Thursday, September 15, 2016

Small Engine Repair

[the author on the Deere, some years back, mowing the orchard]

The week started out with one of the recurring chores, mowing the field that abuts the driveway and the flower garden. We used to call this the orchard. There were once three apple trees. Below the orchard there was once a pasture which even fed some young cows. Back when Anna was little she named the herd: there was Leon and there was Kathy. I kept them for about a year and a half, then sent them back to the stock market. It was a way of keeping the pasture up. I didn't want to butcher them myself. We always said, well they probably went to a good home. It always turned out that the hauling fees plus the sweet feed and the supplemental hay in the winter turned out to equal the weight gain. Funny how that works. Buy high, sell low. The pasture grew back to woods during a couple of years when I was too busy to run the bush hog over the whole thing, after I'd dropped the idea of keeping it mowed with livestock. It doesn't take long. The tractor's more or less deceased now, and I'm running an old MD mower my father-in-law, the old vet, used to drive down in Tarboro where he was born and lived most of his life. One of the last things he did with it was accidentally run it over a pretty good sized cliff, which was his property boundary and the bank of a little stream. He got distracted somehow. The plastic hood on the machine was busted up pretty good, but he survived ok, some bruises and aches. Not too long after that he decided to move into assisted living at the Albemarle, a nice facility in Tarboro, and sold his home. We ended up with the mower, which his brother-in-law, a small engine genius, had fixed up after the accident.

It keeps on running. It started out this spring sputtering and I figured out with the help of the Western Auto folks in Siler and Mr. Google that there was gas getting into the oil, so I put an on-off valve in the gas line, changed out the air filter and the oil and the spark plug, and she started being dependable again, for the duration of the summer. But this week I ran through some higher than usual grass and weeds and that choked up one of the blades, which then caused the pulley to burn the blade belt. I have had this happen before. I disengaged the mower deck and drove the mower out of the way and cut it off. But then it wouldn't start. The grass kept growing.

Later on Monday I went into town and even looked at a couple of used mowers a guy who repairs them had sitting out near highway 64, two olive green Craftsman mowers, made I think by Poulan. The guy was actually riding one of them, proving to any and all that it definitely ran. He had a decent price on them, and they looked a lot less beat up than the MD that went over the cliff, so I was tempted. But Libby quite correctly pointed out that getting the MD fixed still might be a lot cheaper. So yesterday, Tuesday, I drove down the road a couple of miles to a neighbor's, who has a sign out at his driveway for small engine repairs and chain sharpening. He's been there for many years. With the chain sharpening deal, you can just put a chain in his mailbox and leave your phone number, he'll run it sharp on a jig and give you a holler.

He's a guy who's had time—decades--to set up a good shop for lawn mowers and other such stuff. You can see the shop from the road, which is a good distance but still a nice clear view. He has an asphalt driveway, which is worth appreciating as much as you want. If he's there the shop door's open and usually he's sitting down and working on something or other. He also enjoys keeping a kind of humorous display, yard art you might say, or even outsider art if you're a curator, up by his pond. The art has become more elaborate over time. It features these days a big fan that moves, suggesting mobility if there's a breeze, and some sort of wagon with creatures aboard. Often there's a sign with a wry comment about the times and the political scene. At one time a few years back he had a space ship, which is actually still there, but now somewhat eclipsed by the other more elaborate features.

I drove down the asphalt and said howdy. He turned out to have time for my poor machine. He was in the process of building a “cannon,” using 4 inch plastic drain pipe and some old steel wagon wheels. It was headed for the pond display once it got a coat of flat black. I went back and got the MD and Libby and I pushed it up some planks onto the truck. When I got back to the shop the small engine guy came up with some spiffy aluminum ramps—far better than my over long treated-wood scaffold boards—and we rolled the mower over to the shop. Once situated, he reached up and hit a switch, and from the ceiling here comes a little chain hoist. Quickly the hoist stood the MD up vertical on its back wheels, and we could look at the underside without lying on the ground with the dust and the ticks. As I said earlier, the blades were choked with weeds. Out came a power socket wrench, and off came the blades. Hell of a lot nicer than trying to pull the grass out a stem at a time, or busting loose a bolt with a hand wrench and a hammer. While the blades were off I asked him to sharpen them, something that hadn't happened since I loaded the mower on the truck in Tarboro five or six years ago, or maybe it's been ten by now. He also looked at the mower belt. It was frayed from the pulley, so he sent me off to town to get a new one. He was also able to jump start the mower with a jump machine, which proved it wasn't seized up at least. The option of buying that used Craftsman was receding over the event horizon.

I picked up the belt. The things have gotten dear. Last one was, I think I recall, about $18.00. This one was $40. Stuff wears out. The small engine guy told me later that he'd just replaced a starter on a Deere. The part cost $400. When I got back with the belt he had the battery out and was working under the back fender. The thing needed a solenoid and he fortunately had one on hand, so I didn't have to go right back to town. This explained the no start situation. The jump showed the engine wasn't seized, but had bypassed the battery and ignition, which includes a solenoid. When he'd finished installing the new solenoid she cranked right up. My mower was back in business, and he even gave me a little lesson on how to jump a mower using just a car battery. No extra charge for that. I told him about replacing the solenoid on the old F-150 this spring. This was just to establish to him that I knew something or other about internal combustion engines.

We got it back on the truck and I got the “orchard” mowed before supper. There's a little area I'll finish up in a few minutes, where I needed to rake out some long weed tendrils so they wouldn't gum up the works again. Then it's on to the next thing. It's starting to feel like fall a little. There's a new tropical storm down in Georgia that might or might not meander up here for the weekend. If we get some rain it'd be a good thing at this point.

It's a nice thing to spend a few decades working on small engines. Do that and you know small engines, and all sorts of things come to mind in a helpful sequence, and you end up figuring out that, for example, a solenoid needs replacing. I replaced the solenoid on my old F-150 back in May. It's the second time I've done that. The first time I learned the symptoms, and where the thing is. It's an easy job on the Ford. You can see it and get to the bolts that hold it onto the fender. I didn't even know the mower had a solenoid, and to pull it you kind of have to do it blind, feeling for the nuts and using a long socket wrench extender. The small engine man had the extender, and the right socket, and knew where the part was located. He'd checked other possibilities for why the engine wouldn't crank while I was buying the belt. It came down to the solenoid, and he was already putting the new one back on when I drove up with the belt. Plus—as I said—he even had the part on hand! Sweet.

They used to write songs about this, with titles like you don't miss your water till the well runs dry. Until a couple of years ago there was a great auto mechanic just down the road, even closer than the small engine man. When he finished up he'd drive the vehicle back to my house, then I'd ride him back. His motto was, “you can probably fix this yourself.” He'd had some heart trouble after working a lifetime in the shop. He'd done decades with his dad, who probably started as a kid with his dad. I always meant to take photos of all the old signs and cans of stuff he had on the walls. One day last year I drove down there to get the truck inspected and he was closed. I see him now and then on his tractor. We wave. There are still some ok mechanics around, but they're farther, and mostly Spanish is their first language.

After I got the mowing done I went to the Food Lion. If you looked around there you'd think tomato season was over and done. You can still buy sort of ok tomatoes, particularly if you're tossing them into a stir-fry. This year we had about six weeks where people were giving anyone they saw a handful of garden tomatoes worthy of a mater sandwich, just mayo, pepper, and all the slices that will fit. The last bag of those I got from another small engine guy, who tested my chain saw and agreed with the dealer that it had no compression. He's got a fantastic garden of tomatoes growing beside his backyard shop every summer, way more than he can eat or even can. He's a very generous guy. “Take you some of those,” he'll say without fail. “No, get some more.” He adjusted my weed eater one time after it'd stopped. Gave me some maters, no charge. I gave him a CD, which I think he liked. He definitely likes bluegrass music, and the CD could be mistaken for bluegrass.

You'd think that with all the great garden maters growing around here every summer, the Food Lion would always have some in the store. Hit don't work that way. Supply Chains. Logistics. Computers. Stock holders for that matter. There's probably somebody who'll pull the lever for Trump because their chainsaw broke, and they couldn't buy a real tomato any more. They blame it all on Obama. But I tell you what, if they deport all the Mescans ain't nobody left to fix your old truck. The Trumps of the world wouldn't know about that part of reality if it was a rattler coiled up and rattling next to their shiny Gucci's.

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