Waiting, Waiting … and Fixing the Water

Katika continues to play to the gallery. Prolong the wait! Intensify the drama! It is a challenge to keep my sense of humor when I’m so tired.

It helped that Allen came out to the farm yesterday. This was his second trip out, after kindly agreeing to fix the water hydrant in my barn.

My “frost-free” hydrant leaked from the head all winter. I’d ignored it because I’d wrapped the pipe with heat tape, which kept it from freezing even though it wasn’t working properly. But with warm weather I had attached a hose — and now the leak was spraying water six feet in all directions the moment I lifted the handle. Being soaked with cold water every time I filled a bucket had become tedious.

Neither of my water hydrants has worked well since they were installed in 2008 by the water company. Over the years Allen has adjusted them, taken them apart, and even dug one out of the ground with a backhoe to fix it. I now know to bring a kitchen stool for him to sit on as he works. He has perched on the stool, tinkering with wrenches, in high wind, in snow, and yesterday in mud.

“Why is it that my hydrants are so crummy and yours have never —” I began yesterday.

“Shhhhh,” Allen said, putting his finger to his lips, obviously hoping I hadn’t alerted the evil hydrant gods.

The first challenge was to remove the head. Taking it apart was complicated by the fact that the water company had installed the indoor hydrant two inches from the wall, and then I’d lined the wall with 3/4″ plywood. There was no room for the bulky steel head to swivel to unscrew. I had visions of not only having to remove the panel but having to take down the adjacent wall of Katika’s stall to do so.

“Maybe not,” Allen said. Using two-foot pipe wrenches as clamps and braces he pulled the standpipe just clear enough of the wall to unscrew the head with a third pipe wrench.

I love to watch workmen tackle a physical problem. I think of myself as a reasonably bright person but in such circumstances I am always aware of my painful ignorance. These men are as fluent with how things fit together as I am with punctuation marks. Allen will stare silently at some balky piece of equipment, taking it apart piece by piece in his mind. I never have the faintest clue what we are doing but simply follow orders.

Finally we had the head off. Allen had surmised that the problem with my hydrant was in the packing. Packing? I wondered, but didn’t question it. We opened the box of replacement parts and Allen stirred it with his finger. At the bottom of the box were crumbs of graphite. It looked like ground-up pencil lead mixed with toothpaste.

“Packing’s broke,” he said.

It was hard for me to understand how in the midst of all the heavy steel and brass parts, crumbs would be important, but I believed him. We put the hydrant back together temporarily and I ordered two new repair kits. (One to keep on hand as a spare.) Yesterday they arrived.

Before I left the store I opened each box. There was the packing (lower left in photo above), a speckly grey, fragile cylinder as soft as cookie dough. I telephoned Allen. By the time I reached the farm, he was already there and had shut down the water.

It took three hours to fix the hydrant. Parts were rusted together and even with both of us pushing giant wrenches in opposite directions, we couldn’t budge them.

“How do you break rust?” I asked.

“Heat. Got a torch?”

No. I’ll have to buy one someday. In the meantime we drove to Allen’s house to get his. While there he also picked up some scraps of pipe to fit over the ends of our wrenches. One piece was four feet long. “That’ll give some leverage,” he said with satisfaction.

Between the propane torch and the leverage, the rusted innards were teased apart in no time. For the next two hours Allen sat on his stool operating on the hydrant, and I sat on my low milking stool, handing him tools as he called for them.

“Scalpel, doctor,” I teased once as I held out a wrench. Allen was frowning in concentration and didn’t look up.

Another time I ventured, “Did your dad teach you how to do all this?”

“No.” Allen doesn’t chatter. I shut up and watched.

Most of his speech was directed at the hydrant, in a muttered stream of swear words under his breath. “C’mon, you bastard.” Not angry, almost conversational.  Since there is never any heat to Allen’s cursing — I’ve never seen him angry — his language never bothers me.  However at one point, yesterday, he did seem a bit frustrated. We had worked straight through lunch and still the problem was unsolved.

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know this would be so hard.”

“What you sorry for?” he asked. “Ain’t your fault.”

He started to whistle and picked up his wrench again. Allen is always kind and patient. Finally by 2 PM it was all done. The hydrant now works perfectly. No leaks anywhere.

But still no calf. Rolling out of bed for the night checks is getting tougher.


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