Saturday, June 21, 2014

Water towers I have known and feared

Flushing, MI's infamous "smiley face water tower." Photo (obviously) by someone named Bruce Larkin.

Childhood is a rich, flavorful stew of unresolved fears. I had a relatively uneventful upbringing, and yet when I cast my mind back to those early days, what rises to the surface more readily than anything else is the terror I felt at being so small and in a world that was so strange and often unwelcoming.

The town where I did most of my growing up was called Flushing, MI, and one of its few really distinctive features was a bright yellow water tower with a giant smiley face painted on it. We all called it (get this) the Smiley Face Water Tower, and although it was intended as cute and whimsical, it inspired within me a deep and restless dread. Why? Those eyes, man! Those unblinking, soulless eyes, always staring at you!

I first saw the SFWT at the age of six, and in retrospect it was probably the closest thing Flushing had to a life-size replica of the Lord God Almighty. As it happens, old Smiley has a peripheral but still-significant place in popular culture, as evidenced by this 2004 write-up on the Roadside America website. A contributor named Dan McGraw reports:
There's a smiley face water tower in Flushing, MI. It got painted that way around the Bicentennial and occasionally gets repainted with the same design. For reasons I'm not sure of, it got nicknamed "Kick-boy-Face" by the local early punk rockers, and it kinda stuck. It has a drainage pipe that runs top to bottom, and it makes an awesome echo if you yell into it.
McGraw also says that there is a similar tower in the movie Natural Born Killers but does not specify whether it's actually the one from Flushing. (There are apparently many such towers in the United States.)

I have a couple of further comments to make about McGraw's review of the monument. I lived in Flushing for twenty years -- 1981 to 2001 -- and I never heard anyone call this tower "Kick-boy-Face." Not once. It was always the Smiley Face Water Tower. Moreover, during those two decades, I never noticed that Flushing had any sort of burgeoning punk rock scene. And if the tower's drainage pipe was particularly famous, I didn't know about that either. Mr. McGraw may be correct on all these points; his account just doesn't align with my own personal memories of the Smiley Face Water Tower.

What I recall was simply a giant, canary-colored monolith with a painted-on grin. As for its precise location, that's trickier to sort out. Flushing had at least two big water towers, and I seem to remember that the SFWT was near enough to my school that I could stare up at it from the playground. These could be false memories, though.

A quick Internet search reveals that there is indeed a water tower very near my alma mater, Springview Elementary ("Home of the Sharks"), but whether it's the infamous SFWT is impossible to tell. There's a Google Maps photo of the tower here, but it's taken from an angle that almost cruelly obscures the design. It looks like it certainly could be the one, but I'm not placing any bets on it.
UPDATE: A former classmate of mine, Denise Mercer Blackwell, has informed me that the SFWT was, in fact, the one next to the elementary school and provides this incredible anecdote, via Facebook: "It was across from the school. I remember in 6th grade Mr. D [that's Mr. Dumler, our sixth grade homeroom teacher during the 1986-1987 school year. - J.B.] had to shut the blinds because someone was on top of it, evidently going to jump, and we could not pay attention for all the emergency vehicles. I never look at that water tower without thinking of that day." I must admit, I had totally blacked that out of my memory. Thanks, Denise!

Daddy Long Legs or robot camels?
While Smiley loomed largest in my nightmares, I had a general fear of water towers when I was a kid. I was quite the Star Wars fan back then, and for some reason the towers reminded me of the heavily-armed All Terrain Armored Transports (aknown as AT-ATs or Walkers) used by the villains in The Empire Strikes Back. The animated TV show Family Guy referred to these fearsome machines as "robot camels" during its 2009 Empire spoof entitled "Something, Something, Something, Dark Side," but the Transports looked more like giant Daddy Long Legs to me. At least, that's how I saw them back then.

Anyway, a persistent fantasy/worst case scenario of mine in those days was that all the water towers of the world would spontaneously come to life one day and start stalking the earth on those long, spindly legs of theirs, crushing everything in their path and causing widespread destruction and panic among the citizenry. I pictured people running and screaming as they were being chased by the now-ambulatory water towers, which moved with a horrendously loud mechanical screeching, their footsteps landing on the ground with the weight of circus elephants.

Smiley, of course, would be leading the charge. Perhaps that was why he'd been grinning smugly all those years. He was just biding his time, waiting for the day when he and his water tower brethren could finally get revenge on their dreaded human oppressors.

Funny how kids think, isn't it?


  1. Your water tower-related fantasy is like a cross between H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds and Maximum Overdrive. We should work on that idea and pitch it to Griffin Mill.

    1. Honestly, I realized that this scenario still terrifies me. For real. Shameful, I realize.