Raise the Pump Handle

The informant is my father, John Michael Rayburn, born in 1957 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He spent his childhood in Dell City, a suburb to Oklahoma City, before graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in business. His parents are both from Arkansas.

In this piece, my father talks about the folk speech “raise the pump handle”, which is a way to cure a bad cough.

Dad: When I was a kid, back in the mid 60’s, we would go on vacation in Arkansas. We’d go to my grandmother’s house, and she was still living in this small house out in the country.

Me: Wasn’t everything in Arkansas in the mid 60’s the country?

Dad: Basically, yeah, yeah. But when we’d be eating and one of the kids, one of my cousins or some kid that was just staying over, started coughing my grandmother or one of my aunts would say “raise the pump handle”. Then they’d raise one of your arms up over your head and you’d stop coughing.

Me: So, what’s “raise the pump handle,” mean?

Dad: The pump handle they referred to was the hand pump that would draw water up from the well that was dug in my grandmother’s back yard. This was how they’d get water. It was this long, wooden handle that when you raised the pump handle this nice, cold, clear water would come out of the well. So they’d say “raise the pump handle,” and you’d raise your arms up and it would open the airway and help whatever was causing the cough. I’m sure all of my cousins have used this saying with their grandkids.

Me: This is the first I’m hearing of it.

Dad: Oh, I just thought coughing would help you build character.

Me: Who are you? The dad from Calvin and Hobbes?

[Dad Laughs]

Dad: I guess so, yeah. Anyways, I don’t know how long that was a saying, but the first time I heard it was from my grandma in the 1960’s.

My dad really likes these kinds of sayings, and has always used them as I’ve been growing up. I believe that he likes using them because it gives him something unique a lot of other people don’t have, and when other people knows this obscure reference then it means they have something in common. My dad, as long as I’ve known him, has never been afraid to be exactly who he is. Using such an odd and little known metaphor is something that I think connects him to his past and where he’s come from, and has no shame in where he’s come from.