Passing the Torch

The barn paddock water froze two weeks ago. This “frost-free” hydrant has frozen every winter since it was installed in 2009. My elderly friend Allen has fixed it countless times, even once bringing a backhoe and his son, digging up the whole thing six feet underground, and resetting it in gravel. It still freezes.

Ten days ago I worked on the hydrant myself. It appeared to me that part of the problem was that it leaks around the piston in the head and the head freezes solid. Fighting the ice, I managed to snap the bolt in the handle — another brief setback. However I scrounged another bolt and on my trip to the big city I bought a fresh heat tape to replace the old dead one. I wrapped the tape up and around the head and for several days I had water.


I was pleased — but wary. From painful experience I guessed this was simply an opening skirmish in the annual Winter Water War.

Sure enough, on Saturday at -20° F the water was frozen again despite the heat tape. When I tried to force the handle, the set-screw that pulls up the piston rod simply scraped off shavings of brass and moved without it. The rod was clearly frozen deep underground.

This happens every winter, and every winter I have called Allen. I kept a stool at the barn for Allen and I have so many memories of him bundled up and sitting patiently in the snow with his propane torch, working on the water. I’m sure we’ve enacted this little story a dozen times.

23565b6e-4541-4fb2-ba25-f5ace12b5886_400But Allen’s health is terribly fragile now. His heart is failing. He is on oxygen and isn’t strong enough to go outside. When I called him to tell him about the frozen hydrant, he said, “You need to buy a torch, honey.”

My heart was heavy. However after carrying twenty 5-gallon, 40-pound buckets of water at morning chores, scrambling over ice and sloshing freezing water down the legs of my coveralls, of course I drove into town and bought the $35 torch.

Allen’s stool had become so rickety by last summer that I’d put it on the burn pile. Yesterday afternoon I sat on an overturned bucket, held the torch to the steel standpipe, and missed Allen. I missed his jokes, his whistling, and his authority that never seemed fazed by any problem.


As usually happens, the cattle came to watch. My cow Katika always spent hours watching Allen at work on an excavator. (“I’m her TV!”) I held the torch, talked to the steers, and missed Allen.


Mike, Leo, and Harvey investigating

I sat and sat.


By the time I quit to go home, I could hear water boiling far down in the pipe but it still wouldn’t flow.

Allen would know what to do. Sigh.

These days it’s hard sometimes, not to get stuck wishing for the past.

5 Responses to Passing the Torch

  1. 💔 I too have an older mentor.

  2. I think I visit here often Selden just to hear of Allen, he could be my brother, my mentor who has been gone now 25 years. He and Allen would be about the same age and I see Allen working so smartly on your land and helping you, and see my brother all over again. Diligent, tough, caring and a little smart ass thrown in.

    Hoping some thawing weather comes your way soon.

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Yes, Allen is very smart, very hardworking, very dear, and “a little smart-ass.” He would love that last comment. 🙂

  3. Erika says:

    Just discovered your blog and enjoyed this post. We too had an “Alan.” His name was Ed. He was a retired builder and he too had a backhoe and dug up many things on our property. He died a number of years ago and we still miss his old Pennsylvania Dutchman knowledge and opinions.

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