"The forces that shape the natural world — gravity, erosion, material fatigue and subsequent fracture, the smoothing pulse of fluid — are also found within the realm of the body. Veins course through rock, creating weakness but extreme beauty, and our bodies are similarly imperfect, yet perfect. I am mesmerized by that which topples our sense of strength, widens our fissures and defies our ability to heal — it’s real that something terrifyingly small could leave nothing left in one's world but stone."
On the Vein Series.
In 1987, one month after my 16th birthday, a baby disappeared down a well.
Her mother wasn't much older than I was -- only 18 -- and while babysitting 6 other children in Midland, Texas, she'd run inside the house to answer the telephone and left them all playing outside. My youngest sister was almost 2 then; the baby who'd slipped through the 8-inch mouth of a well, Jessica McClure, was 18 months. My dad was a water well driller, as was my grandfather and my uncle. We lived in a dusty desert landscape, probably not unlike West Texas. My parents always dropped everything to answer a business phone that rang in our home, whether at 6 am or noon or 8 pm. I was the neighborhood babysitter. The odd parallels weren't lost on me then, and they aren't now.
For days, we watched rescue efforts broadcast from Midland, and the whole time I imagined my littlest sister's legs forced into the splits 22 feet down a narrow casing, a shelf of crumbling rust and alkali the only thing preventing her from sliding into the soft water 45 feet below. I saw myself leaning over the hole, calling her name while neighbors and strangers descended on our own scrub-filled Nevada yard, women hauling shovels and rope, men wondering where to park a useless backhoe. Could I have done much more than stumble over the generator cables powering floodlights and camera equipment and heaters pumping warm air into the hole? I could envision my dad standing backlit in the night, wearing his blue well-drilling uniform and cap, solving this problem with the expertise of decades of drilling for water. At 16, I could see all this. And I'm sure I judged that teenaged mother for losing her child down a hole barely 2 fists wide because she'd turned her back to answer a stupid telephone.
Nearly 30 years later, I play out this last part the most, because now I have children. I have someone, not just the idea of someone, behind me when I turn my back.
And I do turn it. Every mother does. At some point.
Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes something does.
My family followed the news for the 58 hours it took for mining engineers, firefighters, paramedics, drillers, jackhammer operators, police and other support to finally reach the baby -- the efforts of at least 50 people. I wanted to believe my dad would've been the one to know what to do if he'd stood there in that dusty Texas backyard -- pointing, gesturing, stern and focused above the chaos -- but there in our living room some 1,400 miles away, staring at the television screen with elbows on knees, he didn't have the solution. His rig, an Ingersol-Rand, drilled 6- or 8-inch diameter holes, not wide enough for tools to bring more than mud and water out of the ground. The process wasn't fast enough either -- holes took days or weeks to drill. There would be no rescue with the equipment he had at hand.
If one of his wells never produced water, even I knew he couldn't just leave a hole in the ground like the one the baby fell into. It was illegal in Nevada; anything could contaminate ground water if it seeped far enough. He'd nervously phoned a radio station during this time, gave a local perspective on the dangers of illegal wells, offered to fill and cap them for free, no questions asked. One improperly abandoned well he knew of -- a rusted casing jutting from the ground -- was just a block away from a school bus stop. But no property owners ever contacted him for his help.
Once, after watching an episode of Dallas, I told my dad I hoped he'd strike oil so we could be rich. He had the wrong rig, he'd explained, and besides, the oil would belong to the property owner. Nothing seemed fair about that. Finders keepers. I couldn't picture the differences between oil rigs and water well-drilling rigs then, but I knew what a drill bit was -- it looked like a snake head -- and I knew they were expensive to replace if the hole caved in or if they snapped off at 600 feet.
The mining engineers tried to reach Jessica with a rat hole drill -- used for boring 36- or 48-inch-diameter column holes -- breaking huge drill bits worth thousands of dollars on the prehistoric strata. In the end, they cut through bedrock with high-pressure water, worrying the whole time it might shoot through a small fissure and cut the baby by accident. They finished tunneling to her with pneumatic jack hammers. She sang in the darkness, cried to let rescuers know she was still breathing and gave everyone a reason to think she'd died when she napped for 6 hours.
In interviews, fifteen years after the event, she claimed she didn't remember a thing. But my parents and I still do, and 2 of my 3 sisters who were old enough also remember fragments and shadowy images -- a baby in a hole like Dad drilled, flashes of a young crying mom who blamed herself and that name: Baby Jessica.
None of us had ever had the word "Baby" put in front of our names. It hinted at a fragility that tried hard not to exist in our home. Still, the event in Midland took the ordinariness of our daily lives, the things we knew intimately -- an insistent telephone, holes in the ground, babies, moms and dads and children, the dust and mud of work -- and twisted them all into something strange and deadly and utterly comprehensible to a well-drilling family.*
* * *
Watching the following news clip, now as a mother, touched something far deeper than it did when I was a teenager. Does anyone else remember where you were -- who you were -- when this happened? I wrote about this in 2003 and 2004, thinking I had it all emotionally tidied up in a piece that explored the relationship I had with my father then. Revisiting this scene now, places me on very different ground.
The impulse behind the Vein Series begins to inch closer to a deeper emotional truth about the fragility and strength of stone, of life. These memories are a small part of that larger picture.
*Edited excerpts from the 2004 essay "Lifeline," part of my MFA thesis.
Images are of quartz-veined beach rock in Prince William Sound, Alaska.