My lawn mower and I have a long-standing truce, the terms of which are pretty clear-cut.
I promise never again to set the mower on fire, and the mower agrees to stop chewing up my shoes like a naughty pup. The difference is the mower likes to eat my shoes with my feet attached. The most recent attack left my big toe, as well as the emergency room staff, in stitches.
My mower and I are grudging companions. It's my fault. I understand garden machinery even less than I do women. Treat it badly and a mower will sputter at you for days.
It is comforting, therefore, to learn that America is loaded with mower morons like me who keep the country's top small-engine mechanics on their toes.
"I've seen people put weed killer instead of oil in the crankcase, which literally glues the engine together," says Stewart Lowery, a mower mechanic in Lewisville, Texas.
"I've fixed mowers that had turpentine and paint thinner in the gas tank," says Roy Feldkamp, who owns a repair shop in Altamont, Ill.
"I've seen mower blades so badly worn that you wonder which side you should sharpen," says Dan Denhard, a mechanic in Louisville, Ky.
Luckily, all those mower morons found proper care. Mr. Lowery, Mr. Feldkamp and Mr. Denhard were grand winners in the 1991 EngineRepair Championships held recently at the Kentucky Fair Exposition Center in Louisville.
The trio defeated 200 mechanics from as far away as New York and California while competing in what one entrant called "the Miss America contest for mower repairmen."
Results of written tests about lubricants, valves and camshafts narrowed the field to 18 semifinalists, and then to the final nine.
"We even had our own 'Bert Parks' announce the finalists," says Bill Robinson, executive director of the Engine Service Association, which sponsored the event.
For Mr. Lowery, the mechanic from Texas, the suspense was overwhelming.
"They called my name last," he says. "I was sweating."
The finalists, ranging in age from 27 to 56, paraded onto the stage for the moment of truth. The contestants, all men, were given 90 minutes to repair nine new riding mower engines that had been carefully "bugged" by the judges.
Officially, the mechanics were told the mistakes were the work of homeowners who themselves had tried to repair the flawed mowers. Mr. Lowery's engine was a mess: one gear was upside down, the throttle plate on the carburetor was installed backward and the flywheel key had been sheared.
"It looked like some of the jobs our customers bring in," says Mr. Lowery.
Other contestants had their own problems. The knot had been removed from the end of the recoil rope in Mr. Feldkamp's engine so that when he pulled it, 5 feet of line came out in his hand.
"I felt like a dummy," he says.
The men worked feverishly amid cheers from the crowd and flashing cameras.
"I was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a rocking chair festival," says Mr. Lowery. "But I put a dip of snuff in my mouth and everything was fine. I had to re-create my home environment."
For their efforts, each of the three champions received $1,000 and the engine they repaired.
Some of their daily work is equally challenging.
"We had a damaged riding mower come into our shop on the back of a tow truck," says Mr. Denhard.
At least 85 percent of homeowners abuse their mowers, he says. "More than half of the mowers we see are either out of oil or dangerously low on it."
The winning mechanics say they are appalled at the lack of respect given to mowers.
"Many people store gas in old milk jugs," says Mr. Feldkamp. "But there are traces of butterfat in those jugs which can mix with the gas and mess up the carburetor."
Some machines are dragged into his Illinois shop nearly new, says Mr. Feldkamp. "People buy mowers in discount stores, take them home and assume they are full of oil. Well, they aren't. So the engines seize up immediately and need to be replaced," he says.
Lowery says the cheaper $200 mowers suffer the most -- "people treat them like disposable BIC lighters" -- but that expensive models are also mistreated. And the worst offenders squawk if the shop can't fix their mowers NOW.
"There's a lot more to working on mowers than people think," says Mr. Lowery. "We're not just a bunch of idiots who beat on things with hammers and screwdrivers."
That description best fits the rest of us.