Things are tough all over

I work on the fourth of July — I have for years. As a traveling tractor mechanic, I found the Glorious Fourth to be inextricably connected to hay season. For many of us, there’s just too much going on this time of year and a weekend off wouldn’t be practical. Today, most of my work is horse related and the pressure is off but I still find it pleasant to have the world to myself for a day. Here’s how it went on July fourth, 2008.

Proceeding East on Route 50 toward the Shenandoah River, I see the distant glint of polished brass and red paint in the other lane. This bright figure soon takes the shape of an antique fire truck on its way to join a parade somewhere. So far, this is the only traffic that I’ve met on this normally busy stretch of highway.

The holiday jobsite is selected well in advance. I’ve chosen a gated 35-acre horse property along Goose Creek. I can’t tell whether I’m in Loudoun or Fauquier County though the green rock in the stone fences suggests that it’s Loudoun. There is no residence on the property and its owner, who phoned from Kiev, probably won’t be around today. Since an unlocked farm gate acts as a magnet to kids on ATVs, I’m instructed to lock myself in upon arriving.

My “patient” is a newly acquired Oliver 55, circa 1955. The Oliver shares an old oak board shed with a new L-series Kubota, the property’s workhorse. This customer often spoke fondly about driving a 55 on the family apple orchard as a teen. He had been looking for an Oliver 55 for some time when he found this rusty green, yellow and red treasure on the Internet and bought it from God-knows-where.

My assignment is to get the tractor running smoothly, change the fluids and, in general, make it pleasurable to operate. The tractor starts easily enough but emits a loud explosion and a long flame from the upright exhaust. The hornets nesting quietly in the rafters hold a quick meeting and decide to make their displeasure known. Upon releasing the clutch, I’m more than a little pleased to realize that I’ve managed to seek out reverse on the first try.

Backing the Oliver out into the sunshine, the explosions become more frequent — firing like a cannon into the sky from the tall stack. A check of the ignition points reveals that someone has applied great gobs of Lubriplate to the points cam. Some of the stuff was thrown on to the points. After I installed a new set using the proper lubricant, the old Oliver decided to abandon its anti-aircraft ambitions. Following were the usual tractor mundanities; dump the sediment bowl, change the fluids, grease the fittings, etc.

The air temperature continues to rise. I keep a tall glass of ginger ale and ice within easy reach; a portable radio on the toolboxes is tuned to Public Radio. This being a national holiday, the day’s theme is exclusively devoted to American composers; Scott Joplin, Aaron Copeland, Glenn Miller, Hoagie Carmichael. The sound of musketry and old black powder cannon echoes softly from some distant re-enactment along the creek.

The hornets in the shed are still on hair trigger alert, but I manage to extricate the Kubota before they can select their target. I disconnect the brush-hog type mower and mount it on the Oliver. A short period of mowing is followed by a small adjustment to the ingenious independent PTO clutch. It’s time to get into the wide, deep creek to cool off. This far from the road, the traditional, time-honored attire of remote swimming holes is acceptable.

The time to leave this private little paradise finally arrives. The hornets can still be seen swarming about the shed so I leave the tractors outside. I’ll be in the area tomorrow when, hopefully, all will be forgotten. Still, I leave a note to that effect; “Sorry — had to leave the tractors out — bees P.O.ed.”

During the drive home a familiar car joins the traffic ahead of me as I pass Wal-Mart. It is driven by a young parts counter man whom I regularly deal with. His wife and two preteens are along. Further down the road, we both stop for gas at Round Hill Market. At the pumps, after the usual pleasantries and grousing about the price of fuel, he notices by the grease that I’m wearing that I’ve worked on this special day.

“Well, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” he offers consolingly.

This was 2008, the year that our economy began to return to normal after a 60 year postwar feeding frenzy. It was popular then to talk about the “hard times.” Not feeling the need to explain in detail, I simply replied, “Yes, things are tough all over.”

In the car, I notice that the kids are hot and fussy. His wife, her lips a thin, taunt line, barely acknowledges my presence. After supper, they’ll fight traffic in order to observe the public fireworks display. Perhaps we’ll join them.

At home, I present this possibility to the Old Hippie, aka my wife, Stephanie. She takes the glass of ginger ale that I’ve been sipping and freshens it with more ice and a shot of Bourbon and walks outside where she is grilling steaks over a fire of seasoned maple. I follow. “I’m guessing that I should take that as a “no,” I responded.

Later, we sit on the porch in the gathering darkness. Across an open field, a party is gathering momentum and some of the local pyrotechnical talent is putting on an impressive display. We soon reason that we couldn’t justify the cost of the gasoline to go to the fireworks display at Sherando Park, about 30 miles away. After all, things are tough all over.

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