“How many kids do you got?” Steve asked.
The answer is eight, of course, though it sometimes feels like more. A lot more. There are times it feels like twenty.
And this was one of those times.
It was a clear, warm May afternoon. The spring mosquitoes had just hatched and it was lunch hour. We sat in Steve’s pickup truck, a ten-year-old Chevy littered with assorted tools and a half-dozen empty McDonald’s cups, slowly nudging our way back to the hayfield. Our pace was like that of a Papal motorcade. Kids swarmed the vehicle, celebrating, as they always do, the arrival of a guest – any guest – in a style bordering on frenzied worship.
I was anxious to bale hay for my first time and Steve had stopped by to help diagnose the broken haybine I had inherited with the purchase of the farm. My reputation was on the line. “I can’t call you a farmer,” my neighbor Hank kept reminding me, “until you get some hay in.”
If obsessively checking weather is the first step of haymaking, then cutting with the haybine is the second. It’s a nine-foot implement that attaches to the tractor, mowing the hay then feeding it through two steel rollers shaped roughly like Shawn Bradley. The hay is crushed, enabling it to cure faster, before being spit out into nice, neat windrows.
So we made our way through the jubilant throng to the ancient red machine sitting peacefully in the shade of a towering black walnut. A rugged old thing ringed by clumps of delicate wildflowers.
Steve was broad, meaty, and barrel-chested, with the bear-like quality of someone capable of astonishing strength if provoked. His skin was 100% sun-darkened American rawhide. He wore a full head of wavy salt and pepper hair, a splash of dark mustache, and aviator sunglasses. A narrow sliver of spearmint gum flicked from his mouth, like the tongue of a rattlesnake, between syllables. His hands looked as if they had held every tool in the catalog. He was softspoken and wrapped in that quiet confidence exuded by accomplished rock climbers and reliable surgeons. The ones that have spent years solving all sorts of terrible problems.
He nabbed his tools, sprung from the truck, and, before I could make my way around, had shimmied halfway under the machine. His diagnosis came quickly and decisively. Faulty reel-drive chain sprockets. He made it sound matter-of-fact.
So we loaded right back into the Chevy and made our way toward the barn, where the prior owner had left me a shop full of potentially useful parts.
The kids were making such energetic use of the yard that they barely noticed the big Chevy weaving its way through their impromptu soccer game, around their makeshift field goal posts, and past their provisional roller derby track. They were so busy running and squealing that they hadn’t noticed a pair of Nubian goats that had slipped enclosure and were now merrily weed-whacking the daylily beds.
The workshop was a cool, quiet refuge. But a very short-lived one.
As I turned to close the door, a gaggle of kids burst inside, brandishing all manner of homemade pvc and foam weaponry – “boppers” they call them. The best I could do was to divert them upstairs, to an unfinished area twenty by thirty feet directly above the workshop. Someday it will be a guest suite, or a game room, or just a quiet, inviting place to study. Now it serves as the safety net for all manner of junk that should have been garage-saled years ago. It’s also a favored quasi-obstacle course for the kids.
“Let’s take a look at what you got,” Steve said over the rhythmic thumping sound of five sets of kid feet on three-quarter-inch plywood.
I took from the shelf several cardboard boxes of highly-engineered steel bits and handed them to Steve.
He may as well have been speaking Mandarin as he rifled through them. Transmission clutch. Breakaway coupling. Intake rocker arm. Brake bleed screws. Something that looked like a harmonica. A piece of this assembly or another.
“You’re going to definitely need this,” he said holding up a large, circular piece of green steel the size of a dessert plate. “Baler knotter drive gear,” he said before clunking it down back into the box.
Just as I was about to pull down another box, the workshop air was pierced by a sickening, staccato thump, provenance twenty feet above us. Steve flinched. “Football hitting the metal roof,” I said unfazed. “Happens all the time.”
I gave him another box.
Assorted nuts, bolts, washers, shear pins, master chain links. “All essential stuff.”
I pulled down an old Cool Whip container with an assortment of oily washers, springs and gear-ish looking parts.
“This is it,” Steve said, pulling a pair of blackened parts from the tub. “Busted chain sprockets. Take these down to the ag dealership and they’ll get you what we need to finish the repair.”
He was five feet from me, but so hard to hear it may as well have been five-hundred. The kids were apparently making like American Gladiators, pounding each other with the boppers. The noise was steady and cadenced, as if someone had put a pair of steel-toed boots in the clothes dryer. It was occasionally punctuated by the sound of a rubbery young body hitting plywood, followed by hysterical laughter.
“You sure you only got eight of ‘em?” Steve asked only half-jokingly.
I took down one last box and handed it to him.
“Anything good in there?” I asked.
He sorted through the leftover parts, all of them heavy and old and probably untouched for several years. A mechanical thermostat. A piece of the knife arm assembly. A section of the sickle cutter. “You’re gonna need all of these,” Steve said.
Just as he said it, two of the younger kids bounded down the steps and through the workshop, howling and yelping back out into the yard.
Steve reached down into the bottom of the box and a sudden, curious look washed across his face. It was first a face of astonishment and then of pure, unchecked amusement. He smiled a big spearminty smile as he slowly, deliberately pulled out a small, flat box, the size of a slice of rye bread. The corners were crisp and sharp. The ink still as bright as the day it rolled off the printing press.
“Now you definitely DO NOT need any of this,” Steve deadpanned.
Then we burst into a simultaneous and spontaneous laughter.
There, amidst all the steely, greasy parts, sat the thoroughly modern fix for a totally different type of broken equipment.
A trial pack of Viagra.