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Elder Anarchy

In his shed, my father-in-law, R.W., has about one of everything that you would ever need for farm repairs.




by Jerry Murley

In his shed, my father-in-law, R.W., has about one of everything that you would ever need for farm repairs. In his garage, my father, Gerald, who is about ten years younger than R.W., has about one of everything that you would need to maintain a suburban home, except in my father's case, the treasure vault is so full that you can hardly find a path to walk safely through – so who knows what all is in there. From what I can tell from my own attic and garage and pot shed, it is not just men of a certain generation who hoard hardware and salvaged parts for that rare day when they might be needed. (I'll not say a word about similar habits among women.) Given my own conserving tendencies, I'd have to say that I respect the foresight and preparedness of men who save industrial pieces that might come in handy one day – if anyone can find them at the time they are needed.

R.W. has been unable to tour the shed for some six or eight years now. Used to be that from his recliner chair in the den, he could tell me exactly where to find this rare tractor part or that specially shaped piece of metal or a particular bolt. From memory he could describe in detail where he last left a handful of three-foot metal bars with square holes at each end. When I showed him a recent photograph of the shed work bench, he asked where those tools were that he got from his older brother, Pecker.

Back in 2003, the contents of the shed looked pretty much the same way they look today. That is except for the extra thirty-second (1/32) of an inch coating of oily dirt and sometimes a two- or three-inch covering of mouse nesting. In summer, if you pull out a drawer, you're as liable to encounter a wasp nest as a bat. In May of 2003, a tornado ripped through the hollow of R.W.'s farm and bruised up the shed a bit. Some essential supports broke on the west and north sides and now the roof is swaybacked. There is an oak barrel that I gave R.W. for wine making about thirty years ago that I wanted to use. I went into the shed to retrieve it but discovered that it and an old metal shelf were actually holding up the northwest side of the shed roof. For fear of bringing down the whole structure, I left the barrel there, and it remains at work even today.

R.W.'s shed is not an inviting place late in the day, or when it is cloudy, or when it is cold or rainy. Electricity has long since departed, as power lines to the building were severed sometime around the 2003 tornado. It is a dark, damp, and drafty cavern with a dirt floor. There is a large garage-door-size opening at one end and two openings a quarter of that size at the other. Gaps between the weathered vertical siding boards are wide enough to dimly illuminate the interior on a bright day. Small creatures such as snakes, rodents, and insects can and do roam freely. At one time, when there was electric lighting and R.W's brand of order prevailed, it was pleasant refuge from the hot sun or a summer rain while sharpening implements at the work bench. Now one wouldn't want to linger long or even go there unless in search of a necessity or a curiosity.

Since 2003, the shed has also lost some of its principal storehouse allure: its wealth of castoff and spare parts and tools. It also has slowly fallen into disarray, as this or that family male visits in urgent need of a special tool, a piece of scrap metal, a bolt or nut, or a discarded automotive, tractor, tiller, or lawn mower part. One would think that this ragged place was well past its prime – certainly the family women do. Yet the pilgrimages continue. It still holds surprises and wonder for a curious male, much as Home Depot, Lowes, and one-acre junkyards do.

* * *

There is little wonder why R.W.'s daughters have freely disassociated themselves from the shed over time. When they were children, they had to run a 50-yard dash to the shed every time R.W. needed a tool or part while working on a home or farm project. And the sprints were timed subjectively so that no pace was fast enough. R.W. would pit the girls against one another for speed and accuracy. One of the hardest aspects for the girls, I suppose, given the variety of stuff in the shed, was attaching R.W.'s names and terms to the correct objects. A wrong choice would result in a return trip under greater pressure. Fifteen years later, as a fresh new son-in-law, I experienced similar hurried trips to the shed. Then I watched for years afterward as R.W. pulled the same football-coach routine on his grandchildren. With innocent male visitors, usually friends of his daughters, he assumed more of a Tom Sawyer role in order to extract a bit more participation and effort in the work at hand. The difference in the later years was that the commands were framed to be more closely akin to requests, and delivery of the goods might be met with a slight, satisfied chuckle or a rare "Thank you, buddy."

* * *

Back in mid-September, I lost a critical bolt from R.W.'s International Harvester diesel tractor. I was bushhogging a field and began to smell diesel fuel. On the way back to the barn lot to park the tractor, I noticed fuel draining from the water trap, a part of the fuel system consisting of a glass bowl of fuel with multiple bleeder screws atop. The missing bolt was one of those bleeder screws. Helplessly, I watch a newly filled tank of diesel fuel spill into a five-gallon bucket that I hastily put under the tractor to catch the runoff.

The situation steeply worsened as I realized that for want of a single screw, the whole tractor was useless. The day after losing the screw, and for five days thereafter, I spent an hour a day on foot retracing the path the tractor made while I had been bushhogging. I searched for the indispensible bleeder screw with a thorough visual scan and later tried the additional aid of a foot-long magnetic bar attached to the end of a short metal handle. For some reason, I believed that any day now I would beat the odds and find the screw. Acting the Sherlock Holmes, I looked for signs of browned grass and the strong scent of diesel fuel to find just the right area to best leverage my chances of success in the hunt. As our drought and the days stretched into weeks, it became harder to distinguish a trail of brown grass amid a field of mostly brown, dying grass.

During the first weeks I called my tractor repairman. Then I called the Case IH parts distributor in Dickson. I spent several hours doing searches online, even sending an email message to a salvage yard describing the valuable part. All to no avail. I fended off desperation with blue-sky hope. After a couple of weeks, having reset my attitude with a trip to the beach in early October, I started the hunt in cool earnest. One early Friday morning, I visited the Franklin NAPA automotive parts store. The store was very old fashioned. It sort of reminded me of the shed, except it was a bit more organized and had a counter with grease-smudged, tall plastic upholstered stools. Now if any place should have a rare old part, this place surely should, I imagined. The experience was the equivalent of going to a men's fine clothing store where you half expect the "customer service" to inspect your shirt label before deigning to talk to you. I waited as the man in charge finished his phone call. He looked at the screw and said, "Nope, your best bet is the wholesale bolt warehouse up Columbia Avenue." So I drove to the warehouse and waited while the only person behind the counter served a longtime customer. When I showed him the bleeder screw, he said, "No, these old tractor parts almost have their own standards for threading; they don't match our standard threads and nothing we have would look like that." Just for a wild shot, I stopped at the nearby Kubota store. When a woman in her late 30s finally came to the counter and asked what I needed, I said, "I need a screw." That went nowhere, too. But I was not in a mood to give up yet. I thought I might just drive up to the AutoZone store towards town. When I got there, what looked like a vast empty parking lot soon seemed to become an unusual auto repair operation. There were at least four cars parked outside with the hood up on each. Inside the store, there were six counters and one of the salespeople did all he could to solve my problem. Employing his rich imagination, he thought he found a similar brake bleeder screw in an assortment package. He ripped the package open and tried to match the threading. It looked close, so I bought the package. When I walked back outside to my car, I saw sales representatives bent under the hoods of customer vehicles as they collaborated on minor repairs in the full morning sun.

By Saturday afternoon, I wasn't certain that the brake bleeder screw would work but thought it was worth a try. I unhurriedly screwed it into one of the bleeder sockets and put the old screw back into the other one. Then I poured a half gallon of diesel fuel into the tank and immediately heard fuel dripping into the bucket I had placed underneath the tractor to catch potential spillage. Clearly the substitute was not going to work, and I was in real trouble.

At that point my predicament seemed dire. A clear sign of my growing desperation was that I once more returned to the shed to look amongst R.W.'s assortment of discarded parts – or junk as the ladies would have it. There is ever a tad of uncertainty and trepidation about venturing into the recesses of the shed. I had looked there two or three times already, but I had not looked thoroughly through every storage drawer and container. I had good reason for not doing so: some of the metal filing cabinets were rusted shut; they were full of varmint lodgings and insect remains; spiders stalk most every dark corner and crevice; and, in keeping with dungeon decor, the deeper down, the grimier it gets.

After going through the small black drawers in a metal tool cabinet and finding a few promising workarounds that turned out to be too large, I turned to two untouched sixties-era psychedelic-blue file cabinets. With a swift yank, I managed to get them both open. I began sifting through the contents with a long rusty screw driver; then, after shifting mouse leavings and daring to pick up items with my bare hands, I gave closer visual inspection. The first drawer was about as high up as my chest. Not much there. The second, which was above my shoulder height, was filled two-thirds with a couple of shoe-boxes' worth of woolly mouse bedding. Once that was moved aside, I poked around the contents with little enthusiasm for this final dead-end task. Most was largely unrelated to my need, but the drawer did contain tractor- and mower-related parts. Then – oh yes, then – in the last place I would have looked that day before going back to search the fields for that lost bleeder screw, in the very back far corner of the top file drawer, I saw it: I saw a dirty glass bowl stained dark reddish brown by the gelatinous deposit of old fuel locked inside. Then I saw the full part and read the manufacturing inscriptions. It was the full fuel assembly that I had been working on – an exact match, an R.W. castoff, a used spare. It contained two – yes, two – bleeder screws identical to the one the I had on hand and the one that I had lost. Now I had one extra bleeder screw for insurance.

It was my lucky day and it felt like a million dollars. My faith that I would find something was justified. My faith was fulfilled that R.W. would have something to do the trick hidden somewhere in the shed. That night, as R.W. was helped with his evening meal, with his hearing aid firmly in place, I related the happy saga to him.

Though not exactly a miracle, the whole endeavor had the ring of a rare farm adventure that ends happily after many mishaps. Self-sufficiency is a difficult goal to achieve; it is an even harder steady state to maintain. We all had moved to farming territory with the notion that we could attain a modicum of self-sufficiency. On that bright October Saturday afternoon, as I reached into a forbidding place and saw the answer to my problem at hand – right there in the shed, where I knew it should be all along – I felt that I had touched fleeting self-sufficiency. For 24 hours, I relived the dramatic event, recounting it over and over again. And each time it seemed as full of felicity and good fortune as when it happened. All who heard the story, who also had their own familiar relationship with the shed and its proprietor, sensed that they too had grasped the magic of the moment: the shed, whose contents had been questionable, had revealed itself once again as the holder of tarnished treasure – the place to discover odd artifacts of a bygone era to revive aging work machines – and flagging spirits – that refuse to die.


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