Milk House Water

The road split our farm in half, house on one side, barn on the other. Crossing was a dangerous game. Lying in our beds at night, we would often hear the thump of body against machine, soft tissue crushed beneath hard rubber, and we knew some animal had passed to the other side.

In the morning we children would gather our mangled cats and bloodied dogs, and we shook our fists at the traffic that would not slow. We tried to save those we could, but mostly we buried them in the soft dirt beneath the grape arbor. We said funeral masses and listened for the carillon bells from the local church three miles away. If we heard the bells, we took it as a sign that God approved of what we’d done.

Water PipeWhen we were old enough, we were allowed to stop traffic on that busy highway. Twice a day we moved the cattle from one side of the road to the other. We took the red flags our mother made and walked out into the road and waved our flags and wasn’t that a powerful thing. The tractor-trailers had to stop, as did the cars, school buses, and trucks. My father, worried about those trucks, fashioned a sign he put up just below the crest of the hill: CATTLE CROSSING AHEAD. Trucks, loaded heavy, needed extra stopping time, he said.

We kept the flags stuck in the fence post on either the house or the barn side of the road. We laughed to see shiny new cars weave around the piles of fresh manure the cattle dropped as they walked lazily across the highway.

There were wells on both sides of the road. The one on the barn side was a shallow, hand-dug affair, never reliable, contaminated with ground water, unsafe to use for cleaning the milking equipment, surely not good for the cows to drink.

The summer I was ten it went dry. So did the stream that wound through the lower meadow below the barn. The pasture on the house side was gone by then, too, burnt out by close-cropping and drought.

Milk production dropped. Six cans of milk dwindled to four and then to three. The cattle were thirsty. My father began hauling water from the well outside the yard to the watering trough on the other side of the road. He filled the empty milk cans and loaded them onto the wagon and drove them across the road, again and again and again.

The cattle would stand at the fence next to the milk house, bawling, wanting to cross over to the house side of the road, graze in the pasture there, and drink from the cement trough beneath the apple tree. Water was plentiful there, sometimes running over the top and down the sides so it formed a mud hole in the driest parts of the summer. The cattle never minded. Their muzzles would drip when they raised their heads and then they’d drink some more.

It was an artesian well, my father said. The man who drilled it twenty years before had somehow tapped into an underground source below the aquifer so the water rose to the surface of its own accord. No matter how severe the drought, this well would not fail.

The rains did not come and he began to wonder if there might be some way to get water from the artesian well to the barn and milk house. He could haul water until the drought ended, move the cattle to the house side if necessary, but it was only a matter of time until the milk inspector required clean running water in the milk house.

Somehow, my father decided, he had to get a pipe under the road. But how?

It can’t be done, my mother said. The road was twenty feet wide. Beneath the macadam surface was a bed of rock.

Yes, there was rock, my father agreed, but he’d have to lay the pipe below the frost line anyway. This was limestone country. Farther south, below the Mason Dixon line, there was granite, but in this part of Pennsylvania you were more likely to find limestone beneath the topsoil. Limestone was soft. It tended to crumble. It might just be possible to drive a pipe under the road, and get it deep enough that it would not freeze.

Why not dig a trench across the road? Apply to the county, or the state? Get a permit, dig a trench, lay the pipe, fill in the trench.

Had my mother forgotten about those three milk cans, filled with water now instead of milk, water that splashed out onto the road when my father hauled them across? If there was no money to dig a new well to replace the old one, there was surely no money to pay for permits, for resurfacing the road, for state officials to re-route traffic on this major, north-south highway that ran from New York to South Carolina.

Once, when the milkman loaded our milk cans onto his truck, I saw him look out at our dry fields, then at we stair-step children. There were six of us. Our clothes were ragged and our feet were bare. I saw a look of pity in his eyes.

We’re fine, I wanted to say to him. You don’t need to feel sorry for us. We’re just fine.


My father drew his plans on a piece of butcher paper. In the center he sketched what he called a “cutaway” view of the road and the pipe beneath it. He filled the sides with notes, lists, and figures. Night after night he would bring out that paper, unroll it, study his design, check and recheck his calculations, add new ones.

When he had gone as far as he could, he consulted a man named Sam Hayes who lived in town. He’d need a tool with a special tip to bore through whatever he found beneath the road. He’d need pipe cut in manageable lengths. Sam, who owned a machine and repair shop, might be able to supply both, and at a reasonable price.

Sam, a large man with a rounded belly, dropped by the farm a few days later. The two men stood by the front gate, my father thin and wiry and a full head shorter than this great portly man, but so animated and excited by his plan the differences between them seemed to disappear.

Sam chewed on a toothpick as he listened. At times he nodded, at times he looked perplexed, even skeptical.

When my father finished, they set to work, Sam following my father first to the artesian well, then across the road to the milk house. They measured the width of the road, twenty-two feet wide, not twenty, and the distance from the well to the milk house. They walked back to the road and waited for a string of tractor-trailers to pass before they spoke.

“Hard to tell what you might hit,” Sam said, his voice louder than it needed to be. He dug the toe of his boot into the graveled shoulder. “There’s limestone and then there’s limestone.”

My father nodded, and now he dug his shoe into the shoulder. A convoy of army trucks lumbered up the hill, shifted into higher gears and roared past. My father and Sam moved back into the yard. They talked for a while longer, then shook hands and Sam headed for his truck.

He’s gonna do it, we thought. He’s convinced Sam it can be done, and that was important to him. He’s gonna try it.


Sam brought the pipe to the farm a week later. They unloaded it on the lawn next to the gate, fourteen pieces of pipe laid out side by side like dead soldiers on a battlefield. Then Sam got the special tip from the passenger seat of his truck. He handed it to my father.

It was solid steel, eighteen inches long, shaped like a sharpened pencil. My father turned it over and over in his hands, hefting it, testing the point, examining the threading on the hollowed end. He looked at Sam and he nodded, and we knew he was pleased.

“I made you a few extra, in case you run into trouble,” Sam said. “No charge. Let me know when you need the PVC.” He tipped his hat to my father and got in his truck.

My father waved goodbye, and he stood taller than before. The promise to deliver the PVC was a vote of confidence. If the project failed, there would be no need for PVC pipe running from the artesian well to the road and from the road to the milk house.

When Sam was gone, my father lifted the steel cylinder from its bed beside the other pieces of pipe and took it into the house to show my mother.

“The end is off-center,” she said. “Won’t that make it go crooked?”

My father shook his head. “No, we planned it that way. Each piece of pipe is two feet long, and they’re threaded, male on one end, female on the other. There are grooves cut into the pipe on the male end. If we hit rock, we use a pipe wrench to turn the whole thing, and that should push the rock out of the way.”

He sat in a kitchen chair and tipped it back against the wall. This was something my mother never allowed any of us to do. Maybe she didn’t notice, because this one time she didn’t tell him that he shouldn’t do that. She didn’t remind him that the legs of the chair would make holes in the linoleum or that the chair could break from all that extra strain.

The next morning my father gathered the equipment he’d need for the job: sledge hammer, digging iron, pipe wrench, pickaxe, shovel. He rolled an empty cider barrel to the side of the road. Then he began to dig.

Within a day he had a pile of dirt and rock beside the gate and a hole that was five feet deep, three feet wide, extending six feet back from the road. It had not been easy. He’d hit shale before he’d gone very far, and he had to use his digging iron to break it up. Because the broken sheets of rock were too large for his shovel, he had to pick much of it up with his bare hands and toss it out onto the ground.

It was nearly dark when he climbed up out of the hole. He wiped his face and asked us to roll the barrel close to the road and fix one of the red flags onto the side. Drivers would know not to expect a nice soft shoulder if they wandered off the smooth blacktop.

In the morning he climbed back into the hole, placed the piece of sharpened steel against the vertical wall by the road and began to hammer. When the cylinder was nearly flush with the cut, he climbed out and sat with us on the bank, considering. This was a crucial time, we all understood. This first piece driven into the dirt and rock under the road had to be positioned just so, or the project would fail.

There followed days of labor such as I have never seen before or since. It was August, and each day was the same as the one before and the one after: boiling hot, so hot spit wouldn’t form in your mouth. No relief from a merciless sun.

Sitting on the bank by the road, we felt a breeze when cars and trucks sped past. Not my father. He would come out of the hole soaking wet, his face dirty, his hair plastered to his head, his shirt shades darker than when he went into the hole.

Whumpf, whumpf, whumpf. For days he labored in that hole, hitting the pipe with his sledge hammer, adding lengths of pipe as he progressed, turning the pipe with the pipe wrench when progress slowed.

We sat by the fence and talked to him while he worked. What if it goes too deep, we asked. Could it end up in China? What if you hit a big rock, and you can’t move it? What will you do? What if the point hits a really huge rock and goes off in the wrong direction?

Mostly he didn’t answer. He just kept working.

One by one he added sections of pipe, and it seemed as if it would go on forever. Then suddenly, everything stopped. The pipe was stuck. It would not budge. No matter what my father did, how many times he hit it with the sledge or turned it with the pipe wrench, it refused to go any farther.

He climbed out of the hole and rested. “It feels like I’ve hit something pretty solid,” he said. “Can you hear how different it sounds when I use the sledge hammer?”

There were three of us sitting on the bank, and none of us answered him. He took off his cap and turned his face to the setting sun and rubbed his chin. We knew what he was thinking. Granite. The Appalachian Mountains to the south and west were granite. This was the worse thing that could happen. This was a catastrophe.

Why not tunnel under from the other side, we asked. Dig the rock out from that side and push the pipe on through.

He looked at us, and he seemed to be considering what we’d said. A dump truck, filled with rock and dirt, went past, spraying us with a fine coating of dust.

We all knew there was danger of collapse if he dug beneath the road. A pipe was one thing, but a tunnel? No, it should never be done.

In the morning when the milking was finished and the cattle turned out to their dry pasture, my father began to dig a hole on the barn side of the road. This one was smaller, the same three feet wide and five feet deep, but extending only three feet back from the edge of the road. Then he began to tunnel beneath the road. He used the pickaxe, and he did it carefully, removing chunks of rock and dirt, tossing it up out of the hole. After awhile he climbed out and stood looking at the road, his hole, the sky, the traffic, the house, the barn, the cattle milling in the pasture.

My brother crossed to the other side to see what our father had done. He came back with a report: the tunnel beneath the road was dark, but he judged it went back two or three feet. We caught our breaths. This was frightening.

Father went into the house to consult his butcher paper. We followed, of course. He calculated and recalculated the footage, the lengths of pipe he’d already driven through, the pieces he’d ruined and had to discard.

He was worried. My mother was worried. We children were worried. If a loaded semi came up the road from the Mason Dixon line, and it hit that spot just so, the road could collapse.

Father left the house and climbed down into the hole by the yard and sledged some more, grunting with each fall of the hammer. He attached the pipe wrench and turned, and when he could turn it no more, he hit the handle with the sledge until we were certain the wrench would break in two.

He went back to sledging, and suddenly, the sound changed, from a solid thwack to a soft thump. “It moved,” he shouted.

I looked at the black macadam, half expecting the road to have collapsed. But no, it was still there, still smooth and intact.

He hit the pipe a few more times, then went across to the barn side and began digging under the road again. We watched the dirt and rock come out of the hole, and we could barely see his head.

We waited for a lull in the traffic, and we crossed over to see what was happening. Traffic rumbled past, whipping our hair about our faces, flattening our clothes against us, covering us with a fine spray of dust and exhaust. The trucks were monstrously big, and it was easy to get cinders in your eyes.

Our father told us to go back across the road and sit in the shade, and he kept digging. He dug deeper into the hole, enlarging the tunnel. He dug farther up the road and farther down the road. Then, suddenly, he called for one of us to go into the hole and tap on the pipe with the sledge. He sounded excited.

I was up in a flash, racing for the hole, determined to get there ahead of my sisters and brother. I dropped down, picked up the sledge, and hit the pipe.

Did it move? I thought so. I hit it again, using all my strength, putting all my weight behind it as I’d seen my father do. Again it moved, only a fraction of an inch, perhaps, but this time I was certain it moved. The sledge was heavy, but I kept hitting the pipe and each time it slid forward and it was a wonderful feeling.

My father was digging on the other side. “Keep it up,” he yelled. “Keep it up.” And I did. My arms were aching, my chest hurting, my breath gone, but I kept hitting the pipe. And when I thought I could stand it no more, I heard my father call out. “It’s through,” he yelled. “I can see it. It’s through. We did it.”

Such screaming. Such running, jumping, leaping, cheering. Such a bunch of wild, out-of-control kids.

My father climbed out of the hole and crossed the road. We crowded around him as he walked up through the yard and into the house. “It must have pushed a foot of solid granite rock out ahead of it,” he said. “But it’s through and we’re gonna have water over there, in the milk house and in the barn. All the water we could ever want.”

The pantry was cool. My father hung his hat on the hook behind the door and washed his hands at the pantry sink. Then he walked into the kitchen and sat down at the table. “I’ll have a glass of water, please,” he said to my mother.

She brought it to him and he drank it down and asked for another. And while he was waiting he tipped his chair up against the wall and there was a look of satisfaction on his face such as I’d never seen before.



4 Responses to Milk House Water

  1. Mary C Rocks January 9, 2014 at 8:45 pm #

    Wonderful, wonderful, story! What an amazing childhood you had.

  2. Mimi Cochran January 10, 2014 at 1:20 am #

    Loved the story! There is no greater satisfaction than successfully completing a challenging task
    that, indeed, makes a difference for many.

  3. Rick Romfh January 10, 2014 at 3:50 pm #

    I love the details in your story and the feelings they evoke. I felt I was right alongside you kids and cheering your father on.

  4. Travis Modisette September 9, 2014 at 8:02 pm #

    Thanks for using my photo!

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