Engineers — Well Almost!

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As a boy on the farm, I remember clearly the excitement aroused by the haunting music of the whistle and and rhythmic exhaust of the big Case engine as it approached our farm every year, followed by the teams and wagons of the farmers with whom we “traded” work.

My first job was handling the blower on the separator. I don’t know if I buried the men on the stack any oftener than anyone else or not, but I remember trying not to. Quite frequently, I used to be a bit tardy in raising the blower high enough, soon enough, resulting in a completely plugged separator, thereby incurring the wrath of the threshermen.

After a few years, I, having developed several more muscles, was graduated to the bagger, where, along with several other men, we toted the grain to the grainery. There it was dumped in the bins via a sort of bag brigade. Sometimes it got a bit hectic if the distance from the separator to the granary was lengthy and we were shorthanded, but it all added to the excitement. Every chance I got, I’d be somewhere near the engine, watching, listening and just smelling!

Another recollection I have that is somewhat clearer, and more painful than others, is of an incident that took place one year when the rig arrived at our place too late for the crew to do any more than just set up for threshing to start in the morning. After the separator had been set and spragged, and the engine placed so that all that was necessary was to belt up and back the slack out, the engineer banked the fires and the crew left for the night.

My brother and I, with the supreme confidence — and ignorance of youth — decided that we had suddenly become engineers. The folks had gone away for the evening, so, with no fear of parental intervention, we climbed aboard the engine, just to kind a look things over. I think that kids do the same thing today — only there are things like ignition keys and such to contend with now. The only thing we were confronted with was: Which one of these gadgets was the throttle?

Luckily, the engine hadn’t been sitting long enough to have collected very much water in the cylinder, because we had no idea of where the bleeder cocks were, or how they worked. We just fiddled around until we found the throttle and opened it! Not all the way, of course. And there we were — ENGINEERS!! It hadn’t been stopped on center, so it started readily enough and chuffed away just as sweetly as it did for any other engineer. For a few moments we were content to just let it do that, and I think, had it not been for our juvenile inability to let well enough alone, no one would have ever been the wiser.

We somehow got hold of the lever that engaged the flywheel with the drive train, and we were underway. After a moment of panicky realization that we had overdone things, and were also going backward, we both came to the conclusion that we had to do something.

With as little delay as possible, because we were backing directly for the house. We were sure only that the engine was running, quite slowly, to be sure, but still ponderously, for the kitchen and somebody had better steer. So steer we did — in a circle — all around the barnyard. Our confidence had gone up the stack, for some reason or other. We regained a little of it, enough to try to figure out a way to get this behemoth back where we found it. Our efforts proved fruitless, however.

Anyhow, a natural law of physics settled things for us. We had not touched the banked-up fire, nor had we paid any attention to the steam gauge. We used up all the available pressure in the boiler on the second lap around the barnyard and the engine slowly came to a hissing stop nowhere near where we had found it. Thank heaven we had sense enough to leave it right where it stopped, without compounding our crime by trying to get up enough steam to get into anymore trouble.

I shudder to think, now, what might have happened had we attempted to raise the steam pressure again, without knowing what to do about water in the boiler or anything else. No, we simply closed the throttle, disengaged the drive train, climbed down out of the cab and walked quickly and furtively away from the dying monster, aware that our careers as engineers had lasted hardly more than fifteen minutes. Not nearly as long as the sting stayed in our posteriors the following morning when an enraged engineman discovered what we’d done to his engine! The mid-day meal, bountiful as all threshing day meals were on the farm, was enjoyed by both of us, standing up!

Time mellows all things, but even the catastrophic aftermath of that adventure has never lessened my love and fascination of the steam engine. I never did become an engineer, however, but I did acquire some mechanical aptitude. One of my future projects is going to be the building of a scale model of one of those Case engines, and I’ll bet I’ll find out how to stop it, too! IMA