One chill October day when I was headed home at a brisk walk past Mel Hanson's foundry and machine shop, I almost became the focal point of a collision between friend Mel, who was standing in his front doorway wiping his hands with a big snarl of waste, and Ray Hawkins who had just alighted from his buggy behind a fine span of little bays who were glad to get this opportunity to catch their breath. Ray was firing for Harold Simpson on a Case 60 which was just seeing its third season with a forty-inch separator in the nearby harvest fields.
'By Gravy' Ray exasperatingly exclaimed, 'I'll be switched if I can keep that new kettle hot that you just checked out for Harold a couple of weeks ago. And you know we've got good water all around this country. She's alright wheeling from job to to job but she lays right down under the belt and one pitcher can keep her floundered.' Mel laid down his handful of waste and replied, 'Well, if you were burning straw I would know you couldn't warm her up, after that siege you had last year with the old return flue job. But if this will wait ten minutes for lunch, let's go out and see what's the matter.' Of course I could not pass up this good opportunity, so I promptly forgot that I was hungry, and as soon as Mel finished his lunch, he climbed in the buggy with Ray and I sat in the rear with my feet hanging down in the dust being kicked up by the bays and the steel tires of the little Rausch end-springer. After some forty minutes we arrived on the scene of a slow threshing operation, and heard the labored chuffing of the engine which was belching forth quite a plume of grey smoke. It appeared that the engineer and water monkeys were taking turns with the fireman's scoop. So often it seemed that the engineer was not required to come up the hard way by a long apprenticeship as fireman. Most engine owners simply bought their first engines and hired out and trusted the ability of their fireman. Sometimes this condition had its drawbacks, and this appeared to be one of them.
Harold was the first to speak, and he was pretty well het-up. 'If I had that old sweep here I would put that team to work and get some threshing done, 'he called to Mel. 'Yes', was the reply, 'But you would have to feed them something better than this oil-shale you seem to be using for fuel. What happened to all the run-of-the-mine coal you left town with the other day?' Harold stuttered, 'Well, with bituminous coal at nine dollars a ton shipped in, I don't see why we can't take advantage of this locality and help ourselves to those lignite outcroppings along the road. All the farmers use it in their stoves and none of them has froze up yet.'
'Well, danged if you ain't a fair-weather engineer if there ever was one,' declared Mel, 'But if you're going to burn this oil shale in this high-performance type of firebox, you are going to have to change your tactics. Let me have your pipe wrench.' With the engine shut down temporarily Mel opened the front end and removed the exhaust bushing. Then he went around to the stoking end and proceeded to take a 10-pound hammer and start pulverizing the large flat chunks of lignite instead of tossing them into the firebox which was piled half full of partly-burned fuel.
'Now see here ', Mel continued, addressing Ray, 'This sort of stuff is about 60% ash, and since you have no rocking grates that means you are going to use the slice bar about every fifth firing. Keep a fairly thin bed of coals, and keep the sheets and corners banked just a little bit so that a lot of cold air won't come in contact with the metal. Keep the ash pan clean and no more damper than necessary, and while you are at it leave the stack cinder vent open and put a bucket of water under the smoke box to drown out the red hot ones. Fire thin and spread about half a shovel of that shale at a time. Now Harold, start up your rig lightly and lets see how soon we can work that 80 pounds up to 150.'
I was standing around out of the way absorbing all this instruction with much gusto, and was greater thrilled when Harold gave a couple of short toots on the sweetly-toned chime whistle and the wheels began turning again. Ray adjusted the Marsh pump and it began to appear that this fine kettle was going to hold its own while burning a grade of fuel so low that the town power plant had given it up even with a chain-grate stoker. About ten minutes later, while Harold, Mel and I were back conversing with the separator super and watching bundles come in from only one side of the feeder, everyone around the rig excepting Mel was elatedly shocked to hear the pop valve let go at 155 pounds. Whereupon old 'Grandpa' Hastings beckoned unloaders to work both sides of the feeder, and soon all the color was in the blower chute instead of the stack on the engine. Ray was busy like a trooper and while he may have wished that he was again struggling with that old straw-burner of last year, he seemed to be getting the upper hand of things now.
One of the cleanup men was allowed to drive Mel and me back to town, and as the wheels of the little buggy ground their path into the good earthen road, I was prompted to ask Mel, 'Say, I didn't know you had served your term as fireman on one of these jobs!' 'Well, no one else does either,' replied Mel, 'But it doesn't hurt them to let it be thought so. You know my brother Ed who fires that little eight-wheeler into town on the passenger every other day tells me of all the fireman on the railroad who have trouble with that cheap fuel the company insists upon using. With those narrow fireboxes slung in between the rear drivers he un-vexed himself long ago after much study and argument with several of the road engineers. Now he wouldn't know what to do if someone loaded his tender with good bituminous coal.' 'This about beats all,' I exclaimed. 'Say, how about dropping me off at the house on the way in, and verifying my story so that the Mrs. will excuse my absence from the dinner table? Coming from you, she might let me off with a light sentence.'