father quietly swearing and feels guilty for not doing his job well enough. He feels an unwarranted shame rise up in his gut. He hadn’t been able to do what was expected of him. He wasn’t able to reach far enough.

Peter’s father doesn’t see his son’s anguish. He’s too relieved the boy is all right. They walk back onto the porch and into the house. Lunch is waiting for them on the kitchen table. Peter changes into dry clothes. They sit and eat their meal in silence. Neither Peter nor his father tell his mother anything about what happened up on the hill. After lunch, Peter’s father drives into town to buy the works for a new windmill. Peter goes into his room and idly draws in his sketchbook. The thunderstorm has vanished over the horizon. The sun comes out. Steam rises from a damp countryside.

Peter will never be able to tell his father how disappointed he is in himself. Peter’s father will never be able to tell Peter how proud he is of him. The expression of feeling is something a Midwesterner cannot do well. They trust that the one’s they love will understand just the same.

Two weeks later, Peter’s father will be out on his tractor mowing brome grass. He will be thinking about many things: the farm, his wife, his only son, where he’ll get the money to put in next year’s crop. He won’t be thinking enough about what he’s doing. He will cut a rise too sharply. It’s an easy mistake to make if you’re not paying attention. The tractor lurches, rises up on two of its three wheels and tumbles over onto him.

A few hours later, Peter’s mother will walk out into the fields wondering why Jerry hadn’t yet come home for lunch. She will find him pinned beneath his tractor, its engine still running, its one free wheel still spinning, a cruel steel rod piercing her husband’s good heart.

Peter can see all this in his mind as he clutches the ladder of the water tower behind Brimley hall. He feels the same paralyzing fear he felt fourteen years before. He hears the wind, the thunder and the sound of disappointment in his father’s voice. He still does not know how much his father loved him.

Peter closes his eyes. He loosens his grip on the ladder. He thinks he may just let go and float off into the dark. He thinks hard about it all. He thinks about it all real hard. He slowly backs down the ladder to the ground. When his friends return to the studio, they find Peter at his desk where they’d left him an hour before. The first light of morning is creeping in through the studio’s arched windows. Peter looks up from his work. Frank approaches his desk.

“Man, you shoulda come. It was bitchin’ man. Jes’ bitchin.”

There is a story about Peter’s father that his mother has never shared with him. She didn’t think it was important. It happened when Peter was still an infant.

Jerry’s old buddy Will was in the hospital. He was being eaten up by cancer. Everybody knew Will hadn’t much time left. Peter’s father would do Will’s chores and then his own chores and then drive into the hospital to sit with his friend. They would talk about easy things: the weather, the crops, how the high school football team might do this year.

Will was wasting away. He’d been a big lump of a man, but the disease and the chemo had pretty much sucked everything out of him. He could speak only in whispers. It was obvious to everyone that the end was very close. One afternoon, drawing on most of his remaining strength, Will leans over to Jerry and speaks:

“Jerry?”

“Yeah, Will.”

“Things been pretty good haven’t they.”

“Yeah, Will. They been good. Real good.”

“Shit, Jer, that ain’t what I mean. I mean things have been right between us. You know, like we done right by each other?”

“Damn Will,” Jerry says, “you know you always did right by me and more. A damn lot more.”

“All right. All right. I jes’ want to know we’re settled.”

“In spades Will. In spades.”

“Good.” Will speaks feebly. “That’s a comfort ya’ know. A real comfort.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Each man sits quietly for several minutes until Will speaks again.

“You know, Jerry…”

“Yeah, Will?”

“ I’d sure love to see them crops again.”

“They look good, Will. They look real good.”

“Yeah, yeah. I know, but I’d jes like to see it for myself, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. But you gotta stay here till you get better…”

“Jerry…” Will turns ashen. He looks first at his friend and then out the one window of the intensive care unit.

“Jerry. I ain’t getting better. I ain’t ever getting better.”

Will turns back to Jerry and looks up at his friend. Jerry looks away. There is a tear in his eye. Jerry wipes his nose as though it needed it and catches the tear with his red bandana. He glances around. The hospital room is empty. The nurses are away tending to some other patient down the hall. Jerry turns back to his frail buddy. He speaks quietly.

“Look, you don’t say nothing to nobody ‘bout this, you hear.”

Will nods.

Jerry disconnects Will’s IV line. He unplugs the impersonal monitors and instruments that have his friend hogtied. He manages to roll Will off the bed and onto a wheelchair. He slips Will out the back door of the hospital unnoticed and into his pickup truck.

Together, they drive out to Will’s farm, kicking up a roiling cloud of dust in their wake. Will looks out over the countryside. For a moment, Jerry can imagine he and his friend are just out for another ride to see the crops. He imagines they will drive around like old times seeing what there is to see and that afterward, everything will all right again.

Jerry stops the pickup on a ridge overlooking Will’s farm. There’s a crop of corn growing up thick and straight. Jerry opens the passenger door. Using his one good arm, he cradles Will like a sack of grain and carries him out into the field. He gently lays him down in a clearing between two rows of cornstalks. The two men sit for a spell in the shadow of waving leaves and corn silk. Jerry breaks off a stem of brome grass to crew on. He hands another to Will. They sit together for a very long time, not talking about anything.

“Yup, you were right Jerry. Looks to be a real good crop. Real good.”

“Don’t it, Will? Don’t it though?”

It would be past dark before Jerry gets Will back to the hospital. Jerry catches hell from the chief resident. He dismisses the twerp doctor with a shrug and walks away without regret. The next day, Will is dead. This would have been a good story for Peter to have heard. Someday he will.

After another couple of hours, Peter leaves his desk and lies down on the studio sofa. He falls into a deep sleep. He will not know it, but while he sleeps, his friends will drape a placard around his neck. It reads: “Farm Boy Sleeping. Do Not Disturb.”

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