Dipping into the mail bag makes for good reading

I’m happy to report that most of the mail that I receive as a result of hosting this and other columns is of a positive nature. However, I have been raked over the coals at least once. Now, if any reader recognizes the content of his/her letter here and isn’t all that pleased about it, he or she does well to remember: if you send it, I own it. I will do the sender the courtesy of anonymity except when the letter is a pleasurable bit of reading. I will then gladly credit and heap praises upon the author.

Oh yes, I said that I got raked over the coals. This letter was in response to the story “Guns at Midnight,” which appeared in the Hampshire Review and the Spirit of Jefferson wherein I describe the gunfire heard all over Hampshire County at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, and how I might be inclined to participate.

A tractor repair client who owns a farm near Front Royal, Va., is also a civilian contractor working in Baghdad, Iraq. He recounted how much more dangerous the city became when everyone started firing their rifles into the air to celebrate the capture of Saddam Hussein. He and his crew needed to take cover from the easily lethal rain of falling bullets.

With this in mind I suggested that New Year’s celebrants fire into the ground instead of into the air if they were using a single projectile gun. (Firing into the air with light birdshot is relatively harmless.) I wasn’t especially outspoken about this but to expound on such matters is not the purpose of this column.

Evidently, this reader hadn’t read that far into the story before firing off a lengthy letter chewing me out for advocating the practice of firing into the air with a high-powered rifle. The reader cited a tragedy in his area involving celebratory fire and was obviously responding emotionally to this news.

At one point, though, this octogenarian reader told how, when growing up on a 300- acre farm, they would make sure that no one was around before firing into the air. This left me with a couple of questions, not the least of which is how bullets from a rifle with a one- to five-mile range can be confined to 300 acres. The other is: what in the blazes were they shooting at? But this isn’t the only reader, or writer, for that matter, to go off half-cocked, as we shall see later.

Anyway, letters in response to my articles in Antique Power and Vintage Truck are sent to me before publication for my approval and possible reply. Most letters are from older readers thanking me for helping them to recall fond memories. These readers are usually in their 80s and 90s with a few possibly past the century mark. How, at the tender age of 60, it’s possible for me to do this is as much a mystery to me as anyone.

One letter, from a fellow about my age, was in response to my “Of Grease and Chaff” story, “The Traveling Mechanic’s Worst Blooper.” The story is about a July 2000, meeting at Camp David between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yassier Arafat. The meeting was presided over by United States President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. At one particularly tense period, Clinton left for a meeting of G8 nations in Japan leaving Albright to deal with these two warring leaders.

Desperate for a way to ease the tension, Albright invited these grumpy old boys out to her Loudoun County, Va., farm. At the time, I had her Massey Ferguson 135 torn down at the farm for a clutch and crankshaft. I had clearance (which was surprisingly informal in those days) to be there that day. However, with armed U.S., Israeli and Palestinian security traipsing about the place, I thought this to be a day better spent out of range.

The following week, I interrogated the young farm manager as to how things had gone. Between his account and my own assumptions, I was left with an image of Arafat and Barak standing in the barnyard, chatting amicably over the disassembled “Massey-Picasso.”

I reported this image in my annual Traveling Mechanic column but later learned that because the day fell on the Jewish Sabbath, Barak didn’t attend. That was the blooper. I concluded that farmers shouldn’t be reporters.

In response, Iowa trainman, Bob Nicholson, published a letter that I misunderstood to be a gloomy “if only — if only” lament. In a published response to this letter, I suggested that he lighten up and avoid ropes and sharp objects. Further, I recommended my personal method for putting these things in perspective; I try to imagine circumstances such as these as an old movie. I cast Harpo Marx as Yassier Arafat, Keenan Wynn as Barak, President Clinton is played by W.C. Fields and Secretary Albright is portrayed by the ever stalwart Marjorie Main (aka, Ma Kettle).

He replied to me personally. I present the letter here in its entirety — not only as a shameless plug for my column in that publication but because it contains a great story.

“Mr. Kalvitis:

I decided to write you personally after reading your response in the February 2010, issue of Antique Power to my letter in the December 2009, issue.

First, though, I want you to know how much I enjoy your column, which, by itself is worth the price of the magazine. “The Hunt”, in the 12/09 issue was over the center field wall. The visions it evoked were hilarious. More on “Churchyard Mold” in a minute.

However, I was not trying to spread doom and gloom with my letter, only emphasizing that your vision of enemies becoming friends over a common denominator is historical fact, even under the most extenuating circumstances. Imagine what might have been if Barak and Arafat actually had talked over a Ford 8N rather than a mahogany table. I’m sure their followers would be much more pleased with the outcome as well.

I note in your latest column that you lived in Corydon, Iowa, during the winter of 1977-78. I was a locomotive fireman on the Santa Fe RR out of Ft. Madison, Iowa, during that period, and always claim I worked harder to get a train down a hill one December day than I ever worked to get one up a hill.

You see, Santa Fe didn’t believe in winterizing diesel fuel until it was cold enough, by which time it was usually too late. I’ll never forget the engine Nos. 8516 and 8004. 8004 was the first to go, shutting down with frozen fuel filters. I went back and restarted it, nursing it along by putting it “on line” until the diesel engine revved to about Run 5, at which time I would isolate it and let it idle back down while the fuel pump forced sufficient fuel through the crystallized fuel filters to rev it up again.

That was working fairly well, but then the 8516 went down with a frozen governor and we couldn’t restart it. That left the crippled 8004 as our sole source of motive power, and me keeping it running as described (downhill, too) until we got the train where we could add more locomotives. If there was anything positive about the experience, the 8004 was at least warm. The engineer had to remain at the controls in the cold, dead 8516. He didn’t hesitate to let me know there was something wrong with that picture, either (good natured, though, he told the train master he should promote me to engineer on the spot).

The other part of your Corydon experience reminded me of the dead elm trees my father and I cut into firewood in the late 1950s. By the time we got to many of them, the wood was well-seasoned and had such a beautiful sound, like bowling pins at a bowling alley, when two logs were knocked together that burning them seemed almost a shame. I have often, wondered what else a person could do with seasoned elm wood besides bum it.

Keep the columns coming, and if you won’t tell Pat I read yours before I read his, I won’t, either.

Bob Nicholson”

That letter represents the tip of an iceberg. Antique Power, Vintage Truck, Farm and Ranch and CountRy readers have sent letters, stories, tools, samples of products and even a truck. Likewise, Hampshire Review and Spirit of Jefferson readers have sent some funny and interesting farm and tractor stories. You won’t find them here but you might want to watch future issues of these magazines. Thanks.


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