UNION CITY, INDIANA.
Not always is ye Iron Man merely the 'local yokel' who ekes out his life's span from birth to death 'down on the farm'. Sometimes he is very much the man of the world, soldier of fortune (sometimes misfortune), fighting battles on foreign soil and going from job to job but always with that perennial love of steam surging through his veins.
'The only mark I've made in life is a question mark,' muses Frank McGuffin, Thresherman-Diplomat from over Washington, D.C. - way, the man with a true Scot's wit in whatever story true or false he might be telling.
'I won two Liar's Contests with my 'threshing watermelons',' chortles Frank 'And yet it was the only true story told at these contests.
'In fact everyone I ever told that story to, about threshing watermelons, ended up calling me a liar even Rev. Elmer Ritzman, who wouldn't dare call me a liar because he is a preacher, summed it all up by saying, 'Frank, you make it sound so true I almost have to believe it in spite of myself.'
It was the kind of story that Frank McGuffin, once caught up in the tail-wind of human reaction and suspicion, wound up perusing the congressional archives and records and writing for verification to reputable seed houses for additional confirmation that watermelons had indeed been threshed thus preserving his honesty and integrity as the best of story tellers without dulling the edge of his Scotch wit.
'My initiation in threshing came when, as a lad, I used to skip out from home to where the threshing was in full swing,' recollects McGuffin 'Only to return home in the evening to receive my reward of 'razor strap oil' applied to my end gate by an irate mother.'
'My dad was a fair but stern Scotchman who carried the Bible in one hand and a razor strap in the other, both with equally effective results,' reminisces the witty Frank, his eyes reflecting the grim humor of the distant past. 'When Dad saw that neither the razor strap nor the stern admonishments of the paternal right-hand swing' could deter me from running away to be near the threshing, he tried a new angle. He gave me the job of carrying the drinking water to the men in the field.' (Boy, was Frank initiated into the grand and glorious aura of steam the hard way.)
Courtesy of Joe Fahnestock, Union City, Indiana. Scotch wit, man of the world, and Washington, D. C. 'diplomat' at the thresher-men's reunionsFrank McGuffin (engineer's cap) looks up to watch a test-run of his newly-created 'sniffter valve'on John Limmer's Keck Gonnerman engine at Wauseon, Ohio N.T.A. If we know Frank, he is no doubt explaining the sniffter valve to the budding young engineer standing beside him, while rising generation engineer Frank Johnson, peers from his grandpa's throttle at back of engine. The sniffter valve which McGuffin made can be seen to left of cylinder end of foreground.
Ambitious lad that Frank McGuffin was, to serve fresh well water to the parching palates of his older threshing compatriots, by way of gallon jugs strapped to the saddle horn, he nevertheless found time between his water-peddling sorties to sort of 'polish the apple' for the steam engineer.
'I pestered the engineer with questions, broke up coal for him, filled his coal box from the wagon anything and everything to curry his favor,' relates McGuffin, weaving a humorous twist into the tragi-comic fabric of his boyhood. 'For such efforts I was rewarded by being allowed to operate the injector which was heaven to me. Some modern day politicians could well learn new tricks from the way I used to pull strings and cut red tape while evading the paternal ire.'
It was back in the year of 1911 that young McGuffin got his first pair of long pants. And too, the depot agent at Raymore, Missouri, noting the frequency the farm lad visited the local railway station to watch the arriving and departing steam trains, took a liking to him and taught him the fine art of the Morse code and pounding out messages on the mysterious brass key.
'I guess I thought I was arriving at being a man before my time,' muses Frank. 'Here I wouldn't have to go to Sunday School anymore in knee britches how I hated those knee britches and now I was learning telegraphy. Besides, a well-to-do neighbor farmer who owned a 1910 Rambler, and who served as superintendent in our Presbyterian Sunday School, took me to church in his new horseless buggy. Think of it, I didn't have to walk to church anymore.'
But argue as he did, he couldn't convince the paternal ruler of the McGuffin household to invest in a steam threshing rig just so a certain little farm lad could brag to his school mates about how he could run the big engine.
'Dad wasn't a steam engineer he just decided to help along with the threshing by running the separator as he'd done in the past and no more,' reminisces McGuffin.
Meantime rumblings were heard across the Big Pond the Kaiser's armies were on the march. The youth, Frank McGuffin, donned Uncle Sam's khaki to help make the world safe for democracy and peaceoverriding temporarily that farm lad's proverbial ambition to someday become a railroad engineer.
'On April 13,1917, I made the greatest mistake of my life, when I joined the army to go to France and twist the Kaiser's mustache,' is the way Frank says it. 'It was a foolish idea, for the slug of mustard gas I got forever closed the door on my becoming a locomotive engineer on the Rock Island Railroad.' Returning from the Big War, Frank McGuffin served as engineer on the Graveyard shift in the Horton, Kansas, Municipal Light and Power Plant. But he was caught napping one time and promptly fired from his position. So it was 'back to the farm' for young Frank once again.
Over the years the value of 'perfect combustion' kept bugging him. It would be impossible to install a wind-box or a pre-heater on a threshing engine to improve combustion, so Frank conceived the idea of using the principle of the old 'Hot-Blast' coal stove. Drawing up his plans he had patterns and castings made, the results of which culminated in an improved fire door which, on tests, proved a 50% saving of coal on threshing engines.
Meantime, the old World War One mustard gas was kicking up its heels once again, and from 1929 to 1933 Frank McGuffin languished in veterans' hospitals and the only hope the doctors could give him was that he had six months to live. But Frank, well and happy today, better than he ever was, won this liar's contest too.
It was in the late fall of 1933 that Frank McGuffin, still feeling around for a rung on the ladder to success, engaged in a bit of aerial photography at Miami, Oklahoma and then 'went broke'.
'From '33 to '36 I was in the 'Woodpecker Army' - the C.C.C. - at Ft. Bliss, Texas, where I served as ambulance driver.
'I drove ambulance during the day and attended The El Paso Vocational School at night learning to become an acetylene welder,' says the ever-ambitious McGuffin.
It was in '38 that Frank McGuffin passed a civil service examination in Los Angeles, thus opening the portals of the government printing offices to his newly-acquired genius.
'When I retired in '60, I was serving as off-set photographer in the Publications Division of the Civil Service Commission, Washington, D. C,' explains McGuffin. 'By living carefully, I got around a heart condition and today am better than ever.'
But that old bug, the urge of the steam engine, keeps gnawing at Frank McGuffin. And that gnawing has brought forth a published book on steam engine valve gears that has settled many an argument at the threshermen's reunions which Frank 'tends over the country.
It was during one of the trial runs of his recently-perfected 'sniffter valve' that I met Frank McGuffin for the first time at Wauseon, Ohio, National Threshermen's Association reunion.
'This is the first time a 'sniffter valve' has ever been put on a traction engine,' explained Frank, of the gadget so well-known and much-used over the years on railroad locomotives for the releasing of excess back-pressure in the opposing end of a steam cylinder.
'We're trying this sniffter valve on John Limmer's Keck Gonnerman engine,' yelled McGuffin, over the pulsating exhausts of the stack and the hissing echoes of the newly-created sniffter, screwed in at the far end of the Limmer-Keck cylinder.
The sniffter valve was working perfectly, and its creator, the ingenious one-time farm lad and aspiring railroad engineer, had finally bridged one of the principles of his one-time love, the railroad locomotive over to his first love the steam traction engine.
Our hat off to you, Frank McGuffin, for that matchless scotch wit, the mechanical creative genius, and the aura of Washington officialdom which somehow shines through those crumpled overalls and that wrinkled engineer's cap which is your trademark at every threshermen's reunion.
Keep those Scotch jokes coming and those inventions of yours humming. Like that inspiring message you gave Elmer and me fresh from your Washington off-set press about the dauntless bumblebee which the aerodynamicist claim is made so cumbersome by Nature that it can't possibly fly, but nevertheless does fly because it's too dumb to know it can't by the same token you fly, and in turn inspire us to spread our wing and fly.