The Big Red Barn

“By the big red barn in the great green field there was a pink pig who was learning to squeal…“
—Margaret Wise Brown

How many times have I read that line to my children over the years? A thousand? More? When they lay me to rest one day I imagine someone will quote that book in memory of me because it has had such an impact on the way our lives have turned out; a children’s book short enough to read in a few minutes that never gets old and holds so much promise, such hopefulness and tender sentiment. Morning, noon, evening, night — the endless cycle of our lives that roots us to time and place.

“…while the moon sailed high, in the dark night sky.”

“Read it again, Daddy, read it again!”

“By the big red barn, in the great green field…”

My friend, the one who always brings me in on the oddest and most difficult jobs as a means of building on our common interests, asked me if I would help him with a project. There was a barn, he said, a big one and the owner had contracted with him to replace the roof with a brand new steel one, just like the kind he helped me install on my barns. I accepted, of course, because it was a two man job we both had experience with and because in his request was the implied reference to other work we’d done on my farm and that this one was another of our twisted paybacks where every new job was a further means of balancing the ledger. So I worked out the schedule with my wife, blocking off a few weeks in high Summer after the hay was in, but before the late harvest and when our chances of nice weather — interspersed with severe thunderstorms and damaging winds — would be most likely. The owner of the property would see to the materials, we would provide the workmanship and in the end there would be one less roof to install in the world at least for the next fifty years or so.

The farm was nestled up against a beautiful glacial lake at the foot of the mountain. The business side of the operation was a lodge and several cottages, an equestrian facility and the endless cycling of catered affairs and wedding under the canopy of hundred year old maples and oaks. The owner was an athletic woman around my age who was perpetually moving about the property attending to her business. We had spoken once, when she called me as a reference on my friend’s ability to install metal roofing on a barn. I told her that she could not do better whatever the price, but that in the interest of full disclosure there was a very good chance that I would be drafted into the project and she would likely see me in person if she chose to hire him. And so we arrived at the job site one clear July morning and began to work on her barn. The style of construction was a modified gambrel roof. This type of barn is designed for convection, to allow the escape of warm air rapidly in order to dry stored hay above the barn floor below while providing maximum space above. This particular barn was being used as a part of the equestrian operation, adjoining another barn with a dozen or more stalls where horses and ponies were boarded. The gambrel style roof extended from the foundation rather than sitting atop sidewalls in order to provide an expansive interior that was used for riding and jumping. The barn was indeed large, one of the biggest I have ever seen — 100’ in length, 75’ in width and nearly sixty feet at the peak. The total square footage of the roof alone was close to a half acre and we were going to rip off the entire existing metal roof, decrepit and timeworn in the extreme and replace the purlins, repair the dips and swales and reinstall over 200, twenty foot long sheets of powder coated green steel roof panels, one at a time. The materials were on hand and stacked neatly alongside the barn. We had a two man articulating lift, a tractor with forks and our own tools and after a quick run through with the owner and the woman who ran the stables, we set to work on stripping the barn bare.

Summer in New England is glorious in a way that Floridians or Texans will never experience. Six months of Winter gives on a deep appreciation of hot days where the color green is so present and pervasive you find yourself hypnotized by it, drunk on the sight of billions of cells expanding, absorbing light and turning it into life. After chores and a brief drive around the base of the mountain to the backside I would arrive on the site and harness up. We set up our chargers for the lithium batteries that power the drills and drivers, and set to work while it was still cool. The worksite was a difficult one, the barn set against the base of a hillside on the southern edge and atop a steep drop off on the northern side. Unlike other gambrel barns that feature two distinct planes, each with a different pitch, the lower steep, the upper less so, this barn was a continuous curve. The first set of panels were installed from ground level and fastened from both the basket of the lift at the top and from the purlins below. At each level we had to replace the rotted structural strips that secured the roofing and reinstall new ones as we went in order to maintain the structural integrity of the building. Long ago the base end of the ribs, huge laminated beams that rose in a graceful arc from the floor to the apex, had rotted away from constant contact with the floor. The retaining bolts had rusted through and the northern wall had jumped off the foundation, nearly collapsing the structure. The farm manager, a capable, textbook, taciturn Yankee of the old school had slowly brought the structure back into position using a combination of pump jacks and timber cribbing, one rib at a time, then repaired them with treated lumber sistered together on either side of the decayed beam and re-anchored to the foundation. While it saved the barn structure, the combination of the near collapse and the re-setting of the frame on its foundation had torn most of the old metal roof free from the stripping allowing water to enter the barn for a period of years. The women who ran the stables said that when it rained hard outside it rained harder inside and they watched us with a cautious hopefulness. We worked hard, taking only the time required to prepare and set each piece and a short break for lunch, for eight hours a day and then headed home to work on the farm until nightfall each evening. The average working day began just before 6 am and ended just after 9pm, six days a week. Remove sheet metal, rip off rotted framing, reinstall new lumber, lay roof on and screw into place. 8,000 feet of purlins removed and reinstalled, 208 twenty foot long corrugated roof panels, fifty screws per panel, over 10,000 self tapping sheet metal screws, 2,000 GRK structural screws, 5 gallons of water per day between two men, four sandwiches a piece each day for four weeks.

The barn roof had me away from the farm for longer than I have ever been away and my children waited patiently for me to come home each evening so they could follow me around doing chores and checking on the animals on pasture. Every day we would make plans for things to do on the weekend; fishing, a run to the shore for some steamers and lobster and a few hours playing in the surf, concerts at the gazebo. I thank God for my wife who as busy as she was with her own responsibilities saw to it that most of the promises came about because the work I had to do on our own place and the inevitable physical crash on Sunday where I laid myself down to rest, my aching arms and shoulders burnt a color red I have never seen before, left me unable to keep my promises. My children were understanding, but I could tell they were disappointed and it stung me even as I took pride in what we were accomplishing with the roof.

We discovered a couple of tricks as we went; a thirty foot strip of carpet felt laid against the side of the barn over the newly installed first run of roofing served as both a protector of the finish and a slick for hauling up the second set of panels. We’d drill a single hole through the upper panel and snap a clip attached to a rope and run it through a pulley to allow us to haul each sheet up and into position. On the top course we clipped each panel to the front of the basket with bar clamps and then run the piece back out through the purlins and feed it back over the top of us and lay it into position at the top of the roof, sliding it beneath the ridge cap which we installed ten foot at a time ahead of the panels. The screws were set in place by a sharp strike with the palm of the left hand against the back end of the drill so that the self tapping end had traction to cut into the metal. My friend affixed magnets to the bottom of an old metal pan so that we could keep a stock of screws available on the roof as we worked rather than having to pull them out of a nail bag and the magnets held both the pan to the roof and the screws to the pan. Each day we became more efficient, each panel less of a challenge. Our top rate for installation was four panels in an hour, our best sustained rate for an entire day 20 panels. On more than one occasion my friend lost his temper — more due to the pressure of the owner who measured our progress like an actuarial and the endless procession of the young girls in breeches and riding helmets who often wandered too close to the work area for our comfort despite the warning tape and frequent imprecations as to the danger of our work. I pretended not to notice and he would always make it right when he cooled down. More often we worked in a state of industrious harmony, watching the ponies pacing in the paddocks below as they watched us above.

On the final day we placed the last panel just after lunch, finished our site cleanup, restocked the tools in our trucks and took a few minutes to admire the work from the ground. The owner and her farm manager came to say thank you and compliment us on the work. “It’s great.” she said. “Nice work.” he said. “You did a fine job, a really nice job.” they both said. If you know the Yankee, you know that comments like that are nothing short of effusive and we shook hands and then walked up to the hillside above the barn to look at it once more. Where there had been a rotting shamble of mismatched and bent metal panels before, there was now a uniform expanse of precisely laid green metal roof, gracefully arching across it’s entire expanse from foundation to ridge cap, the Sun reflecting off in a cool glow. I know it’s just a roof, but I felt proud of what I had done.

I came home and went into the barn for a shovel and an old coffee can and my youngest son came around the outside of the house, a perfect mix of Bill Waterson’s Calvin and a castaway choirboy from Lord of the Flies, swinging a stick above his head, wearing nothing but underwear.

“Dad! You’re home!” he called happily.

“We finished the roof on the barn and I thought that maybe you and I could go fishing.” I said.

He followed me out to the chicken coop where we dug a can full of worms, then loaded the canoe into the truck. We went to a small lake nearby and set off across the water as tissued shreds of white clouds unspooled overhead in the blue sky. The smell of the water, the sound of the paddle as I took each stroke, the sight of my son standing with his pole, making one nice cast after another took me to a place I hadn’t been in weeks. My shoulders felt new again, my arms as strong as if I were a young man. We stayed out there until the moon came up in the eastern sky, round and orange like a painting by John Singer Sargent. The loons went at it, back and forth in a melancholy way and we talked about so many things that I hardly remember a one. We ate fish that night that my son caught. We went up to bed at the same time and both he and his sister came in to say good-night and they climbed up on our bed for a little bit to visit with me when I asked them if they wanted me to read something to them. As they propped up the pillows and got comfortable on either side of me I reached over to the stack beside the bed and rummaged around until I found what I was looking for and settled in, placing my reading glasses on my sunburned nose and began…

“By the big, red barn in the great, green field, there was a pink pig learning to squeal…”

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