Too soon old and too late smart

“I’ve been wallowing in that snow for 25 years,” I’ve heard myself say in reference to my decision to stay close to a warm shop stove this winter. I was a little surprised to hear this coming from me of all people. Over the years, I’ve considered winter to be no more than summer with short days and slippery roads. My Baltic/Scandinavian tolerance for cold carried me through working outside all winter, and a gung-ho spirit and solid work ethic made it easy for me to ignore the cold, snow and ice.

But something happened. Perhaps it’s a result of trying to acclimate myself to the ever warmer summers of late, or perhaps it’s just a natural effect of aging. Whatever happened, it has caused me to become just like everyone else and seek the comfort of a wood stove on these frigid days. In trying to recapture the spirit of those days when I would arrive at a frozen job site 50 miles away before daylight, I consulted my daily journal

from that period.

Twenty years ago would be a nice round figure, but my entries from that January and before are mostly dry technical notes scrawled on billing forms and receipts. I didn’t start keeping a detailed journal until March of 1994 — close, but no cigar.

To capture this time of year, we’ll have to back up to the winter of 1995/96, a mere 19 years ago. Here, the journal entry finds me doing major repairs to the frame of a John Deere 450 track loader on a high, windy ridge near where Hampshire, Hardy and Frederick counties meet. The job site is at a medium high elevation for our area. From this vantage point, I can see the moonscape of the higher ridge of North Mountain, encrusted in ice. I had fixed another John Deere up there back in October. At least I’m not up there — if I could even get there. There’s always something to be thankful for — it

could always be worse, you know.

I’m painted into a financial corner here due to weather-related delays. This job must now be finished regardless of what the weather might dish out. Of course, a light rain started the previous day; then the temperature plummeted through the night. This left a glaze of ice and a few inches of hard, gritty snow.

We’re supposed to have only five senses — we are taught to ignore the rest. Hidden deep in the unused 90 percent of our thought capacity is the ability to sense the hardness of metals. Metal hardness varies with temperature. Compare the flint hardness of a dozer track at 10 degrees to its relatively soft counterpart while loading topsoil on a hot ummer’s day.

While those who study and teach about these things may argue that such a perception is impossible, it’s also easy to imagine excavators and mechanics nodding in agreement that this sensation actually does exist. On the molecular level, there’s a lot going on in the metal itself. We might be sensing these forces in the electromagnetic or ultrasonic end of the spectrum.

In my dad’s tool and die shop, I’ve seen over-hardened metal literally explode from tensions within while simply sitting on a workbench. It stands to reason that the metal sends out some kind of vibes.

What could be harder, colder and less welcoming than a snow-covered hardened steel dozer track, frozen to the ground in a frigid wind? It’s hard to get started in the early morning when this prospect awaits you. The only option is to throw yourself into the work, grasping the cold metal, often barehanded to maintain dexterity during delicate stages in the operation. If you try to get comfortable, you’ll only frustrate yourself.

I manage to pull the links of the track together and align the holes to insert the hard steel pin that holds them together. Next comes the installation of the backhoe attachment mount.

As this large piece hangs from the service truck’s crane, I can’t help but notice that it resembles a large tuning fork. I hit it with a ball peen hammer and it rings, the note going

higher and higher into the human inaudible range, bringing forth a chorus of howls from the dogs in the valley below.

Today, back in 2014, I’m watching the first snow of the new year falling outside the window above the work bench of my wood-heated shop. There’s only one complete tractor in the shop, but components brought in from the field and the unheated North

River Mills shop add up to there being three machines getting serviced here — so there’s plenty to do. A Handel violin concerto is playing softly on the radio. The cold, moist air is causing the smoke from the chimney to fall to the ground as it cools and follow the hillside down to the river where it settles.

I feel like I should be out there. As if in answer to these thoughts, a call comes in informing me that a manure spreader floor chain has arrived at the farm along with this current snowfall and a cold snap. Looks like I’ll be getting the chance to relive some cherished moments. I hope that my coveralls will still zip shut. A tough “push through the pain and get it done” attitude is good to have when you’re 42. But, at 60,

I have to remind myself — for the moment, anyway — to simply hold fast the fond memories.

 

 

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