fountains of youth

No, it’s not a spigot. Don’t care what your spell check says: It’s a spicket. That ungraceful, unlovely outside faucet — often inconveniently located behind shrubbery — is nevertheless essential to life. Because the spicket is the source of life-giving water, in gushes and drips.

Conquering the spicket handle is one of the first triumphs of childhood, right up there with learning left from right: Once you grasp lefty loosey, righty tighty, not only can you get yourself a drink without going inside, but you’ll also take this skill into the wider world, mastering ketchup bottles and pickle jars. All thanks to the humble spicket, whose ridged, gridded, unyielding handle left dents and red imprints on your palm as you wrestled with its intractability.

Intractable, because your brother had twisted the handle tightly to thwart your thirst, and to make sure you couldn’t fill up water balloons. A spicket is made for water balloons. The metal mouth is just the right size, and the screw rings grip a balloon’s stem almost as well as they hang on to hose nozzles.

Childhood summers in North Carolina pretty much revolved around a spicket, and they still do. You’d screw on the hose and spray each other. You’d call your sister over to help you with the spicket, and as she leaned over to examine the problem, you’d press your thumb to the opening, drenching her with the spray. When she went to tattle, you’d collapse laughing, knowing your mother would never come outside to scold you, because summer outside is lawless.

My grandmother’s spicket in Walnut Cove stuck out of the lawn on a metal pipe, about knee high. We’d pull the wading pool right underneath that spicket to fill it, no need for a hose. Then we’d lie on our backs and turn on the water, which cooled our foreheads and scalps.

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Spickets are for filling water guns, watering cans, and the dog’s bowl. For washing the slivers of grass from your bare feet after you’ve run through the just-mowed lawn. For rinsing paintbrushes and trowels and shells, and cleaning red clay off the bottom of your sneakers. For washing the car, and filling the Mason jar for field-picked flowers. Hunters and fishermen from Morganton to Morehead City: You’d best clean your game, your fish, and your equipment at the spicket, not at the kitchen tap. Trust me on this.

The little black circles that pop up at the edges of lawns like gophers? Those are not spickets. They are “irrigation systems,” and they bear no resemblance to the unpretentious spicket. In Rutherfordton, my parents eventually had a pool put in our backyard. Our well, though, didn’t pump enough water per minute to fill it. The solution? A spicket, of course. Inch by inch, to a 10-foot depth beneath the diving board, our pool was filled via a dozen connected hoses attached to a single spicket at our neighbor’s house, a half-mile through the woods. The spicket: Lowly in location, but essential in function.

Make a vow to take a drink from a spicket sometime soon. Just remember that it takes time for small hands to master the handle, so if you please, leave it a wee bit lefty loosey.

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Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.