I don’t have my wife’s green thumb, I do seem to
have the ability to fix anything mechanical. Given the
age of everything mechanical on our old farm, a ‘grease
thumb’ just might be better then a green thumb.
My love of mechanics started early. Tinker Toys
quickly gave way to Erector Sets, which were followed by
lawn mower engines and, eventually, cars. My love of
mechanics and technology prompted me to pursue an
engineering degree and my first five years after college
were spent serving as an Engineering Officer onboard
I can still clearly remember standing in the bottom
of a dry dock the night before the USS Kamamamaha, a
nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine, was to be re-floated after
a two-year overhaul. Responsible for the operation of
her nuclear power plant, I had learned an immense amount
of practical and theoretical engineering during those
two, long years. I had resolved countless complex
problems involving nuclear, electrical, or mechanical
issues and was confident that henceforth, the resolution
of any mechanical problem would be child’s play.
Then I bought a farm tractor . . .
One of the more immediate issues I had to address
after buying the farm was obtaining a suitable tractor
and mower to cut its ten acres of pasture. My first
inclination was to purchase a new tractor but sticker
shock quickly made me reevaluate that option. The more I
hemmed and hawed about what to do, the taller the grass
grew. By the time summer arrived, the grass in the
pasture had grown so high that our cats and dogs were
often lost in it for days.
Weary of listening to our calls for our animals, a
neighbor suggested that I get in touch with Kermit
Glass, the local purveyor of used tractors. At 5 foot 5,
and 145 pounds, Kermit wasn’t an imposing man but
having been in the tractor business for 60 of his 80
years, what he lacked in physical stature he more then
made up for in tractor repair trivia and home spun
"You the city slicker that bought the old
Hipsley place huh?"
"Uh, yeah. How did you know?" I replied.
"Easy, you don’t have any dirt under your
fingernails, so you must be a city slicker. Talk around
here was that you were a nuclear engineer. Is that
"Um, Yes sir."
"Never had a nuclear engineer around here
before. Most folks around here can’t even figure out
how to change their oil . . . you do know how to change
oil don’t you? So what can I do for you today?"
Kermit patiently listened as I explained my needs and
then walked me over to a '51 International H' on the far
end of a line of used tractors. With a twinkle in his
eye he explained that "she was owned by a local
Amish farmer who only used her on Sunday when the other
Amish were at church. . . . She'll do you just fine.
Just make sure that the oil pressure gauge is always
pegged high." Kermit threw in an "almost
new" bush hog, and the deal was done.
According to Kermit, to start the tractor all I had
to do was "just pull this button out, pull this
lever back and push this button in," which, when
performed by Kermit, resulted in the tractor immediately
roaring to life. Unbeknownst to me, the tractor
apparently had a profound dislike for nuclear engineers
and decided that it would be good sport to humiliate me
as often as possible. It wasted little time in doing so.
The following day the tractor was delivered and, upon
returning from work, I approached it with confidence.
Following Kermit's direction, the tractor roared to life—for
ten seconds. Ten times I repeated the starting procedure
yet all I succeeded in accomplishing was to wear out the
battery. Perplexed, I called Kermit for help.
"Did you open the fuel valve?" he asked.
"Fuel valve? What's that?"
"It's that little valve under the fuel tank. Got
to open that or you won't get any gas. Didn't you say
you were a nuclear engineer?" With dented ego, I
found and opened the offending valve and the tractor
came to life, and I proceeded to cut the pastures.
For reasons which now escape me, I remember having
fun the first few times I cut the pastures. Initially I
had aspirations to make the pastures look like golf
greens, and for the first few months, I cut and re-cut
the pastures in every possible pattern and direction,
meticulously insuring that no one blade of grass was
higher then another. My neighbors, who are real farmers,
would drive by and shake their heads in disbelief,
especially when I would stand on the tractor and lip
sing the theme song from "Green Acres". They,
along with my wife, thought I needed to get a real life.
For most of the summer the tractor ran well, then one
day I noticed that the oil pressure gauge was no longer
pegged high. I immediately shut off the tractor and
called Kermit for advice.
"Well, did you put any oil in it?"
Oil? Oil?!! Kermit never said anything about putting
oil in it when I bought it. How could I have missed
something so obvious! My feeling of incompetence was
only increased when I had to call Kermit back ten
minutes later to find out where the oil went in. His
closing comment of "you sure you're a nuclear
engineer?" sounded like a challenge, so I decided
to prove my technical abilities and not simply add oil,
but change the oil.
In no time at all the oil was changed and with the
oil gauge pegged high, I confidently returned to cutting
the field. Within an hour however, the tractor exhaust
became quite noticeable, within another hour, the
tractor was putting out a smoke screen that a World War
II destroyer captain would have been proud of. Soon the
smoke was so bad, that this time Kermit called me and
asked if my house was on fire. When I explained that all
I had done was change he oil, he asked what type of oil
I had used.
"10W-40 detergent oil, of course."
"That wasn't too bright an idea there Mike, You
just cleaned out all the sludge and dirt that had been
plugging up the cracks in that old engine for years. Now
the oil’s just a’pouring past those old rings. You
really a nuclear engineer?"
Faced with the very real possibility of receiving
citations for violating air quality requirements and
having to change the spark plugs every fifteen minutes,
I decided I had no other option other then to rebuild
the engine. After all, how hard could it be, I mean, I
had rebuilt a nuclear reactor . . . Word of my plans
quickly spread around the neighborhood. On the morning
of the operation, I discovered that stands had been set
up around the tractor, which were rapidly filling with
local farmers. Kermit began the day’s festivities by
warming up the crowd with predictions of what I would
break this time. A few farmers even brought a few guns
"just in case we have to put it or you out of
Undeterred by their sarcasm, I began to organize my
tools, which brought howls of laughter as it became
apparent that my city slicker socket set didn't have a
socket large enough for even the smallest bolt or nut on
the tractor. However, putting on latex gloves to keep my
hands clean was just too much for the old-timers and
Kermit had to call for an intermission till oxygen
bottles could be found for them. Through the ‘operation’,
jokes about ‘wanabe’ farmer nuclear engineers flew
fast and furious. In the end, i.e., when all the six
packs were consumed, the operation was declared a
success and ,to the amazement of all, especially myself,
the tractor roared to life without a hint of smoke.
For the next few years all seemed well and the
pastures slowly began to take on my much wanted golf
course appearance. Little did I know however that the
tractor's contempt for me was building. After a suitable
time had elapsed, it up and decided not to start.
Unwilling to call Kermit and be humiliated again, I
spent the whole day checking and rechecking all its
electrical connections, all to no avail. With the
pasture only half-mown and the sun setting fast, I
finally broke down and called Kermit. In hopes of
prevent him from making me feel like a complete idiot, I
immediately launched into extensive explanation on
everything I had checked and done.
"Why'd you do all that Mike? Heck, all it sounds
like is that the starter is stuck out, just unbolt the
two bolts holding the starter in place and spin the
starter gear back in and it'll start up good as
I couldn't even begin to fathom how he knew this
would work but with nothing to lose I did as he said. It
worked. When I called him back to thank him, he couldn’t
help but chuckle and asked: "You really a nuclear
Several weeks later, the tractor again refused to
start and, after verifying everything was where it was
supposed to be, I called Kermit. What the heck, I
figured, he already thinks I'm incompetent, What do I
have to lose.
"Won't turn over, huh? Sounds like a dead
battery to me, Mike."
I refused to tell him that the slap he heard was the
sound of me hitting my forehead with a board. Since it
was Sunday, I was sort of at a loss for what to do next.
"No big deal, just jump it from you truck."
"But the tractor is a 6-volt system, and my
truck is 12 volts."
"That's OK, Just touch the leads real fast.
Completely convinced that I was now the stupidest
nuclear engineer on the face of the earth, I proceeded
to carry out his directions. Just like Kermit said, the
tractor roared to life when I touched the jumper cable
to the tractor ground. However, Kermit failed to warn me
that I'd get a lot of sparking, which promptly ignited
the gas that was constantly leaking from the gas line.
Within seconds, the engine was ablaze, fed by years of
grease and oil buildup on its side.
Audrey, who had been watering the side garden and
watching dispassionately my display of engineering
valor, shook her head and with a hint of satire said,
"Let me guess, they taught you that trick in the
Navy? Now I suppose you'll want to use the hose and
interrupt my watering, right?"
Refusing to accept her invitation to a debate, I
grabbed the hose and quickly put out the fire. As the
last of the flames were extinguished, the tractor
sputtered and died. I swore I heard it laugh at me.
Determined to win the battle of wills with the
tractor, I set about rebuilding or replacing everything
I had yet to tinker with and, for a while, the tractor
ran quite well. However, just when I thought I had got
the hang of ‘tractoring,’ it once again up and died.
Up until that time it had always had the good graces to
die near the barn but this time it died in the middle of
the field, which added insult to injury, for I now had
to figure out how to tow it back to the barn. For the
next two hours, I retrieved everything and anything I
thought could help pull the tractor. Though my wife
insisted that her garden hoses were off limits, I still
managed to sneak two out of the garden. By the time I
was done, there was more rope and wire connecting my
truck and tractor then a tugboat pulling ship.
Unfortunately, the ground was a little bit softer then I
figured, and instead of pulling the tractor forward, I
sank the truck up to the axles in mud. Just then, Kermit
happened to drive by.
"Looks like you got yourself in quite a fix here
Mike. I don’t mean to sound smart but it’s a lot
easier to pull your truck out of the mud with the
tractor facing the other way . . . " By the time I
finished explaining what had happened, he was laughing
so hard he was leaning against the tractor gasping for
"Rebuilt the carburetor, huh? You didn't happen
to change the fuel filter while you were at it, did
"Fuel filter? Fuel filter?!! You never told me
this thing had a fuel filter!"
"Mike, every engine has a fuel filter. Didn’t
they teach you that in your fancy nuclear power
school?" With the confidence that comes from years
of farming, Mr. Kermit pulled out the clogged filter,
pressed the start switch, and the tractor returned to
life. Later that evening, I received an anonymous call,
and while I can't be sure, I swear the laughter on the
other end sounded like Kermit's.
Tired of fighting with the tractor and being the
laughing stock of the local farmers, I opened peace
negations with it. Much to the detriment of my ego, I
found myself forced to agree to most of its demands.
These included not starting it on days when the
temperature is less then 70 degrees, wrapping it with an
electric blanket in the winter, feeding it only the
finest premium gas and only running it for three hours
at a time. For its part, the tractor agreed to start
without support of a battery charger at least once a
month and not to quit in the middle of the field. Signed
in both blood and oil, the bargain has been keep pretty
faithfully for the last few years.
The rains this year, however, caused the grass to
grow unceaseingly, resulting in the need for almost
non-stop cutting of the pasture. Feeling I had broken my
side of the agreement, the tractor no longer felt
obliged to keep up its side and promptly broke down
After setting a record by stalling out five times in
one afternoon. I found myself grabbing a gas can with
the full intent of burning my nemesis to the ground once
and for all. Thankfully, Audrey reminded me that there
was an open burning ban in effect and that, while it
might make me feel better, she'd take the fine for
breaking the burning ban out of my hardware allowance.
After two stiff gin and tonics, I managed to
successfully coax the tractor back to life and nursed it
back towards the barn and its current resting-place.
Since that fateful day, I've been reflecting on what to
do with it. The old Navy saying "Run she may, shine
she must" seemed to point the way out of my
predicament. If the tractor isn't going to run well, it
might as well look good. I've therefore decided to
restore it as close as possible to its original
condition, decals and all. When it's finished, I intend
to park the tractor before an alter I've made, where
I'll sacrifice John Deere tractor parts to it in the
hope that it will occasionally start. If that fails,
I'll either park it in my wife's formal garden as a
flower stand or donate it to the Lions’ Club for their
annual Thanksgiving 'tractor shoot'.
As for cutting the pastures, after six seasons of
being jostled about on a rusty metal seat, having
exhaust fumes blown in my face, next year I'm tearing
out the pastures and replacing them with Astro Turf.