Fixing the water

Allen called unexpectedly a few nights ago. “Me and Damon’ll be out there Saturday morning, with a backhoe.  Gonna fix your water.”

Last fall, while digging up the incredibly intricate layout of water and sewer pipes near the garage, Allen had accidentally broken the water line. One last rake of the bucket to flip a boulder out of the way had snapped the 1″ plastic pipe like a piece of string. I’d come back from straining the milk to find him sweating down in the ditch with a shovel. I hadn’t really taken in the problem and was busy focusing to take his picture when Allen turned and saw the camera. He looked a bit wild-eyed. “Write that this is one of Allen’s fuck-ups!

Oops. Probably just as well that this photo was among those lost in the hard-drive crash.

Later that day, Damon, Allen’s son, had shown up to help with a jackhammer on another part of the apartment project. Allen and I had worked all day trying to fix the water.

“Your dad is a bit upset,” I warned Damon.

“What’d he break?” Damon asked mildly.

“Water line.”

The problem was that soil had entered the line at the break. Though we had immediately repaired the pipe, dirt and stones had traveled down the pipe five hundred feet to the hydrant by the barn and clogged it. First the water would not run properly. With the excavator Allen dug up the pipe at the barn, eight feet down. He and I pulled up the hydrant, took it apart and cleaned it, reinstalled it, and covered up the hole. This brought the flow back to full force but now the water would not shut off. No matter what we did, a tiny trickle remained. Allen thought that a rock had damaged the rubber stopper inside the pipe. Time was running out. We had left it, knowing that I would need to re-set the water screw with a wrench every time I used the hydrant.

In December the inevitable had happened. I didn’t turn the water off entirely and the hydrant froze. In the meantime the well company had sent me a box with new hydrant pieces. Allen drove out from town with a propane torch. I set up a stool for him in the snow, and in a fierce wind he thawed the pipe, unthreaded the hydrant, and hauled up the workings. We laid it out on his truck tailgate, replaced the torn rubber stopper, and then put it back together. The water still would not shut off. If anything it was worse.

It was cold and windy and discouraging. We both were wet and half-frozen. Allen had stood staring at the hydrant. I unfolded the paper diagram of its internal workings: “Do you want to look at this?” He waved the paper away and kept staring. I realized that he was taking the hydrant apart, piece by piece, in his mind.

Allen finally decided that part of the old stopper must have shredded off inside the pipe and was preventing the valve from closing. Without an excavator, however, there had been nothing we could do about it. The hydrant was shut down for the winter. Until the ground thawed and we had a machine, I would have to use a hose from inside the barn to fill the water trough.

Now, months later, we were in a deep thaw. On Saturday it was due to hit 80°. Damon was on vacation, and Damon had access to a backhoe. Allen was determined to fix that water line. I’m not sure poor Damon had much choice.

It was great to see them. I’d seen Allen a few times over the winter — I had driven in and shoveled off his roof after the big blizzard — but to me, Allen is hardly himself when he’s not down at the farm, at the controls of some giant machine.

I haven’t worked with Damon as often but I’ve grown very fond of him, too.

Father and son are alike in many ways. Very focused, very reliable, hard workers. Foul-mouthed about small problems — an annoying seat on a machine is a goddamned c—ksucker — but resigned and patient with large ones. Neither one talks much. The major difference is that Allen is usually cracking jokes while Damon has a ferocious scowl. However they both enjoy making fun of me.

(As always, click on any photograph to enlarge.)

It’s fascinating to watch them at work. They are equally gifted with heavy machinery and alert to each other’s smallest hand signal.

At one point I saw Damon lift one finger. I thought to myself, “How is Allen going to see that?” Yet he did.

The ground was saturated with water. Though Damon was digging carefully, the sides of the hole kept collapsing in mudslides and falling in. At one point I yanked Allen back from an edge that fell away under his feet. Meanwhile, despite bailing with the bucket of the backhoe, the bottom of the ditch was deep with slurry.

Obviously I couldn’t let Allen climb down inside an 8-foot-deep mud hole. I climbed down instead and sank into something like cold quicksand.

“Watch that water tank,” said Damon.

I looked up and realized that I was directly beneath the animals’ full water trough — 500 lbs that could crash down on top of me at any moment. Oh, great. It didn’t make me any calmer.

I dug for a minute without making headway. Not only was the rocky gravel hard to move, but it’s tough to dig under water.

“Can’t you pick it up a little?” Allen asked.

“Please,” said Damon. I complimented him on his nice manners. Damon snorted. He explained that please meant hurry up for chrissake!

It was obvious that I wasn’t strong enough. Allen was too fragile. Damon climbed down, making a face at me. He picked up the shovel, and the rocks and mud flew.

Allen got in the backhoe. I am always happier when Allen is up in the cab of a machine. Safe.

From then on, I was completely useless except as an occasional gopher to hand them a ladder, a saw, a wrench, or a propane torch.

The two men pulled up the hydrant and took it apart again. Sure enough — Allen’s diagnosis had been correct. There was a small piece of the old rubber stopper stuck in the pipe. They fished it out. Damon climbed back down into the hole, heated the water pipe with the torch, and reattached it.

Allen refilled the hole.

The excess water sloshed everywhere.

The top foot of the ground was so wet it resembled chocolate pudding. Allen did his best to smooth it out with the bucket.

I kept forgetting and stepping off firm ground into cold sucking mud up to my knees. Damon couldn’t believe it.

“Jesus, ya did it again. What did I tell ya? Stay outta there!”

Allen joked that I should put a flower on top of my hat so if I sank completely they’d know where to look for the body.

Damon rolled his eyes. “Dumb farmer.” This is his fall-back name for me.

They are the best. And the water is fixed. Thank you, Allen and Damon.


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