How Mortimer Saved the Baby in the Well
Circa May, 1947
In the late 40's and early 50's the Koontz clan held a family reunion every year in May. Because of the number of people in all the related families, the farm house was not large enough to support such a gathering. Therefore, the event was held at the Orwell School House, located on the corner of a section of land adjacent to the Koontz property.
This years' event was the first time that all of the Koontz clan was able to attend -- about 95 people in all. On this bright, sunny day, there were Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, Nephews, Nieces, and a few of dubious lineage -- at least as far as the Koontz grandchildren were concerned. There was also the usual assortment of animals: dogs, cats, and even a pig on a leash. Iris and Roy also had two tame skunks (well, mostly tame), but the skunks had not been invited.
Many of the Koontz children had gone to Orwell school. Grades one through eight were taught here, each grade having between one and 10 pupils. The school building itself was a single story square brick structure about 40 feet on a side. It stood on 3 acres of land, most of which served as a playground during recess periods. At the inside corner of the fenced lot was an old well, long since covered over with timbers to prevent an accidental fall into the 110 foot deep abyss. A new well, closer to the school house and powered by a large hand pump, had been dug in 1939. It was the current source of cold, pure, wonderfully delicious drinking water.
As people began arriving, cars parked in front of the school on both sides of the gravel road. One pickup truck brought in a trailer full of soft drinks and ice, and of course, in order to get the trailer positioned properly on the shady side of the building, a lot of loud barking by the dogs was required, with Mortimer leading the pack.
As more and more of the family arrived, little groups of people started to form. Some of the men were setting up a croquet game; others just sat and talked or smoked. The women were busy inside the school house setting up a picnic feast: fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and plenty of potato salad.
Children were laughing and running around completely out of control, including a couple of toddlers, and several pre-schoolers as well as maybe 12 grade school kids. Even some of the new babies seemed to be having a good time. Some of the grade schoolers hadn't seen each other in a year, and in order to prove who was the most macho, decided to have a contest to see who could drink the most bottles of pop, there being no parental limit imposed today.
No one noticed as Jessie, an independent-minded toddler headed toward the far corner of the schoolyard - and the old well.
The ringing of a large dinner-bell finally announced that it was time to eat. Some of the women began rounding up the smaller children. One woman, after walking around the school house twice, came running into the main eating area.
"I can't find Jessie. Has anyone seen Jessie?" she said, almost in tears.
In an instant the whole mood of the group changed. Upon hearing the note of alarm in the woman's voice, Mortimer, who had been clowning around outside, shifted immediately into his deadly serious mode. While everyone began searching in and around the school house, and in the parked cars along side of the road, Mortimer, in ever widening arcs, began searching the tall grass behind the school.
Mortimer was almost at the edge of the school yard, and about to switch to another tactic when he caught the scent - a human scent coming from over there. Oh no, Mortimer thought, the old well! And then he heard the baby crying. As he approached, he noticed a 6 by 12 inch hole in the timbers that had been placed there years before. The timbers are rotten, he thought. Got to be careful. Mortimer tried to get close enough to look down into the well, but at that moment, his weight caused two more of the timbers to collapse. Mortimer jumped back, but not fast enough. As he tumbled headlong into the well, the remaining timbers covering the well fell away, dropping 110 feet straight down into frigid water.
But Mortimer did not fall very far. For reasons known only to the original well diggers, there was a semi-circular shelf only 5 feet below the ground surface. Both Mortimer and the baby had been lucky to land on this shelf, while most of the debris fell past the shelf and into the darkness below. Mortimer looked up and saw that there was now a 2 by 3 foot hole where the timbers had been.
Mortimer started barking like he had never barked before. He would bark for a full minute, then listen for a minute, then resume barking. During one rest period, he realized that the baby had no concept of the danger they were in -- the baby kept trying to crawl over Mortimer. Had Mortimer allowed that, the baby would have fallen the remaining hundred or so feet into the well. Every time the baby tried to crawl over Mortimer, Mortimer grabbed him by his diaper and pulled him back to relative safety.
Over at the school house panic was mounting by the minute. One of the grade school kids, Mike, was trying to get his Dad's attention.
"I saw Mortimer go over by the old well, but he disappeared."
But Uncle Ed was not listening.
"Dad, you know that old well you told us not to go near?"
But his dad still wasn't listening. A couple more attempts to communicate, then the boy gave up.
But at that very moment Uncle Ed's eyes narrowed; he leaned down and said,
"What did you say, son?"
"Dad," the boy said, "the old well. I saw Mortimer go over there, and he just dropped out of sight. I'm afraid he fell in.
Before he could finish the sentence, Uncle Ed was half way across the yard. From ten feet away, he could see the gaping hole in the ground, and he thought, "Oh please God, don't let Jessie be down there!"
Then he heard Mortimer barking. Sensing the danger, he lay down in the tall grass and slowly inched his way to the edge of the well, where he could see both Mortimer and Jessie precariously perched on the ledge. Oh my God! He watched with mounting horror as Jessie tried to crawl over Mortimer. Mortimer quit barking as soon as he saw that someone had arrived. He grabbed the baby by his diaper and again, pulled him back from the edge.
By now, Uncle Ed had backed away from the well, and was motioning for help. As people approached, he held out his arms to stop them from coming any closer. He explained what had happened. A few of the women were crying, and most of the men had taken off at a run to get ropes, chains, buckets, or anything else they could find in their vehicles.
Someone showed up with a ladder, but it was quickly decided that the ledge might not withstand the additional weight of a man on a ladder. What to do? Uncle Doc came up with the idea. He jumped into his jeep and drove it through a deep ditch and to within 20 feet of the well. He left the vehicle in low gear, but shut the engine off and locked the emergency brake.
Meanwhile Uncle Paul had found a heavy rope in his truck. One end of the rope was tied to the rear axle of the jeep while the other end was securely tied to the top rung of the ladder. It was tricky lowering the ladder into the well, but a method using other small ropes proved to work. The ladder, now hanging just by the rope, extended a few feet below the ledge. Several men volunteered to go down, but Uncle Doc insisted he would go, saying he was the most fit, because of his Boy Scout activities.
The rope stretched and the ladder moved a little bit lower as Uncle Doc transferred his weight to it, but it held. At this point a ring of people on their bellies around the perimeter of the well was watching the operation.
Everyone held their breath as Uncle Doc carefully climbed down to the level where Mortimer and Jessie were. Jessie was still trying to climb over Mortimer toward the edge of the shelf, and this time Mortimer let him, only he kept a firm grip on Jessie's diaper with his teeth, just in case. Uncle Doc reached out and picked up Jessie in the crook of his right arm, and carefully made his way back up the ladder. At the top, someone took Jessie to his relieved mother.
Mortimer got out OK too. Uncle Doc tied a rope around Mortimer's chest and he was lifted out of the well, none the worse for wear except for a scratched nose. The reunion continued, but at a much subdued level. A few days after this incident, the old well was completely filled by 22 5-ton truck loads of aggregate.
For his part in the rescue, Mortimer was given praise heaped upon praise, and was given as many hamburgers as he could eat.
Circa May, 1947
Carl M. Fox
Copyright © 1947-2011