Messing with Machines: a Vanishing Pleasure

September 29, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- When the new Allis Chalmers CA tractor arrived on our farm, I was about 10 years old. I thought that tractor was pretty special. It had four forward gears instead of three like the old Fords, and it had both a hand clutch and a foot clutch. There's a picture of me driving it, taken around that time, and I look like a kid who owned the world.

Over the years I put in a lot of time on that little tractor, and it taught me some lessons. First I had to learn its quirks. Using an eight-volt battery instead of the regular six-volt helped it start a little better in cold weather, but it was always good insurance to park it on a hill.

You could also start it with a crank, which made you feel strong and brave. I never actually knew anyone who'd had an arm broken by a tractor crank, but there were plenty of such stories, and they lent an aura of danger to the proceedings. So did the knowledge that the CA, when going down a grade with a load behind it, could jump out of third gear if you didn't keep your hand on the shift lever.

On the whole, though, the CA did its various jobs so well that for about 20 years my father bought only Allis Chalmers tractors -- five in all. Their bright orange color was part of our landscape, just as the John Deere green or the Ford blue was for some of our neighbors. There was an Allis dealership about five miles away.

Eventually a lot of that changed. The dealership went out of business; today it's a bar. Except for the CA, our Allis-Chalmers tractors were gradually replaced by Fords. And the old CA didn't get much use. It stayed parked in a corner of the shed collecting pigeon droppings. Inexplicably and demeaningly, someone even painted it green.

This past week, needing the space where it stood, I sold it to a neighbor from a mile down the road who restores old tractors for a hobby. It started up cheerfully when he came to get it, and off it went into the foggy morning, about to get a brand-new start on life at the age of 45. For a moment I wished I had the time and skills to restore it myself.

I could be wrong, but what was once a widespread American fascination with motorized vehicles of all kinds seems to be vanishing rapidly. Someone who can rebuild a carburetor was once seen as an important artisan, but now such a skill is considered almost quaint, like the ability to use an adz or shoe a draft horse.

My own children reflect this; they have lively intellectual interests, but these certainly don't include the internal-combustion engine in any of its many forms. Neither they nor their friends seem to see much romance or excitement in powered transportation, or have much desire to find out how it works.

In this they're by no means unusual. This summer, making conversation with the teen-aged owner of a shiny new Jeep Wrangler, I asked if it were a four or a six. He gave me the kind of look people of his age reserve for middle-aged morons; it turned out he thought I was asking how many wheels it had. Cylinders? He hadn't a clue. He would be entering an excellent college in a few weeks, but I doubt he knew why his Jeep had cylinders, let alone how many of them.

That's not a bad thing, I guess. Without doubt he knows a lot more than I do about RAM and ROM and international monetary policy. Plenty of valuable citizens in our society would no more change their own oil than make their own clothes. But those who never mess with engines and other machinery miss out on certain small but intense pleasures.

My first major purchase as a pre-teen was a $50 outboard motor. Then came a series of motorcycles, most of which at some point required major rebuilding. Although I'm by no means a skilled mechanic I learned to take a variety of mechanisms apart and put them back together, and experienced the rush that comes when a motor that's been spread all over the garage actually fires up.

It's probably harder today than it used to be for kids who like to get their hands greasy to learn basic mechanics. Modern automobile engines are a lot more intimidating than the motors that powered Model A Fords or Allis Chalmers CA tractors, and when I look under the hood of a new car I'm generally baffled. There's sure a lot of stuff in there that I can't identify.

And even though General Motors and some environmentalists seem to think it would be a better and cleaner world if we all drove only new cars, that goal's a good way off. So I hope there are still a few kids out there learning what a crankshaft's for, and asking Santa to bring them a set of feeler gauges for Christmas.

There are plenty of old engines out there for them to practice on, and they're not expensive. I sold the old CA for $1,000, which is just about what it cost new back in 1949. It isn't what it used to be, but it still has some value. I guess you could say the same about the dollar.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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