by Mila Strictzer © 2002
I should have graduated high school at 18, but I was held back. I had just returned from a mental hospital, a paranoid schizophrenic. So, I was allowed to finish up in vocational school, in agriculture mechanics.
Our small class studied a textbook for several weeks, before moving into the machine shop. There was an old tractor engine in the back of the shop, hoisted up by wire chains, just hanging there, above the shop floor. It had once been painted yellow but was now badly rusted. The engine seemed to be intact, however.
We learned how to operate each type of welder. A MIG welder feeds a thin line of metal at a steady rate, but I could not control that rate, so I did not like it much. Brazing produces a bond of copper. An Oxy-acetylene blowtorch breaks things apart. Arc welding seemed to be the best; I only had to ease the white rod along in small, concentric circles. After cooling, a metal bead appeared, shaped like pancakes piled halfway on top of each other in a line. There is no middle ground with arc welding. A bead is right or ruined, possibly along with the entire structure.
So I cut some pieces of metal with a hacksaw and welded them back together into a frame. I drilled holes in the frame and bolted the structure securely. I started to work on my tractor engine.
I sand blasted the engine’s exterior to remove old paint and rust. I loosened the head’s bolts. The head gasket had rotted so badly that it was sealed like glue to the block. I had to pry the head off by ramming several long screwdrivers into the gap using a rubber mallet. Once I got the head off, I glass-beaded it, which made its surface shiny steel again. I took out the valves, which were caked with rust and ground them down and then polished them with the electric wire brush.
I worked on the pistons and rings, springs and cams, transmission, linkage, and tested things like the altimeter. I checked the timing with a timing light, took out the points, and set them. I replaced the spark plugs, greased a cork gasket I had cut myself, replaced the head, and dead-set its bolts in proper order.
Then I spray-painted the engine and frame blue. There was an International Harvester manual I used as a reference, though it wasn't even the right model. I took the ancient tractor manual home every night and studied it in my room until I fell asleep.
One day, toward the end of the semester, as I set the pistons to top dead center, the teacher came over and knelt down beside my engine. I kneeled down with him, even though it hurt my knees. He grimaced at me and said, "What’s the name of this thing?"
"I don’t know," I answered.
The teacher studied my engine for a moment.
"How about…the Tigress?" He said.
"Are you going to start it?" He asked.
"Well…yes, that is generally what you do with engines, you start them."
I didn’t know what to do. Something held me back. It was the past, I think. Not just my own past, but the engine’s past as well. How had this tractor engine come to be? What men, working in an assembly line, had put its pieces together? Who had first bought it to use on his fields? I saw that person working on his farm but the closer I got to the owner of my engine, the further he slipped away from me.
Had the owner of my engine fought in World War I? Did he have to leave his wife, maybe before they had children, to go fight in France? He might have even died as he fell into a muddy bunker from a 7.62mm bullet to the brain, as his brigade charged the enemy lines along those barren fields lined with barbed wire.
His wife would have no idea. Maybe she slept with another man right then. Her husband had been gone over a year, even if he was a soldier fighting for his country in a war in a foreign land. Perhaps at the moment he died, she had her legs wide open and some man was giving her all the love she needed? No one would know; not her husband, not his family, no one. It was just that simple. Too bad if she met her lover at work, he was nice. She had to work and make a living, too. What if there was a child? She would have to cross that bridge when they got there. Probably no child, though.
His body would have come home to the states in a casket covered with an American flag and be buried in Arlington, Virginia. His wife, father, and mother would make the journey, via train, to the National Cemetery, take in the sights in Washington, D.C. for a couple of days as they thought of their son, and then go to his funeral.
A black horse would have pulled his casket, resting in the back of a black wagon with big, wooden wheels with long spokes as a soldier standing in the distance played taps from a shiny brass trumpet. A sergeant would have placed the folded flag in the hands of his mother, not his wife; all to say thanks from a country. His widowed wife might cry because all women cry sometimes, wipe her tears away and be okay. After all, she had someone to help her with it all.
There would be thousands like that, whose names are forever engraved in town square monuments, all across America.
"I don’t know how to start it."
"You have to hand-crank it around, like an old airplane. There should be a hand-crank over there where the engine was."
So I went to the back of the shop and dug around in the drawers for a few minutes and produced the hand-crank. I spent the rest of the day grinding and then spray-painting it the same color as my engine. I went home and even woke in the night, covered in a cold sweat, when my dream reached the point where I was confronted with starting my engine.
The next day I came to class and the students and teacher were gathered around my engine. Not saying a word, I stepped up, took the hand-crank from my backpack, eased it into the shaft’s teeth, and pressed firmly against the handle. I paused for a split-second, and then pushed down as hard as I could and it moved slowly downward. I pulled back up, and now the rod greased a little. Then the hand-crank ground to a near stop.
The past was just too painful and too beautiful and I was unsure if I could even let go. But I still fought on and then, to my delight, the engine started to do my bidding. I turned around and around as fast as I could until the hand-crank flew out of its teeth, nearly hitting me as it slid out across the concrete floor of the machine shop to the other side of the room, and hit the wall with a thud.
"Boom! Boom! Ra-Boom!"
The Tigress’ roar was so loud that the students and teacher covered their ears. I didn’t cover my ears because I was standing in awe. The big pistons whirled around and the Tigress’ deep bellows filled my chest. Thick, dark smog poured out the exhaust pipe. Sparks appeared like slow-motion trails from fireworks and, at one point, a long flame shot out.
The Tigress’ roar was so purifying. It seemed almost magical. I felt the presence of its powerful humming and my past, and all of the engine’s past as well, all seemed to come into focus. I once again, had identity.
The teacher had to flip the fuel switch off to make the Tigress slowly cough to a stop. I stood amazed, speechless.
I did graduate high school. I never started the Tigress again. I spent the rest of the year in the classroom leaning down in my chair and daydreaming, not really following along with any of the words in the textbook.
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