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They come down from the sky

With nothing else of great importance going on in the world today, this is a good time to renew the old question of how angleworms get in the rain barrel. Perhaps it will be well, first, to review the rain barrel. Time was that every rural home had one or more barrels set up to catch rainwater as it came off a roof. Rainwater was used to save pumping and lugging ground water, particularly in times of drought, but it also had the quality of being ''soft,'' which well and spring waters lacked. Minerals made water hard, and hard water resisted the homemade cast iron cake soaps of the time. We didn't drink rainwater or use it for cooking, but it did the week's wash and was preferred for dishes. And it was dandy for the casual ablutions at the washstand by the back door, where the menfolks tidied before approaching the table. A basin of rainwater, a brisk manipulation of lather, and a hired man would come in all shiny and pinky to commence the table conversation with the usual, ''Please pass the biscuits.'' I have no real need for a rain barrel at this time and in my location, but I keep one by my woodworking shop for old time's sake and I dip the water to help my celery and lettuce in the garden.

Mine is not really a barrel, as were the older ones. It is a cutoff Fiberglas pressure tank from a home water system, sterile and smooth when it comes to angleworms, and it sits a full foot from the building. There is no plausible way an earthworm - angleworm - can get into it on its own. Yet after every rainstorm and shower, my inaccessible rain barrel has worms in it, just as did the long-gone rain barrels of our youth.

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The accepted explanation, in my own youth, was that they ''come down from the sky,'' and this was an end-all sufficiency. I remember one ancient who simply told me it was ''the nature of the beast,'' suggesting I was needlessly questioning a truism and might better pass my time. We had a little sieve dipper on a stick, and removed rain-barrel worms not only because they were unsightly but because they had business at the trout brook. I suspect, right now, that many folks are reading this and nodding at childhood recollections of rain-barrel angleworms, and not one of them can explain where the worms came from to get into a rain barrel.

''Wigglers'' were something else again - we called wrigglers wigglers. After water in a barrel stood a time, mosquito larvae would appear, and no doubt other , similar invaders, and the answer to them was a drop of oil. The oil spread over the surface, taking care of the wildlife, and it didn't hamper the use of the water in tub, pan, and basin. Just a drop. This drop, however, was not enough to control the horsehairs.

Well, I also suspect some reader will insist that rain barrels brought on eels, and that a horsehair which came by accident or design into a rain barrel would transmogrify (there's a word for you, Alice!) into an eel. The facts about the generation of eels are otherwise, but rain-barrel lore should not be pooh-poohed. Somebody, wait and see, will tell how he/she deliberately placed a horsehair from Ol' Tige into a rain barrel and day-to-day watched it become an eel.

As for my Fiberglas modernization of the ancient rain barrel, it is impervious to the decay that attacked wooden barrels. If one contends that earthworms worked into the oak heading of a barrel and then through, my barrel thwarts that. If one contends the old-time worms climbed up the side and fell in , I will advance my doubts that an earthworm can climb a Fiberglas side that even a squirrel couldn't manage. If, as some might contend, my worms slide off the roof in a rain, I suggest my asphalt shingles are not a likely origin. And, I dismiss as ridiculous that somebody sneaks around every rainy night and drops worms in my barrel just to puzzle me. Ponder as you will - things boil down to the only possible explanation - the same one I got as a boy. The things came down from the sky.

Anyway, there they are. Let it rain, and my barrel has angleworms. I can show you. I showed one man this morning, and he said, ''They come down from the sky.'' Since all else is improbable, I guess that's how it must be.