We’ve been enjoying a short stretch of gorgeous blue and gold weather, lows in the thirties overnight and highs in seventies during the day. In the Adirondacks such perfection is always fleeting and in this season snow may be here at any moment. I’ve been racing to cram as much work as possible into every hour.
Saturday Lucy joined a student hike up Algonquin, the second highest peak in New York (see her photo, above, from the summit). I had planned to mow and weedwhack all day, and did mow at Betty’s for the sheep, but just as I pulled out of that pasture in my truck, my cell phone rang.
“Wanna move that horse shit?” asked D’s voice. He had finished a job early and could stop by the farm.
I’ve learned over the years that He Who Operates Heavy Equipment calls the shots. The machines are so expensive and work such miracles in so short a time, you always flex to accommodate them. I could mow any time.
“Sure,” I said. “That would be great!”
In working together this past month, D and I have come to know each other better. He has always had a hard time saying my unusual name, and instead has called me, gruffly teasing, “Dumb Farmer.” Now he just calls me “Farmer.” (“I’m actually a writer and a teacher, you know,” I’ve told him, but he pays no attention.) I tease him in return about his terrible swearing and his habitual frown (“Why is it that your father is always smiling and you are always scowling?”) He just grunts. But we are becoming friends.
Still, I am a bit nervous trying to do anything mechanical under his eye. Whereas his father laughs kindly at my ineptitude and consoles me, “You ain’t really dumb,” D’s mockery can be scathing. Over the years I have chided him, “I am much older than you. You should be respectful to your elders,” but he simply rolls his eyes.
On Saturday just the thought of hooking the manure spreader to my truck made me sweat. With the stake rack blocking my rear view I cannot see anything while backing to the hitch; the whole frustrating process usually takes me twenty minutes, jumping in and out of the cab to judge my distance and angle. I dreaded attempting to do this as D watched. However after a single sardonic smile he stood at my bumper, gave me hand signals, and the spreader was hitched in a moment. I am not sure if it is closer acquaintance with me that has increased his patience, or Lucy’s delicious low-carb waffles.
Because I don’t own a tractor with a PTO, I can’t use a large, modern manure spreader. Instead I own a small spreader that works on the same principle as the first spreaders invented in the 1890s: it is ground-driven. There is a large steel cog mounted along the inside of the right hand tire. When a ratchet arm is dropped onto the cog, the hidden drive chain engages. As the wheels turn, the cog drives the floor chains and beaters of the spreader.
This “estate-size” spreader has been fine for me, but I’ve worked it to the very edge of its capacity. Not only has it been battered by hidden rocks and logs, but it was designed for someone with a couple of horses. Horse manure mixed with pine shavings is light and friable. Cow manure mixed with hay is heavy and dense. Because the long strands of hay in a fresh load of cow manure can wrap around and jam the blades, stopping the chain, I’ve learned to drive a little faster to break up a jam.
Saturday we were spreading Larry’s manure pile across the back field. This pile was horse manure in shavings, and should have been easy spreading. Inexplicably, however, the spreader was not spraying out the load with its usual vigor. Had the spring in the ratchet arm rusted out? I was mystified. I figured that, as usual, the key was to drive a bit faster.
On my rough acres this made for an exciting ride.
On one trip D rode out with me, to look for deer sign in the back field (he is a hunter). As we jounced over rocks and gullies, he grabbed the handle on the dashboard with both hands. Since I was driving I could anticipate the bounces and ride them out, almost like a cantering horse, but D’s head may even have hit the ceiling. I thought he might snap at me but he merely observed dryly, “Now I know how you wreck your trucks so quick.”
As we went over one hill I glanced in my rear view mirror. “Gosh, I think the spreader may be airborne.”
We worked for two hours, with D loading and me spreading. The spreader sprayed less and less well. D looked at it briefly and diagnosed a loose chain. For the moment we tied down the ratchet arm.
Halfway through my last trip, however, the spreader began to sound so horrendous that I stopped the truck. On inspection I found the drive chain had jumped the cogs completely and jammed in the metal apron. I could not pry the chain free. I pulled a cotter pin, took a crescent wrench from my truck, and began loosening the bolts to remove the cover from the ground-drive mechanism.
D appeared at my elbow. He is a professional mechanic. Instantly I was so self-conscious my crescent wrench slipped off the bolt.
He snorted. “Gimme that before you hurt yourself.” In two seconds he had the cover off and was looking inside. “There’s your problem. Your gear is broke.”
“The gear is broken? How can you tell?”
“Can see it. Look down in there.”
I peered down inside another narrow cover at a mysterious tangle of greasy chain on the ratchet arm. I couldn’t see anything. “Ah,” I said, nodding wisely. “Hm.”
He snorted again. “I’ll show you.” He removed more bolts and took off the second cover. “See?”
Now I could indeed see. The entire metal gear on the ratchet arm that engaged with the drive cog had shattered and was barely supporting the weight of the chain.
“That’s how come it was loose.” He pointed to various tiny knobs. “Grease fittin’s. Here, here, here, and here.” He looked at me. “You been greasin’ it?”
His mouth twisted. “Bet you ain’t even got a grease gun?”
“No,” I said again, humbly. “I didn’t know I was supposed to grease it.”
“Sure. That’s how come your gear wore out.”
“Got the manual?”
“No, I bought the spreader second-hand.”
“Go on the internet, find the drawings and a parts list, and I’ll tell you what you got to have to fix it.”
I’ve done so. I’m calling today to see if I can order the replacement parts he says I need, but the odds are that I won’t be able to get them before D has to take his heavy equipment home. There will be no time left before snow for me to load by hand.
For want of a little grease, it’s likely that the manure will go unspread this year.
In my ear I always remember DH saying, “All education is expensive.”