Niels Nielsen Doesn't Take New Hampshire's Old Man for Granite

updated 08/13/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/13/1984 01:00AM

A few years back, Niels Nielsen removed seven cubic yards of gravel from the Old Man's ear. This year Nielsen applied a new coat of epoxy to the top of his friend's cranium, re-measured his nasal alignment and checked to make sure his Adam's apple wasn't about to drop off. The aging gent in question is the Old Man of the Mountain, a craggy, stone-faced natural formation on the shoulder of Cannon Mountain in northern New Hampshire. The 40-foot face is the state's official emblem, a tourist delight and Nielsen's passion. "If you're an atheist, come up and spend a day with me on the Old Man," says Nielsen, 57, who has worked as the Old Man's caretaker since 1965. "At the end of the day you'll believe. I'm fully convinced that the Lord put him up there, and that when the Lord is ready He will take him away."

Nielsen's job is to forestall that moment. Three times a year he takes time off from his regular work as a construction superintendent with the state highway department and, accompanied by his son, David, 26, and a small crew, takes a tram ride and a short hike to the top of the Old Man's head. The big problem is that the Old Man, which geologists say was formed by glaciers, is at least 10,000 years old and looks it. To counter the effects of age, the top of his head has been waterproofed, huge steel turnbuckles have been installed to support his forehead, pins have been inserted to help detect movement among the dozen-or-so precariously positioned boulders that make up the face, and an epoxy-and-wire mesh "earmuff" has been built to keep water out of his right ear.

The work keeps Nielsen dangling from a five-sixteenths-inch steel cable for hours at a time, 1,200 feet above the valley floor. "I'm not a mountain climber, I'm a mountain hanger," notes Nielsen, who says he "talks" to the Old Man to find out whether it's a good day to work. "I say 'Hi' to him. He's moody. Sometimes he doesn't say anything. Sometimes he says, 'You can go over the side. If you don't pinch, I won't sneeze.' I think of him as part of the family, an uncle or grandfather."

This year Grandpa got another layer of epoxy on his right cheek, to keep it from crumbling. Nielsen next hopes to repair a fracture in the Old Man's Adam's apple, which he fears could collapse and bring the rest of the head down with it. "I've never asked anyone to do anything I wouldn't do myself," he says of the job. "You can lead but you can't push."

Although Nielsen gets no extra pay from the state for working on the Old Man, it's clear he derives a hefty emotional satisfaction. His home in nearby Plymouth is decorated with pictures of his Old Man, his license plate reads OLDMAN and he lectures, gratis, to some 75 school and civic groups a year. He plans to keep caretaking until the mountain tells him to stop. "I have a 'decision rock,' " says Nielsen, describing a pair of boulders, six feet apart, partway up the mountain trail. "When I find that I can't jump from one side to the other, then it's time for me not to hike up there anymore."

In the meantime, he says, "I feel honored. We all owe this country something, and I'm just paying my dues."

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