Friday, February 26, 2016

"Stilton’s Tractor" from OPH

My cell phone rings, and my heart beats a foreboding motif. Nobody calls me before noon on Sunday, especially not on my mobile, unless it's to report a death or trouble at the mill. The caller ID displays “Stilton.”

"Come get it," he says, before I can manage a greeting.

"That's great, Stilts. Come get what?"

"You know. The tractor."

"Uh, OK. I'll need your trailer."

"Og, I'm afraid the trailer is right where you saw it last, with whatever remains of the wheels mired up to the axle, and I'm pretty sure the bearings wouldn't make it to the end of the block even if by some miracle the tires held air."

"Hmm. OK, I have another idea. I can be there in about an hour forty-five."

"Perfect." And he disconnects.

On my way over to Stilton's house, I reflect on a similar call I'd
received some years earlier.

"Og! You need some beer!"

"That's invitation or observation?"

"OK, a requisition. I need your brain, well, maybe more your
muscles... beer muscles. I've got a situation here."

"It must be dire. What is it?"

"Easier to just show you. So, you're coming over?"

"How about this afternoon?"

"No, now! We gotta do this before she gets back! Just come straight to
the back yard."

On the way I pondered what he was hiding from his wife. Knowing him,
it was nothing unsavory, but he clearly could not bear her chagrin.
That meant he'd probably done something silly and his best hope was to
present it as a problem solved. As I traversed his yard, he greeted me
with a bottle, which I opened and drank from as he did the same with

"What are we looking at here?" I asked.

"We're looking at my tractor, and it's stuck."

"I can see that. Please expand on 'stuck'."

The tractor was teetering, one rear wheel slightly airborne, on
something substantial but hidden beneath the mower deck. The deck
itself appeared to have suffered damage, the extent of which I could
not fully determine because the tractor's far side was obscured by
thick, tall ornamental grass that bordered the clearing.

"It's on a stump," said Stilton.

"And the blades are stuck in said stump?"

"Would that that were all there was to it."

"So, what's the plan?"

"First, you drink up; you'll need another soon enough. Then, I figure
we detach the deck -- I've already pulled the linchpins -- and we
wrangle the tractor off of it. After that, I don't know."

"How about, we'll dig the roots out, flip it all over, deck and stump
together, then work the stump out of the blades?"

"Negative. The previous owner apparently had a flagpole or something,
and its base was a two-inch steel pipe sunk into a concrete footing. A
yew bush grew around the pipe for maybe fifty years, and I found it --
or rather, my chainsaw found it -- as I was cutting down the dying
bush. Now I wish I'd done more to be rid of it than hide it with
pampas grass.”

I cringed at the image of Stilton's chainsaw encountering the hidden
pipe, for I knew how much he valued his machinery. My thoughts
returned to the wounded tractor, a device consistent with his
priorities, which is to say, possessed of a certain frugal efficiency,
but not selected on price alone. (His house was a modest two bedroom
affair, but he and his soulmate had chosen it for the oversized lot on
which it was situated, so that they could "get away from it all" even
this close to the city.) The tractor was the base model from Sears,
but had two important upgrades. One was the front axle of cast rather
than stamped steel, better to endure the occasional obstacle. The
other was the engine. Stilton explained that the Briggs & Stratton
Vanguard would last longer and run more smoothly under load than the
base model's single cylinder mill. It was also not lost on him that
the engine idled like a Harley-Davidson (also a V-twin design); this
imbued it with a je ne sais quoi and transformed mowing the lawn from
chore to pastime, which, according to his wife, he executed for years
sans complaint.

(I'd once remarked that for a mere two hundred dollars more, Stilton
could have had the deluxe model, replete with not only the cast axle
and V-twin, but also the clutchless hydrostatic transmission, a snazzy
metal-flake paint job, and a capacious cup holder. "Fuck that," he'd
replied. "A, I was born driving stick, B, I don't care what it looks
like so long as it works like a tractor, and C, if there's a drink on
board, it has two positions: I'm drinking it, or I’m just about to
drink it.”)

"So, no, we're not digging it out," he declared. "I think we're just
going to have to go ahead and pry it up till something gives. I was
about to rig something to do the deed myself, but then I thought
better of doing it alone, as I don't mind telling you that I'm still a
bit shaken by how this got here."

"Which is how?"

"OK, picture this. I was just finishing up, maybe one more pass to go,
and not uncoincidentally I'd finished my beer and was skimming the
perimeter to deposit the empty in the usual spot. So I've got the
bottle in my left hand and I'm steering with my right, but I decide I
need to go up to fourth gear, you know, to make it interesting. I
reach for the stick with my right hand and raise my right leg to
steady the wheel with my thigh. I'm working the clutch with my left
foot and I'm in the middle of the shift when I guess I hit a new
groundhog hole or something hidden in the brush border. I pitch
forward, which makes my right hand jam it into fifth, I drop both legs
to the floor to steady myself so I don't go over the hood, and of
course the wheel had jerked so I'm heading for the stump as my left
foot came off the clutch. I'd dropped my beer by this point and I'd
grabbed the wheel with my left hand but the front was already
straddling the stump by the time I could yank it to the right, and you
can guess the rest."

"That's a rather elaborate rendering of 'I fucked up and ran into a stump.'"

"Well, I've replayed it in my head a few times. It's like the whole
thing happened in slow motion and I could see exactly how it would
end. I reacted on instinct and reflex, but even so, I just could not
alter the course of the inevitable."

"I get that sensation, too, whenever I’m in a meeting with Limburger
or Wensleydale."

I sidled through the tall grass to the other side of the tractor,
dislodging something that clinked against a similar, other something.
I pulled aside the grass blades and squinted into the shade, then
recognized simultaneously the objects and the fact that that Stilton
had not tried to divert me from them. Was he trying to be found out? I
chose my next words carefully.

"Stilts? Is your new pet groundhog shitting bottles?"

"Oh, you found my drop spot."

"On your own property? This is what crazy people do."

"Nothing but a bit of insurrection -- a kind of fuck you, if you will,
to the idea that we must improve on nature, and to my hypocritical
complicity in it.” He took a swig of beer. “I mean, what the fuck, is
a mown lawn inherently nicer to look at than a pristine meadow? We
declare that it must be, and then we bust our asses to make it that
way so that, what, exactly? So we can gaze over it and say I did that,
I cut every fucking blade to the exact same length, and next week I'll
do it all again, aren't I something?"

"Preaching to the choir, brother. You've seen my yard, what they call
a wooded lot. It's just that, well, the magnitude -- there's a few
cases' worth here."

"Keep in mind that’s a decade of accumulation. I know where you’re
heading with this, but I have objective data. We still have the
receipts. We spreadsheet all expenses and monitor all accounts. I know
exactly how fast it comes in, hence how fast it goes out, and so does
Gudrun. Nothing to see here, move along. Plus, I go for quality over
quantity, anyway."

"Lionshead? Twelve bucks a case last time I bought it. That's your quality?"

"More than adequate as a work beer, Mister Snooty Snoot. You have your
local artisanal microbrews, I have mine."

"That's Doctor Snooty Snoot.”

Stilton had joined me at the front the tractor, which we now eased up
and off of the mower deck and rotated towards the clearing.

"That wasn't so bad," he said. "And that means the hard part comes
next. I’ll be right back."

While he trotted to the shed and disappeared into it, I occupied
myself by inspecting the tractor frame. No damage. I moved on to other

"Hey Stilts!" I yelled towards the shed. "Did you try to drive the
tractor off the stump? The ignition's still on!"

"Hell, no," he said, on his way back with a 4-by-4 beam balanced in
each hand. "It just stalled nice and quick when it settled onto the
stump. I hopped off and did a kind of 'fuck, fuck, FUCK' angry dance.
Then I grabbed another beer to give me time to think. Then I called
you. In all that, I guess I forgot to turn off the switch. Don't
worry, we were never in danger; it's got a safety, and of course, the
blades were jammed."

"Hmm," I regarded the rubber drive belt still attached to the mower
deck. "I wouldn't have thought this belt was stout enough to stall the

"Purpose-built. OK, teamwork. Pry with me."

We jammed the beams under the mower deck, and after a few failed
attempts, the deck groaned and flipped free of the stump and onto the
lawn. We peered down at its bent blades extending skyward.

"It's vaguely Xiphosuran, but like no beast I've ever seen," I mused.

"A beast nonetheless. Let's toss it in the shed." Which we did.

While Stilton puttered some more in the shed, I climbed into the
tractor's seat, stepped on the clutch, and twisted the key. The engine
spoke with characteristic authority. I took a slow lap around the yard
to warm it up, then advanced the governor and took a brisker lap
before coming to a stop where Stilton now stood in front of the shed.

"Back up on the horse," I ordered, as I relinquished my seat.

He hopped on and steered a couple of figure eights, then upshifted,
advanced to full throttle, and raced to the farthest corner of the
yard, careening it as he rounded back towards the house. "Whoooo!" I
heard him howl as he shot out of sight into the front yard. I heard a
garage door open, then close, and then he reappeared with two beers
and a hacksaw in one hand and an axe and sledgehammer dangling from
the other.

"Closure," he declared, whereupon we drank and smashed the shit out of
that fucking stump and the rusty pipe in it. A shadow moved across our
project, and I looked up to discern its origin.

"Oh! Hi Gudrun," I said.

"Hey Oggie," she replied. "I've only been after him to take care of
that stump for a year or so. How did you get involved so soon?"

"Well, he's bribing me with beer, and we're making a game of it."

"I'll have to remember that trick. Well, you two, maybe try not to
stomp the pampas grass so much, OK?"

"Yes, dear," I deadpanned, while Stilton grinned stupidly at his wife.

I would never learn exactly what he told her of the tractor.

Backing the trailer up Stilton's driveway, I see in the rear-view
mirror the garage door rising and Stilton emerging before the maw is
fully agape.

"Nice trailer," he says. "Yours?"

"You don't recognize it? It's our employer's. Zamboni doesn't know
that I know where he keeps the keys to the B&G shed." I shade my eyes
with my hand and peer into the garage. "Interesting collection you got
here, Stilts."

"I'll walk you through it sometime later. Let's focus, Oggie; even
Zambo has been known to work the odd weekend."

"OK, OK! Does the tractor still have gas and oil?"

"Indeed, but let's wheel it into the light before we start it." As he
disconnects a charger cord from the battery and lowers the hood, I
stoop to run my finger through the dust on a twelve pack of Black and
Tan. "Want one?" he asks while he strains at the tail of the tractor.
I steady the steering wheel and tug on the fender, and it begins to

"Thanks, but it's not quite beer o'clock, and I don't want to arrive
on campus with pilfered property and beer breath. Also, if we’re doing
garage-temperature, the beer should come in a cask."

"That's a rather elaborate rendering of 'No', Og." He is smiling.

"Why stop at one word when a few dozen will do?" I smile back.

He climbs onto the dusty saddle and twists the key to awaken the
engine from hibernation. It spins for several seconds before
combustion becomes manifest, then coughs a few more times before
assuming its regular, thumping idle, over which Stilton declares, "Not
bad for three-year-old gas!"

"That three-year-old gas is spewing onto your driveway," I reply. He
shuts down and we open the hood to discover the badly cracked fuel
line. "You get this with ethanol in modern gasoline," I explain. "But
at least we know the fuel pump is still operational."

"Ever the optimist, Og. Here's my glass half full: if you plant that
trailer at the bottom of the driveway, I can coast down on the tractor
and gain enough momentum to make it up the ramp and onto the trailer."

His final ride is nearly silent. We're strapping the tractor to the
trailer when he asks, "So, next stop home, then?"

"No, Stilts. This thing's bigger than my lawn. I'm taking it to work."

"Oh, cool. There's something else." He jogs up to the garage and
returns with a wall clock. "Here. This belongs at work, too."

"Huh? This seems familiar. OK, no problem, I'll drop this off there, too."

"That means from there, your trip back home takes you by this
neighborhood again?"

"Are you saying you want me to stop by again later?”

"OK, if you want to." He recedes into the shadow of the garage door
until I can make out only the backs of his legs.

Maybe two hours later I pull into Stilton's driveway again. I smell
wood smoke as I get out of the car to join the two legs where I'd left
them. Cold emanates from the walls and contents of the garage; the
main door has been open the whole time I was away.

"Beer's cold," says Stilton. A flap of the box top is torn open, but
the contents are untouched. I grab two bottles and hand him one. I
take a long pull from my beer and reach over to flip the light switch.
I easily recognize a band saw; here a drill press; over there a table

"Setting up a wood shop, eh, Stilts?" I inquire, tentatively.

"Yeah, for five years at least. Those were my dad's tools. I thought
by now I'd be making furniture, cabinets, whatever. Maybe something my
son would take an interest in, too -- something we’d do together,
maybe make a guitar or something. In my spare time." He snorts
sardonically, "Yeah, right!"

I spy a chainsaw perched, chainless, on the crossbars between the legs
of the drill press. Stilton resumes.

"I thought when I got tenure, I'd be able to breathe a little -- maybe
be there more for my family. Then again when I made full professor --
no more hustling to impress T&P anymore, right? But the work just
piled on. A week after I broke the tractor, we hired the neighbor's
landscaper, and I thought, good, at least all the time I’d spend on
the yard could be given to other projects. Like the tractor, even --
maybe we'd soup it up and race it or something. Nope. He had his life,
I had mine: always some deadline, grant, paper, grading, another
fucking recommendation, the shortest one still longer than the longest
email I've ever sent my own son. The cobbler's kids go barefoot! And
now he’s gone..."

"How do you mean?"

"Oh, his stuff is still here, but he doesn’t live here in any real
sense of the word. He visits -- maybe a week, total, per year. One
summer, two semesters more and he’ll graduate and the pretense will
end. Little, less, nothing, no more to build on there. The damn job
got the best from me every time. Every hour I gave it, every fucking
moment it stole from me, I want back now, I need them all back so that
I can undo the wrongs I wrought through my absence, my neglect!"

I consider my daughter, now in her first spring term out of state, and
try to chase the frog down my throat with a few slugs of beer.
"Perhaps..." I hazard wetly, "perhaps the notion that we nurture our
young only through direct interaction with them is a conceit peculiar
to us educators. Perhaps... when they reach a certain age, they learn
from their parents more through observation, thus we are of greatest
use to them when we model how to be an effective adult and contributor
to society."

Then Stilton spreads his arms, as if summoning all denizens of his
garage to arise. "Behold!” he calls out. “My museum to being an
effective adult!" I recall how when we play chess, he’s always two
moves ahead of me. He pokes at the bandsaw's power switch over which a
cord dangles limply, its splayed, plugless end stripped bare. Beyond
that, on the table saw, a toy airplane wing reclines, partly covered
by a fraying kayaker's life vest. "It's a great idea anyway, Og, and
you're onto something with the contributing thing: I'm giving it all
away. The tractor was just phase one."

This need to fix, this desire to do -- is it all to the good? Is it
nobler to set aside in the mind the seeds of outrageous suffering, or
by exposing them, confirm, and by confirming, ensure it? But
erstwhile, elsewhere, I've apprehended in hindsight too late: a
settling of accounts, a disbursing of chattels. I regard the flecks of
snow materializing on the driveway out in the failing daylight and try
to dredge up something good about our jobs, and then, anything good
that ever happened on a Sunday afternoon, but nothing will surface. I
empty my beer.

"When is Gudrun due back?"

"The rats would be on their last maze now," Stilton replies, "so, an
hour more? Early enough to beat the storm."

"With the tractor out of the way, it would only take a couple minutes
to make room for the car. Maybe close the door and let it warm up in

"She'd like that," he says, and we do it. "Apropos of warming up, I
could use a snort. We might squeeze a few fingers from the last bottle
of single malt you left."

We translate to the kitchen, which opens into the living room where a
wood stove displays glowing embers.

"New stove?" I ask.

"New door."

"Ah. That's what's different: it used to be plain cast. The glass is
decidedly more festive."

"I got your decidedly festive glass right here." He's grabbing another
snifter from the cabinet while pouring into a first. "It was her idea.

"Whose? Gudrun's? Yeah, neat. The stove?"

He hands me the first half-full glass and begins pouring the second.
"The stove was mine. I meant giving the stuff away."

I sniff the vapors in my glass and sip deeply. He continues.

"The rational brain knows it must be so. Until it gets some use -- and
I don't see that happening till I retire, and who knows what life will
be like then -- it only takes up space, plus it reminds me of old
plans and why they fell through. But the heart wonders: is that worse
than getting rid of it, thereby to formally abandon the illusion that
things could change? I'd prefer to simply table the decision." He
swirls his scotch and then sips. "Do you want any of it?"

"Space-time continuum failure."

"How so?"

"Same as you -- I continuously fail to have time or space. But there's
a charter school going up in my neck of the woods, grades eight
through twelve. Maybe they'd incorporate a wood shop if they had the

"Oh, yeah, Dad would like it if that’s where his things ended up.”

"You could even arrange to visit his old stuff from time to time."

"We could grab some interested students from our program and take them
to work with the charter kids. Admin is always nagging us to expand
our community outreach." We've been drifting over to the picture
window by the wood stove. He flips a switch and blue-white pine boughs
appear across the back yard. "But you took the tractor, with nary a

"Nothing gets past you. I've been kicking around an idea for a while,
and the tractor is an excuse to put it in action."

"Oh? Do tell."

"Well, you know my biggest pet peeve with our incoming students?"

"That's a pretty broad range, Og. You'll have to be more specific."

"How about this: 'Torque is what moves you...'"

"No! I'm gonna have to stop you right there! I know what comes next,
'Horsepower is just a calculated number.' Please! I'd been having such
a pleasant day till now! If I hear one more student parroting
something like that, that they got from some hack magazine or website
but didn't instantly see it for the utter bullshit it is, I will have
an aneurysm!” He sips again, then shakes his head. “GAAAAHHH!"

"I know, right? I need to disabuse them of such things, but I need
something dramatic; engines running on test stands just aren’t real
enough for them. So, here's what I'm thinking: I'm going to ask
someone to recite the units of torque as used here in the US, and
someone else will read the definition of horsepower. Then I'm going to
ask someone to tell me how many foot pounds per second a twenty
horsepower engine can put out..."

"Eleven thousand, but that's not..."

"Of course that's not the actual torque! But I'm taking them down the
garden path. I'm going to bet them that I'm stronger than twenty
horses. Then I'll wheel the tractor in and fire it up right there in
the classroom! See where I'm going? I'll loop a V belt over the output
pulley and yank it tight, and I'll stall that fucker with my bare
hands... well, my bare hands and the belt. But it will sound

"You might consider the radius of the stock mower drive pulley..."

"Yeah, yeah, it's too small. I already have a bigger one, scrounged
years ago from a Massey-Ferguson something-or-other, been using it as
a paperweight, close to a foot in diameter..."

"So, eighty pounds’ tension or thereabouts. Sounds do-able. Put a
spring scale inline with the belt and you've got a poor man's Prony

"Yup. So, after that demonstration and a bit of letting them in on the
joke, we'll take the tractor to the parking lot, and we'll give them
each a spring scale on a rope tied to the tractor's hitch, and they'll
each maintain, say, twenty five or forty pounds while it drags them
across the lot at some velocity that we also measure. Then repeat at
different governor settings, in second gear, third, and so on. Then
back in the classroom we use the gear ratios to work out how much
torque and power the engine was putting out."

"Put a flow meter in the fuel line and you can also look at burn rate and BSFC."

"Ooh! More sensors! Throttle position, mass airflow! We could hook
them to a laptop and log the data in real time."

"How about we take it to the ice rink and accelerate a heavy sled up
to speed. I've still got the wheel chains for it somewhere."

"Heh! Zamboni would kill us!"

"Zambo can be bribed."

"So you'll work with me on this?"

"I love this plan! I'm excited to be a part of it! Let's do it!"

"Cool. Then we'll start tomorrow. But I've got to get home now."

I hear the garage door opening as I’m walking to the front door, where
I wait until Gudrun comes in from the garage.

"Hey, Oggie," she greets me. "You’re leaving us now? Probably for the
best: it’s going to be an interesting drive home!"

"My drive home is always interesting, Gudrun. Well, toodles for now.”


The snow crunches under my sneakers as I walk down the driveway to my car.



  1. I don't know what to say. About half way through, I was trying to figure out how student-induced misery would ruin the tractor (or the beer) but then you changed it up with an inspriing story about doing more for your students. I wasn't expecting that. The idea that we are always thinking about our jobs rings true. Whenever I see something even remotely related to chemistry (e.g., cooking), my first thought is, how can I get my students to do that in the lab?

    Nice story.

    1. Thanks, Ben. It means a lot that you liked it.

      Here I am, at 23:00, thinking of ways to do my job better, and the meetings I'll have with students over the next two days, and the new ways I can try to demonstrate old concepts, and how to get the students more interested in X, and...

      Yeah, it's in our nature.

  2. Now I'm gonna have Harry Chapin's "Cats in the Cradle" going through my head all day.

    Which is fine, because I've consistently sacrificed academic over-productivity for family; it hasn't hurt me as much as it probably should have, but it sure hasn't helped.

    1. Dammit JD, I've now got "Seasons in the Sun" as a welcome to the weekend earworm, and that's not fine.

      No idea why these songs are linked in my mind, but both of them drive me nuts.

    2. Sorry. Can I interest you in an Oompa-Loompa song or marching cadence?

    3. That middle part hit pretty close to home for me, too, though from a different perspective (my father is a Ph.D. -- though not an academic -- who has accomplished a great deal in his professional life, and now, at the end of his life, seems increasingly aware of the sacrifices that entailed, for him and others. I'm actually somewhat of the teach-by-example-of-a-productive-life mindset; my brother is considerably less so).

      The end, on the other hand, had me wondering what the university lawyer would think of such hands-on demonstrations (but OPH's discipline and institution are a bit more hands-on in orientation than mine, I think. Even our engineers seem to tend toward modeling things virtually, though a few also build things -- I think there's a floor devoted to that in an engineering building somewhere -- and some of our art students definitely know their way around a blowtorch).

  3. You make me feel less guilty for shirking my goddamned grading.

  4. This sorta sounds like Pilt and Pompel doing a guest spot on The Red Green Show. And I mean that as a compliment - Reparatorennen Kommer!

  5. Im no master, however I trust you simply made an amazing point. You surely completely comprehend what youre talking about, and I can genuinely get behind that. cellulari spia

  6. Loved this for all kinds of personal reasons! Thank you for sharing!

  7. Thank you all very much for the compliments. I want to address some of the ideas that came up in these comments, because I think they are interesting, but I spent the past several days writing not for pleasure, and my brain has not let me do much more than one liners the past few evenings. Maybe tomorrow.

  8. I wanted to add a few thoughts to the comments others have made. The delay in response comes from an unexpected reaction to seeing the piece here. I had only submitted it for review---apparently it was found acceptible, and I am thankful that it was published---but I had not prepared myself for the mixture of pride, pain, and things I can't fully identify.

    We've probably all heard sayings to the effect of "enjoy it while you can, it'll be over before you know it" and "nobody on their death bed ever said they wished they'd spent more time at the office." Platitudes are so easily brushed aside, and I can almost convince myself that I was doing the best I could with the cards I was given to play at the time. But the realization now hits that there truly are points from which there is no going back. So I am quite glad for anyone who procrastinated work for the right reasons, as have been touched on here.

    My daughter is staying at school for spring break, which makes this next thing possible to relate only in the third person.

    As for the story shifting to that of two colleagues brainstorming about how to do more for their students, I think in this instance the evidence suggests that a significant motivator was for them to keep themselves and each other from sloshing to and fro through Kubler-Ross' Grief Stages regarding another issue. Specifically, instead of busying themselves with making space for the car and then moving to other topics, it would have been quite natural for them to have empathized more openly over Stilton's son and OPH's daughter. Their choice of action suggests that the latter was intolerable at the time. It is not clear that either proffie will ever reach the stange of acceptance.

    Regarding their new project, the proffies have backed off from plans involving the ice rink, student safety being among their reasons. They are instead examining other possibilities, such as a section of a railroad spur bordering the campus that was abandoned during a recently completed rails-to-trails project. Metal wheels on rails have much lower rolling resistance than do rubber tires on typical paved surfaces. Another idea is to use air casters; the advantage of the latter is they can be used to move equipment in our machine shop.