A top a whisper-quiet drive, up Pumpkin Hill Road in Roseville, rests a farmhouse with a bell operated by the pull of a rope. It echoes over the green expanse of the surrounding land, over the cornfields, over the chicken coup, and down thirty feet into the earth.
The year was 1968, and Alene and Roger York walked around this property, a shell of a house not wired for electricity or running water. It had no insulation, but it was a beautiful home with an unbeatable view of the hills.
Two “old maids,” as it was said, lived in this house before the Yorks. They had a telephone to keep in tune with the village gossip lest they be kept in the shadows. For drinking water they walked outside to a dug well and lowered a bucket down fifteen to twenty feet into the earth and up came fresh, cold water.
Alene took one look at that well and had other plans for it. Before addressing the electrical wiring, before outfitting the house with modern plumbing, before filling the walls with insulation, before all of that, she planned on filling up that well.
All the way to the top.
Because history, as you know, can repeat itself, and she’d be damned if this history repeated itself on her watch to someone who was once as small as she was.
Ida McClure had a hitch in her step, the kind brought on by polio. She limped around her Roseville house tending to the ringer washer for laundry or baking bread for her husband who lorded over their cattle out in the fields.
Draped in her housedress she would, at times, notice someone coming up the driveway, someone looking to buy cattle. She would limp out to the car, past the boarded-up well, and toot the horn. This signaled for Bill, her husband, to come in from the field and broker a deal for one or several of his cattle. Ida would limp back into the house to attack the day’s chores.
A world away on Monday, May 15, 1944, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Winston Churchill, among others, charted plans for an invasion of Omaha Beach on the western shores of France. It would be tough, bloody, costly, but it was necessary and heroes would be made. Meanwhile, 14,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz.
Back home Ida McClure was asked by the Harrises if she wouldn’t mind watching their two daughters, Annie and Alene, since their father Tom’s two- week furlough was over. He was in the Navy so it was back to work, because who knew when the war would end? Louise, the girls’ mother, needed to drive him to the train station in Elmira, and needed Ida to watch the girls.
The girls loved visiting Ida since she let them help in the kitchen, whether it was baking bread or maybe, just maybe, if they were lucky, she’d make her famous chocolate pudding.
The girls arrived and Ida put the laundry through the ringer. She took the damp clothes and limped out to the line to hang them up. Annie, five years old, and Alene, four, ran around to the front yard to play.
On the ground were planks covering the opening to the hand-dug well. The girls had no reason to think the boards unsturdy. Just a few months prior, Annie stood atop those same boards in her Sunday best, her hair braided in two ropes hanging by her head. They hadn’t thought much about what was under it. Ida, meanwhile, her dark hair tightly pulled back, her eyes framed by a smart pair of glasses rested on a button nose, hung up the wet clothes, the girls out of her sight.
Alene ran to the boards atop the well’s opening, about three feet wide, and jumped on the boards. They bent and creaked. Annie ran around while Alene kept jumping on the boards, feeling how her weight bent them just so much. Alene jumped more and the boards snapped and she fell straight down, twenty feet down the narrow opening. She crashed the cold water with a violent splash.
Alene surfaced for air with flecks of wood and dirt and weeds in her white-blonde hair. She found a pipe oil-slick with moisture and grabbed hold. She tried to climb, but slipped down and back into the water. A twenty-foot climb stood above her. The well telescoped the sky. She could see one slice of the sky above and then she saw Annie’s black silhouette looking down on her from on high.
“Hang on to the pipe and I’ll get Ida!” Annie yelled.
Annie ran to the door and banged it hard, rattling the glass. The glass agitated with every pound. “Ida! Ida!” Annie yelled. “Alene fell into the well!”
Ida shook loose from her laundry and left the ringer washer with its high-pitch whirr running all day. She hobbled her polio-broken body to the well with Annie and they both peered down. Alene still clutched onto the pipe. “Hang on, Alene!” said Ida. Alene could only see their black figures still against the sky.
Ida limped over to their car in the front lawn and tooted the horn for her husband to come in from the fields. Then she made for the house and reached for the phone. She cranked the ringer and put the receiver to her ear. She phoned a neighbor, Fritz White, and told him to come with a rope. Ida then moved to the barn as quickly as she could to see if she could find rope there to lower down to Alene.
She couldn’t find a rope in the barn, and her husband still hadn’t responded to her summoning. Fritz White hadn’t arrived either. Ida’s options ran thin.
Alene was losing her grip on the pipe. She didn’t know how to swim; she didn’t know how to tread water. Ida checked down the well and saw Alene slip down the pipe and go under and pop back up like a fishing lure. Ida looked down one more time, twenty feet down into the black. Alene called up to her, “Ida, come down and get me.”
And so she did.
Ida, forty-three years old, a tiny woman with no rope, climbed down the well. She tucked her legs up to her chest and leaned her back against the surface and slowly and methodically made the descent. Foot by foot, she grinded against the fieldstone lining of the well, paying special attention not to slip or knock any stones loose. A four-year-old of very small stature clung to the pipe below her. Alene couldn’t take the impact of a rock falling from that height; she couldn’t take the impact of a woman twice her size falling on her. So Alene waited as she watched Ida worm her way down twenty feet till she could feel the cool air buffering the water’s surface.
Ida reached Alene and Alene figured she’d try and help Ida with the climb. “You just hang on. Put your arms around my neck and put your feet and legs around,” Ida said. “I will do the climbing. You just hang on to me and I will do the climbing.”
Ida looked up as Alene koala-ed on her back. Ida grabbed hold of the pipe and dug her feet into the wall. She looked up to the slice of sky and made the climb.
Foot by foot she crept up the pipe with water dripping off Alene’s slight but strong little body, hanging on. Ida was within sight of the rim when Bill returned from the field. Ida reached the surface and Bill grabbed Alene, relieving Ida of this weight. Bill then grabbed Ida and pulled her out of the well.
Ida McClure, drawn and exhausted, fainted.
Ida came to and took a heavy quilt and tightly wrapped it around Alene. Alene rocked in her chair, back and forth, singing, “Jesus loves me. Jesus loves me.”
Fritz White, the farmer Ida had called for a rope, ambled up to her house with a pitchfork, but no rope. It was too late anyway. Ida had already made the climb and pulled Alene out of the well.
Ida placed a call to the girls’ parents, to see if they had left yet. They hadn’t. “Leave a couple minutes early,” Ida said.
“Is everything okay?” they asked.
“Yeah, everything’s okay.” Everything’s okay now, she must have thought.
Alene looked out of the house and saw her father and Bill looking at the well. Bill knew where there was an old gravestone that could work as a cover. He grabbed a chain and hooked the gravestone to his tractor. He hauled it over to the well.
Tom was in his Navy uniform, ready to head to the train station. Before he left he helped Bill situate that gravestone. Before the gravestone was in place, Tom squatted down and looked over the edge, down into the well, where his daughter had hung onto the pipe, where Ida put Alene on her back and made the climb.
Alene never felt afraid while it was happening. She never realized the weight of the moment. She fell. She was wet. She told Ida to come get her. Ida came and got her.
Alene might be at the grocery store with her mother and somebody would approach them and say, “Oh, is this the little girl that fell in the well?” Alene would cross her arms on her stomach, perhaps getting butterflies, and would start rocking back and forth like she had with the heavy quilt on her shoulders, her hair still wet from the well.
Around 1980, Roseville hosted an Old Home Day and a local talent show. The theme that year was to highlight things that had happened in the past.
“One of the skits was our story, and Ida was there,” Alene says.
Alene had tried over the years to award Ida with a Carnegie Medal for her heroism that day on May 15, 1944. She petitioned for Ida to get the recognition she deserved. She was every bit the hero the soldiers were overseas. Ida deserved to feel the weight of a medal around her neck signifying the weight she carried from below the earth.
Maybe if there wasn’t a war overseas Ida would have been recognized for her hometown heroism. Instead it would have to come from Alene herself.
Alene had a gold medal made with their names on it and the date, and they awarded it to Ida.
Not too long after the Old Home Day and the skit reenacting the rescue, Ida suffered a stroke and died. She was seventy-seven. She was buried with her medal in the Roseville Cemetery. A year later, in 1982, her husband Bill was laid beside her.
The Crums lived next to the American Truck Stop restaurant. Twenty-four years ago, a seven-year-old boy, Erik Crum, disappeared. Erik went out to play after dinner and never returned. He couldn’t have gone too far, yet nobody could find him, this T-ball loving, Nintendo-playing child. Nobody knew, or was aware, of the old well behind the American Truck Stop restaurant next to their house.
Several days later Erik was found at the bottom of the well.
Nobody knew the danger more than Alene. She had had the well on her property filled. She once looked across the street to her neighbor’s land and saw another well. The man said he had it filled.
Alene knew the boy’s grandmother and she wrote her a letter. Alene remembers the boy’s funeral was on May 15th. “I’m celebrating my life on the day of him being buried,” she wrote. Twenty-four years later, it still brings tears to her eyes.
Alene recalls much of her story with tear-glazed eyes. Her grandchildren play in her house, no longer a shell, long ago wired for electricity and piped with running water. The dirt has settled four feet down the well, but it has a fresh wall around it. A squirrel would have a hard time falling down there.
Alene’s kitchen smells of baked bread, just as Ida’s would have when she babysat the girls back in the 1940s. Alene’s grandson reads and writes letters. Her granddaughter Lena empties the toy box and plays the piano. She is four years old with blonde, wavy hair. She is the same age Alene was when she fell.
“How would Lena react?” asks Alene. “I was thinking that.”
Alene’s memory of her day in the well is still high-definition sharp. It hasn’t dulled over the years. She thinks of Ida all the time. She used to visit Ida from time to time on her way back from work just to stay in touch. If it wasn’t for Ida maybe Alene wouldn’t be here seventy years later. Had Annie been running around elsewhere, she may have missed Alene’s fall and thought nothing of it. Maybe Alene ran around back? Oh, she’ll turn up.
Alene went on to marry and have three children of her own. Her two grandchildren eating steaming-fresh baked bread with butter smeared to a thin skin wouldn’t be here were it not for Ida McClure.
There was never any doubt that Ida would go down into the well. Her action echoes through three generations.
It all started twenty feet below the earth’s crust, telling a little girl to hang on tight.
Just hang on. I will do the climbing.