Some call it steam fever. You know that feeling the majority of people who read Steam Traction get in the summertime at the first whiff of coal, steam and cylinder oil. Symptoms include grease under the fingernails, sore muscles from hauling coal and chopping wood, and the ear pain from the groan of stiff metal filling the air. It always appears about the end of May and disappears somewhere about the end of October. At least that’s the way it was for my son Specialist Aaron Bixler of the 224th Iowa National Guard Engineer Battalion, Company C, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, until his deployment in September of 2003 and October 2004.
Having attended the Old Threshers Reunion since 1985, at the age of 2, Aaron has only missed participating in two of the worlds largest steam shows. The first one was in 2003 when he volunteered to be part of the NATO Multi-force Operation to Sharm El-Shiek, Egypt. Attached to the 133rd Infantry, Iowa Army National Guard out of Dubuque, Iowa, for the deployment, it would mean that he would miss the reunion for the first time in 18 years. Letters and photos filtered back and forth across the Internet of the activities in the park at Mt. Pleasant, but it just could not take the place of the real smell of coal, wood and oil, and the sound of hissing steam from the smokestack. What made the 2004 reunion even sweeter on his return to the states? Aaron purchased a 1/4-scale model Case with the money from his deployment just three months after his return.
Operation Iraqi Freedom III put the Mt. Pleasant unit of the 224th Iowa Army National Guard on alert in April 2004. Aaron began preparing for the possibility that his 1/4-scale Case model, set to debut, would most likely be in a storage shed for the upcoming 2004 reunion. The activation call of the unit came on the first day of the Old Threshers Reunion with deployment date just 30 days later.
Driving an Army SEE (backhoe) truck or a M916 transport truck would soon take the place of the throttle and clutch on his model engine and the other engines he operated at other steam shows like the Osage show, the Antique Acres Old Time Power Show, and the Seminole Valley Farms Museum Midwest Antique Gas Engine and Tractor Assn. Show.
The model did debut at the reunion and then reluctantly was put into storage. Aaron then re-signed himself to 18 months of active duty somewhere in Iraq digging up roadside bombs (IEDs) and searching for insurgent weapon caches.
Soldiers especially cherish letters and e-mails from home. But what Aaron looked forward to the most was Steam Traction arriving at his Mt. Pleasant home address and quickly being forwarded to the APO in Ramadi, Iraq. While other soldiers in the unit read motorcycle and/or auto racing magazines, Aaron lay on his bunk or on the seat of his Army heavy equipment between missions reading about old steam engines in Steam Traction.
The 2005 Old Threshers Reunion started on Sept. 4. As luck would have it, Aaron was boarding a plane in Al-Taqqadam, Iraq, bound for his 14-day leave to Mt. Pleasant. Fingers crossed by family and friends, he arrived in Mt. Pleasant on Friday of the Old Threshers Reunion and was seen on the reunion grounds less than three hours after his plane landed in Burlington, Iowa. A true die-hard steam engineer.
Soldiers are asked why they go on dangerous deployments, besides the oath that they have sworn to protect our freedom. The drive to own a full-size steam engine was at the forefront of Aaron’s decision to go on a second deployment in two years. Knowing that a 1917 Nichols & Shepard 20-75 double-cylinder steam engine was up for sale by a close relative, he knew he had first chance if he still wanted it. His dream of coming home on leave for the Old Threshers Reunion and finally owning a large steam engine made the 14-day leave all any American soldier from Mt. Pleasant could ask for.
Oh yes, the latest Steam Traction was in Aaron’s duffel bag on its way back to Iraq, and photos of his new steam engine purchase were all over his computer screen.
Contact steam enthusiast Aaron Bixler at 1103 S. Linden Lane, Mt. Pleasant, IA 52641; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org