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Letter From America: The Hydrant Puzzlement

...At first sight, it looked as if there was an emergency. Pulling out of the petrol station I glimpsed four men dressed in workday black and wearing safety tabards hunched around something that I imagined was someone collapsed on the ground in extremis and more in need of extreme unction rather than whatever medical skills I might have retained from an earlier profession. As I drew closer, I saw that my provisional diagnosis was wrong...

And the sight resulted in Ronnie Bray drawing a wrong conclusion - then indulging, to our good fortune, in a highly entertaining muse.

For more of Ronnie's delicious columns please visit http://www.openwriting.com/archives/letter_from_america/

At first sight, it looked as if there was an emergency. Pulling out of the petrol station I glimpsed four men dressed in workday black and wearing safety tabards hunched around something that I imagined was someone collapsed on the ground in extremis and more in need of extreme unction rather than whatever medical skills I might have retained from an earlier profession. As I drew closer, I saw that my provisional diagnosis was wrong.

Although three of the four men were slightly hunched over, only one was actually kneeling down, and he was not administering CPR or any of the arcane practices developed to keep the mangled and moribund alive until better medical aid can be brought to bear on their conditions.

My hyperactive imagination had prepared me for that scenario. As a former nurse I should be used to the fact that every twinge is either polio or status asthmaticus leading me to diagnose my own immanent demise, although careful consideration of my presenting symptoms invariably determine that I have been laying with my arm trapped and has cut off both blood supply and neurological transmission for sufficiently long to make it feel like liver, be uncontrollable, and to hurt like billy-ho when circulation is restored and when the flow of neurological impulses are allowed to disgorge themselves and teem along the vacant neural pathway all at once and with inclement impatience.

I once woke up with a stiff neck and immediately, naturally, diagnosed poliomyelitis. It wasnít. I had a stiff neck due to old age, brittle bones, and a lousy pillow.

My diagnosis of the sudden scene on this occasion dissolved when I discovered the object of so much solemn attention was a two foot high fire hydrant, and that the kneeling man was refreshing it with a coat of bright yellow paint.

Like you I had questions about the trio of watchers, and posited that, perhaps, he was involved in a trade test. Or, perhaps it really did take four men to paint a hydrant whose area was no more than four square feet allowing for nooks, crannies, and projections, including the fluting on its domed head.

If we allow that it is a four man job we must find sober reasons for the four man crew that do not take us into the realms that lie beyond the usual interface of looking glasses or that materialise only when we trot through the back of the big wardrobe. It is a serious issue.

I toyed with there being one man to remove and secure the lid so that surrounding vegetation did not get accidentally jaundiced. However, no vegetation flourished close enough to warrant that occupation for all there was close to the hydrant was the pebbled ground that is common to desert landscaping.

Perhaps one man to open the tin and then hang on to it because the painter, that is the man wielding the paintbrush, was not adept at prising up hard shut paint tin lids, and might also be clumsy at keeping such things safe, to the point where he could have deposited it wrong side up on the pebbles some four or five feet away from the object of his re-coating so that had he been extremely clumsy he could not have either trodden on it or flipped it over with his trailing foot as he shimmied round the water pipe on one or both knees. If that were so, I needed an explanation as to how he got the job in the first place. None came.

So, for the sake of argument say we admit that there was a pressing need for one man to paint and another one to remove and keep the lid safe, we are still left with a supernumerary duo whose callings must surely be connected to the obscure and arcane. But how?

Was one a shade matcher? I dismissed that notion because that job would have been done at the factory when the batch of hundred of gallons of hydrant-quality sun-proof yellow paint was manufactured to particular specifications.

Perhaps the brush brandisher had suffered a mental breakdown earlier in the year and as a result had painted hydrants a sand colour so that they were virtually invisible to searching fire crews urgently needing to hook their hoses to them to douse conflagrations. Itís a thought, but it didnít fly much further than the lead Zeppelin did.

Of course, if there had been any truth in the breakdown theory it could be that the three extra men were merely disguised as city workers and were really a psychiatrist and two attendants ready to fit that poor man in his straight jacket if he showed any signs of deviantly hueing city property without licence.

On the other hand, they could have been members of Sheriff Joe Arpaioís chain gangs that he rents out to local businesses for a pittance if they promise to vote for him when the election comes around. The absence of ankle-clamped shiny steel chains knocked that theory into a cocked hat.

It was when I was labouring with these notions and had dispensed with the chain gang theory that a loud motor horn reminded me that I ought to be attending to my driving, not cavorting about the carriageway seeking theories about four chaps attending to one fire hydrant.

Even so, I couldnít help but notice that a little way down the street was another hydrant glistening in the morning sun as if it had been treated to a new coat of paint a short while ago.

That led me to recognise that there were more hydrants in evidence than there were pedestrians. That didnít surprise me because only mad dogs and Englishmen walk abroad in the bone melting morning sun, and this particular Englishman was in his air conditioned car with two extremely sane dogs.

But the number of hydrants did bring me to consider that if, instead of sending four men to paint one hydrant, they sent four men with four cans of yellow paint, each having a suitable brush and some means of preventing the used brush from setting solid before the next hydrant, it would get the job done four times faster and get the poor workmen safely back inside a temperature controlled environment before any of them are overcome by a mixture of paint fumes, dehydration and sunstroke.

Being a cultural ambassador and adviser in political and other important fields, including hydrant maintenance, imposes a weighty responsibility. But, as I once remarked to Lloyd George, "Itís a tough job, your worship, and only a Yorkshireman can do it!"

Not that the USA is the only place that could use some timely advice from a genius. For example, take that mini roundabout they put in at Lepton some years ago.

© 2010 Ronnie Bray

MUSIC: "The Old Master Painter" sung by Phil Harris

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