Two members of the Snake River Water District cautiously approached an old log cabin and knocked on the door, waiting patiently for the noise of movement within. A dubious old man opened the door and demanded to know their business. In his hands he held a shotgun.
“Excuse me sir, my name is Reynolds and this is Joe Shaw, we are with the Water District. May we have a moment of your time?”
The shotgun edged toward them. “Are you folks from the government? I don’t cotton to G-Men.”
Reynolds shook his head. “No sir, not really. You see, we are dam inspectors.” As he spoke, he pointed at the enormous dam stretching across the horizon.
“Sounds like government men to me. I don’t rightly care if you are dam inspectors or not. I get government men back here all the time, harassing me for all manner of business.”
Reynolds was a patient man, he had delt with backwoods people most of his life and he could appreciate their skepticism. In fact, he truly admired country folk for their wit and sensibility. He decided to humor the old man for a moment. “What types of government men come to see you?”
The old man rolled tobacco in his jaw and spat into a spittoon next to a rocking chair, narrowly missing Shaw’s fancy hiking boots. “Well, some ten or twenty years ago, the Census Bureau showed up asking questions.”
“What kind of questions?” Reynolds liked the old man and enjoyed chatting with him.
“You see, he starts off by saying, ‘the US Government has sent me all the way back here to find out how many people live in the United States.’ I told him that I was sorry that he came all the way back here, ‘cause I couldn’t say. Then I helped him find his way back to the highway when he kept on badgerin’ at me.” He cocked his head over at Shaw and inadvertently tilted the shotgun towards him. Shaw swallowed hard. “You ain’t from these parts, are you, Fancy Boots?”
Shaw looked down at the old man. “No! I live in…”
Reynolds jumped in, stealing a sour glance at Shaw. “We both work for the Water District.” Reynolds turned his attention back to the old man. “I’m sorry that folks have been pestering you for nonsense like that, but we aren’t with the government. Like I said, we are dam inspectors.”
“Is that so?” He lowered the shotgun and demanded. “So what’s your business with me?”
“I’m glad you asked. We’ve been looking the dam over and believe that it will bust loose, and very soon, I might add.” He pointed over at the center of the dam. “See that bulge there in the middle?”
He peered past them.. “It’s been there for more than three years.”
Together, the men turned and looked at it as if he were presenting new evidence to consider.
“Yes, sir. But I still believe that the dam will break any day now.”
“Well, what about it?”
“Your cabin lies in the flood plain.”
“Flood plain,” the old man repeated.
Joe Shaw decided to wade into the conversation. “The flood plain is where the water will go when the dam bursts.” His accent caused him to say, boist. “Your house will be washed away.”
The shotgun lifted at him. “Listen here, Sonny. I ain't as stupid as you look. It just so happens that I have an engineering degree from Harvard. So don’t speak unless you are spoken to, understand?” Shaw swallowed again and nodded in approval. “Now then, where were we? Oh yeah, my house was about to wash away into parts unknown.”
Reynolds continued after a repeated dirty look at Shaw. “Correct. I believe that the dam is very weak and will loose its integrity in a few days. The bulge has been growing daily for the last week and we are organizing an evacuation as we speak.”
“Is that a fact? Well, it just so happens that I don’t believe you.”
“You don’t?” Reynolds was surprised.
“Why not?” Shaw was met with the shotgun again and he backed up a few steps to better safety. This time the old man missed when he spit at the cuspidor and splattered Shaw’s boot.
“No sir, if you really believed your own story, you wouldn’t be here talking to me. You would be running to safety.”
“You have a good point, but you missed one fact.”
“Duty? The shotgun lowered. What in tar-nation does duty have to do with anything?”
“As a fellow American, it is my duty to point out any dangers to our citizens and issue fair warning of an impending disaster. I wouldn’t even have honor if I simply ran away without sounding the alarm.”
The shotgun was almost pointing at the floor now. “Nope, you ain’t with the government, that’s for sure. All right, you’ve said your piece, now move on.”
“But sir, I’m here to help you evacuate. What good is it for me to warn you about danger without offering you a solution to the problem? I want to save you if I can.”
The old man shook his head. “Won’t be necessary. I ain’t leaving.”
“Do you mind if I ask why not?”
“Yes!” He shouted, then he sighed. “Look, I’ve lived right here in this spot for my entire life. I'm too old to change now. Heck, it’s probably too late for me anyway. I live to far away from safety; I’m too close to the dam. It’s too late.”
“It’s never too late to be saved from destruction.”
“Maybe so, but if I leave, I will loose everything I have.”
“Ah, but there’s good news!” Reynolds was excited. “Because of the danger and the liability, the Snake River Water District will move you to a brand new house, at no cost to you.”
“Brand new…” he mulled it over for a moment. “Nope. I ain’t in the habit of accepting charity.”
“But sir, it’s not charity. And, there are no strings attached. You can take your old life here and turn it into a brand new one, just over there.” He pointed up river behind the dam, beyond the impending danger.
The old man shook his head. “Thanks, but no.”
“Please sir! I’m begging you! Don’t be a fool!”
The shotgun lifted again. “It’s my choice as to whether or not I want to be a fool. Besides, that old dam has held up for years. It will probably last to the end of my life.”
Dejected, Reynolds and Shaw turned and started walking away. “Well, you tried, we aren’t accountable for him anymore,” Shaw mused.
“Maybe so, but that doesn’t change the way I feel about my mission. Come on, there are more people who live down by the dam.”
Shaw glanced over his shoulder. “We need to get out of here. That dam will blow any minute.”
Reynolds nodded. “And we have a lot of people to save before it’s too late.”
On the front porch, sitting in his rocker, the old man studied the dam and the large bulge that protruded from it near the center. “It will probably hold. It always has.”
25 March 2003