Archived Story

We’ve all gotten so spoiled

Published 8:00am Thursday, July 12, 2012 Updated 1:01pm Thursday, July 12, 2012

Nothing would start around this farm this week. The lawn mower? Nope. The truck? Huh uh. The car? Dead in town.

We’ve gotten spoiled. Except for the hand-crank lawn mower, everything is electric start. It used to be, machines came with a crank, so if the battery went dead (new technology, couldn’t be trusted), you still had a shot at getting it going.

Growing up on the farm, Dad farmed with the neighbor Gene, who also had two sons.

As part of sharing, Dad and Gene combined labor, four sons, and Gene’s old combine, which was powered by a nasty-minded, demon-possessed Wisconsin air-cooled engine, come oat harvesting time.

Hand-cranked, of course. Generally, when it’s time to combine oats in Iowa, it’s at least 90 degrees in the shade, of which there is darned little in a field of oats.

The warmer it got, the more uncooperative that Wisconsin engine got. I remember lying under the grain wagon one day while Gene and his oldest son, Tom, who was really old, 16, tried to get it going again after it had been slugged to death by too big a swallow of grain.

Tom cranked. Gene directed. We other three sons laid under the wagon in the shade, struck dumb by the language that accompanied their efforts.

“Crank’er, Tommy!” Gene would urge with loud enthusiasm, as if the engine might sympathize. Tom looked surly. Well, he was 16. And hot.

“What in the blankety-blank blankety-blank do you blankety-blank think I’m doing!”

Tom would gasp, spinning away at the crank. Such language was unthinkable. We couldn’t wait to get older, so we could talk that way.

“Get your back into’er, Tommy!” Gene shouted, adding: “Blankety-blank staying out all night!” Oh boy, staying up all night.

And so it went. Cranking. Cursing. Hot. Sweating. Gene’s other son and my brother and I were too young to crank.

Even worse, traitors that we were, we hoped it would never start. Shade was hard to find.

Dad prowled around the combine with a grease gun, which he never let go off any time we stopped. He wasn’t born yesterday.

Once, after what must have been a half hour of Tommy cranking and Gene cursing, it was discovered that the ignition switch had not been turned on. Tom had been cranking for nothing.

The language at that point was even more inspiring than what had come before. Had profanity been gasoline, that Wisconsin engine would have run forever.

When it comes to starting, the first huge gas or distillate engines that replaced steam tractors were special. They were started by turning a flywheel as tall as a man, with a long steel bar, called a Jesus Christ bar.

It was inserted into the flywheel, and pulled down by two or three men. If everything went well, it started, and the bar dropped to the ground.

If things didn’t go well, and the engine kicked back, the flywheel threw the bar so far up and so far away that men had to search in the grain field for it. Hence its name. At that point, someone would say: “Jesus Christ, where’d that bar go?”

My all-time favorite hand-started machine (Again, you spun a flywheel) is still the John Deere Model B tractor. Two schools of thought existed as to how to best start this tractor: One was shown to me by my neighbor here, years back, who went by the name The Big Finn.

He backed up several steps, prepared his 200-pound self for maximum effort, ran forward and grasped the flywheel and gave it such a spin that the follow-through took him several feet away from the tractor.

It might start. It might not.

Either way, he gave it such a spin that it took several seconds for that to become clear.

The other way to start these John Deeres was the kinder, gentler way. You tiptoed up to the tractor, prayed, meditated a bit, cleared your mind of evil negative thoughts, stepped in a divine fashion up to the flywheel, and caressed it around in a circle.

Then if it didn’t start, you cursed like a sailor to clear your mind, and gave it another spin.

I have to go to town and buy some batteries.

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