Through the wringer
Monday – wash. Tuesday – iron. As we grew up in rural South Dakota in the fifties and sixties, Mom adhered to the daily chore traditions whenever possible. Before automatic clothes washers and dryers, doing the family laundry required planning and physical labor.
Monday mornings we often found our mother sorting dirty clothes into small piles on the kitchen floor. The assemblage began with whites and graduated to light colors, brights, darks, and finally jeans and overalls, the order matching the degree of grime.
Once batches were determined, Mom tugged her revered Maytag washer from its resting place in front of the window in the porch and positioned it in the middle of the narrow room. Directly behind the washer she placed a sturdy wooden bench, which held the galvanized tub for the rinse water. An old chair sat next to the rinse tub. There the vinyl-lined apple basket waited for the clean, squeezed-out laundry.
The washer was a large metal tub on four legs with wheels. Above sat the wringer, which consisted of two hard, black, rubber rollers housed in a dome that swiveled 360 degrees. A flexible drainage hose extended from the bottom of the tub and hooked onto the upper side. On top of the roller housing, a propeller-like bar twisted on an axis to loosen or tighten the rollers. A metal shield extended above them that could release the roller tension if a bulky item got stuck. A lever on the upper left side set the rollers turning either forward or reverse. Extending the same flat trigger away from the machine unlocked the wringer unit, allowing it to turn in a complete circle to enable wringing over vessels all around it. A small, red button, the agitator switch, protruded from the front.
Hardware in place, Mom began the process of hauling water buckets. It took several trips from the kitchen sink to fill the washer tub with hot water. The hinged cover on top remained open until the tub was full. Mother then filled the rinse tub with cold water.
She dumped a measure of white powder into the open machine, closed the cover, and pulled out the red agitator button; hot suds awaited the first load. Our mom preferred the detergent in the big yellow box. She said it kept whitey-tidies bright. For a time, she switched to the soap in the red box. Could be the Tide formula suffered a temporary lapse. Could be the whitey-tidies were not so dirty. Whatever the reason, our kitchen cupboard soon overflowed with sparkling new tableware. A 22K trimmed plate, cup, saucer, or glass with a wheat design came free in each box of Duz detergent.
Mom carried the first load to the washer and let those items agitate a few minutes. After starting the wringer, she fished out the clothes, one item at a time, and carefully placed it between the rollers, which pulled it through while squeezing out excess water. The items plopped into the clear rinse water in the tub on the other side of the machine and waited to be swished around, then run through the wringer again, this time landing in the clothesbasket.
When the last pair of dirty overalls had been scrubbed, rinsed, and wrung into the basket, Mom unhooked the hose and held it over a bucket to empty the murky water. Wash and rinse water were dumped outside.
When my sisters and I helped, Mom stood by, always with the warning, “Don’t get your fingers in the wringer.” Over time, hundreds of socks and undies swirled through that old Maytag.
All went well until a stranger attempted wash day. It is ridiculous to consider a cold, hard wash machine anthropomorphic. Such a gadget cannot exhibit human characteristics! We discovered later that Herbie was vengefully loyal to our mother.
One Saturday in late October, Dad got very sick and needed to go to the hospital. Mom was desperate. The only person she could reach who could be there in less than an hour and stay with the kids was Grandpa’s eccentric friend who had moved from Chicago. We quickly learned that Horace tolerated no nonsense. His philosophy rang clear: children were to be seen, not heard.
Monday morning as we left for school, Horace was muscling Herbie into washing position, muttering something about “If a woman can do it…” The trouble began, Horace recounted later to Grandpa, when a long white towel wound back around the roller and twisted so badly, he could not find the beginning or end. Growing impatient, he thrust the bottom of a cotton shirt into the washer. As the sleeve approached the rollers, a huge pocket of water squirted out, directly into Horace’s glasses. Deciding that was the last wrinkle, the codger roughly engaged the release lever for the roller arm. It spun around and crashed into the porch window! Lightning-like cracks radiated from center to corners.
That night as we sat around the supper table eating silently, a car drove into the yard. Six kids charged outside, thrilled to have Mom and Dad home. As we headed back to the house, Horace rushed out. Pushing long arms into coat sleeves, he brushed by, strode to his car, fired up the engine and spun out the driveway. He didn’t bother to say goodbye or explain the broken window.
That was probably just as well; Dad and Herbie would have put him through the wringer!
(DeAnn Kruempel grew up on a farm near De Smet, S.D., the sixth child of Harrison and Mabel Wolkow. DeAnn attended school at Erwin and De Smet, married Vicar Robert Kruempel, and lived in Benedict, N.D., Toeterville, Akron, and Missouri Valley. The author resides on an acreage near Logan and is employed as Children's Librarian at Missouri Valley Public Library. DeAnn has written a series of books, four published so far with a fifth to come out soon, "Promises to Keep," which are available at Amazon.com.)