My Ol' Engine

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805 E. San Rafael Colorado Springs, Colorado 80903

I first spotted the old engine during my official first day tour of the Ranch as a new inmate-uh, resident.

Sitting forlornly over under the icicle-festooned water tank, near the big spinning windmill, the old piece of cast-iron junk seemed dwarfed by the wide, vast immensity of the desolate landscape all around.

Somehow interested, I convinced Jimmy, a fellow resident and my tour guide to stop off at the windmill and the engine.

'It don't run,' Jimmy ventured, as I looked at it closely.

'Yeah, wonder how's come?'

It was as tall as I was, and to my unknowing eye, seemed not only completely intact, but practically brand-new: as if it had hardly run a day in it's life. Two monstrous humongous flywheels and a clutch pulley, directly in line with a big Ajax pump jack over under the windmill gave a clue to its intended use.

'I wonder why?' I repeated, as I grabbed the flywheels and pulled them over. They budged; the big engine was free!

'Spark plug's gone, maybe,' Jimmy said simply.

'Yeah, I reckon,' I agreed. And then suddenly, 'I bet I could make it run!' never thinking about it. But from that moment on, I guess I considered it 'My Ol' Engine'.

Somehow drawn to it, the next afternoon, after church and Sunday dinner, I wandered alone back over to 'My Ol' Engine'.

'Gee, wouldn't this thing be neat, if it'ud run?' I said to myself, getting down on my hands and knees, turning it over and over and over, watching the gear wheels and the cams and the rods and arms and all turn 'round and jack up and down.

'Think you can make it run, son?' I hadn't even heard him come up. Big Daddy, the Boss of the place.

'Jimmy says you know all about 'em.'

My just rewards for bragging off to a little kid!

'An' nobody else ever has,' he went on. '-For very long.'

'Uh, I dunno, Sir. I guess I could try.' Then I remembered that the only engines I'd ever really played with very much were little Briggs and Strattons.

'Oh, it'll run,' he rattled on. 'Lotsa times we've made it run. An' it runs real good too. But then it just quits. Gets hot, I reckon, an' won't start no more.'

He looked up at the big windmill. 'The Good Lord don't always give us the wind we could use,' he said absently. '-or the water either.'

So what could I do but say I would give it a try. He shook my hand and gave me complete run of the place, the garage and workshops. (What kind of a reform school was this anyway?) He said there might be other kids that would help if I wanted 'em.

I started taking it down that very afternoon, and sure enough, kids materialized from out of the woodwork, eager for something to do. Jimmy showed up, and went to work hauling smaller pieces over to the shop in a little red wagon. Other kids stood around and we put them to work with a bucket of coal oil and some old paint brushes and rags, cleaning crud and corruption off the outside, until the original deep red paint came out bright and beautiful, almost shiny in places. There was enough dirt and windblown sand in the bottom end to grow a victory garden, but it was inside the cylinder that was terribly black and goopey- the valves, the sparker (ignitor) points and everything.

We clamped the head in a vise and I showed Jimmy how to grind the two valves with a big screwdriver, using oil and river sand for goo (it took a long time), while I tried to prize out the dirt-dauber nests in the carburetor. We seated-in the gas pump check valves and after some discussion, decided which way they had to go to make the gas pump squirt gas. We cleaned ring grooves, rodded out the oiler and greaser holes, made sure the governor was free and that the cam rocker roller rolled.

Finally we took up the big brass rod boxin', and were ready to start putting things back together, first making sure every part that slid, twisted or turned against another (including the nuts and bolts) was greased or oiled .

The old gas tank under the base was shot full of rust holes, so we connected up an outside can, after first making sure the pump would suck gas out of it and up into the carburetor.

It took some cogitatin' to figure out a way to test the sparker on the shop workbench top after we took it apart, cleaned it up, and polished the points. One of the kids found the old coil in the weeds under the windmill, but no one knew how to connect it up. Finally, after much trial and error (including sizzling the juice out of a windcharger battery!), we got it to shoot big fat juicy sparks every time.

After much discussion and argument with 'those in the know', we finally set the tripper on the push rod to snap it 'right on top'. (This was eventually changed.)

As the time approached for its first test, we kept mum with the rest of the boys; we didn't announce the great event in case something went wrong. Only one other li'l guy was our witness as we carefully connected the wires, primed the carburetor, and as Jimmy held the inlet valve down, I 'got 'er up an' rollin'.

She hit off the very first time Jimmy let go! And let me tell you, never, never in the entire history of engines or engine-men, were there ever three more thrilled engine kids!

'Bang! bang! bang! bang!-four or five times in a row, 'till she got up to speed and then the governor took hold, latching the exhaust valve open until she coasted down a bit, only to hit again.

Bang and coast! Bang and coast! Hit and miss! Hit and miss! Just as she was designed to do at the factory!

The little kid was jumping up and down with glee, yelling at the top of his voice, while Jimmy and I pounded each other on the back 'till we were black and blue.

I was right! It was the most spectacular sight any of us had ever seen. Those two big flywheels a'rollin', like they were fixin' to take off for New Mexico somewhere; the gears turnin', the arms and all the rods jackin' up and down, the gas valve slurpin' open and shut. Fire shootin' out of the exhaust every time she hit (timing was too far retarded, we found out later- bad for engines!)

Supper was forgotten, for within the minute, the entire Ranch was gathered around, kids, the grownups, dogs, pigs, goats, turkeys and pet guineas. And of course, Big Daddy!

He shook our filthy, greasy hands, congratulating us, and then gave a little speech, saying something about that now, come summer, maybe we'd have water when the wind quit blowin'. He even hinted that we might even have us a skinny-dippin' swimmin' hole when the river went dry.

We ran her and ran her, there in the gathering High Plains dusk, until finally one of the ranch-hands said, 'Better shut'er down, son. She'll git too hot an' bust!'

She was just barely warm, but Jimmy shut her down anyway and we all tromped off to supper, yelling and singing, horsing around and cutting up. It had to be the best feeling I'd ever had in my life!

If we'd only known what was to come-!

Soon thereafter, we started 'connecting her up', as it were, to put her to work doing something, she was made to do. And that was to pump water. Sometimes working past sack-time at night by the light of a single coal-oil lantern, Jim and I did get her shipshape at last, the cooling pipes connected back up, the clutch freed, the big Ajax cleaned, greased and ready.

Critters had chewed the long, rotten flat belt, but it was all we had so we had to make-do. Finally, all was in readiness; one of the li'l guys shinneyed up the sucker-rod and flipped loose the latch, disconnecting the windmill head. Jimmy and I started the engine, and with my hand on the carburetor mixer screw, Jimmy gradually shoved in the clutch wheel on the crankshaft.

Slowly the long flat belt tugged on the big Ajax; slowly, creaking and groaning, as if protesting the interruption to its' long, long rest, the pulleys and spur gears and crank-wheels began rolling once again, the pitman rods rising higher and higher, bringing with them the cross-head and the sucker-rod, leading deep down in the well below.

We were pumping water! Without wind! Ice-cold, pure, clear water, from deep out of the bowels of Mother Earth!

Cooling water for the engine was teed off, as no doubt it always had been, directly from the main discharge pipe of the pump. Under pressure from the water tank up above, it gave quite a flow up thru the engine jacket, then out another long pipe, to squirt far out on the ground into the weeds beyond. We had made doggone sure that all the pipes, as well as the engine water jacket itself, were clean and free of rust and scale that might lead to overheating.

Everything seemed to be running along just fine! The flat belt flapping in the breeze, shedding bits and pieces of itself here and there, the engine innocently chugging along, never missing a lick, hardly under much of a load at all. After letting it run on gas for a while, we switched it over to coal-oil. It didn't even seem to faze.

Our job done at last, we wandered off, Jim and I, for a proudly deserved raid on the chow-hall icebox, leaving a couple of li'l guys to keep an eye on things. We had hardly gotten our whistles wet when the kids came barging in, shrieking at the tops of their voices, 'It's stopped! It's stopped! It's quit!' Sure enough, straining an ear off across the square, all was silence.

Right away, we jumped on the kids and accused them of messing with it, yanking the wires loose, latching down the gas pump lever, stopping up the water, all of which they emphatically denied.

Back at the engine, we found that it still had plenty of gas, the carburetor was full, the battery o.k. and nothing was pulled loose. And it still turned 'round free and easy! And so it was back to square one! Just as Big Daddy had said: 'It runs for a little while an' then gets hot, I reckon, an' quits!'

But the first thing I noticed was that it sure wasn't hot. Downright cold, in fact, even after running all that time. So we spent the rest of the day turning it over and over and over; we cranked that 'blame pieca junk' 'till we were blue in the face; cussing it up one side and down the other, and still couldn't figure out what was wrong.

The big engine just seemed to sit there and laugh at us, as it must have laughed at so many other unfortunate half-wits in the past who had tried to make it do work, when it would rather loaf. Nothing we could do would make it hit even once, much less run. I was getting mad and taking it out on poor Jimmy; I mashed my fingers between the flywheel and the base, drawing blood, and that certainly didn't help things any either.

Finally we went back to the shop, got the wrenches and took the head off. Again, never had we seen so much black, goopy goo as was inside the firing chamber. Cleaning it off in the shop, again completely disassembling the sparker, making sure everything was free, nothing was shorted out, and that we had nice fat, hot sparks again, we put it all back together once more.

The first time over, and she hit off!

And ran for an hour or so.

Then quit!

Well, we couldn't say Big Daddy hadn't warned us. Never had we been so disconsolate in our lives! All because I had to go and pop off my big fat trap and brag I could get that worthless piece of junk to run! I felt like going down to the station that night, flagging down the Texas Zephyr and just bugging out for Denver!

But the next time around, we just cleaned the sparker; polished the points again, cleaned the insulator of the hot one, and made sure the move-able one was free. The goop on the valves didn't seem to hurt any.

But it wasn't the cure. Time after time, for months afterward, the same thing; a repeat of all that had gone before. It would run beautifully, but then the sparker would crud up and it would quit.

'Why?' I asked myself a thousand times.

Why indeed?

It surely wasn't getting too hot! No way could it have ever gotten too hot, as the Boss had suggested. I knew as certain as the sun came up in the east that it absolutely was not getting hot!

It's a funny thing about human nature that once we've been brainwashed, fixated, suggested to, or taught a new theory or 'fact-of-life', as it were, it stays with us through thick and thin, even though experience and common sense should have taught us it might be wrong.

But just to make sure it wasn't heating up, along about the start of summer, Jim and I scrounged up some bigger pipe, and hooked it up with nipples and reducers to the cooling jacket, until it seemed that half the flow from the water pump was coming up through the engine and being wasted.

No change! It would still poop out and quit! Our only tangible clue; that it possibly might have run just a tad longer on gasoline than on coal-oil before quitting, completely evaded us, for no one could be sure.

So we started asking dumb, stupid questions of everybody who would bother and listen, from addlepated, half-wit brat teenagers, to neighboring ranchers, cowboys, train crews, even hobos in their jungle camps along the river.

We kept getting answers. Lots of answers. But no solutions. A favorite we heard over and over was to take the dumb sparker off and throw it in the river, drill a piece of flat iron, screw a spark plug in it, and hook it up to a Model T coil.

But no, stubborn and mule-headed as I was, even then, I wasn't about to do that! Somebody had designed that *?*)%! engine to run with its %*&?/!$ sparker, and by ?/z&*?, it was going to run on its !&**?%? sparker, come hell or high water! If I had to drag the whole *?!*&.? engine down to the river and heave it in!

Big Daddy said to let it go! 'Don't let it getcha down, kid. You ain't the only one it's got to. Besides,' he went on, 'Maybe we'll get us 'lectricity out here one o' these years, now 'at the war's over. Or maybe we'll find us another ol' engine some where's.'

Another engine? That galled me!

The summer doldrums hit! It got hot, hot as the holy hinges of Hades. What little wind there was, wasn't enough to even budge the sails of the big windmill. The stock still had the river, but every day, every one of us boys had to make two trips with buckets down to the railroad station water tank for drinking water. We had to fight the livestock for our dwindling swimming hole; even so, we were dirtier getting out than going in! The railroad had promised us a car of water, but everyone knew what that tasted like, even if it did come from the Rocky Mountains.

Big Daddy finally had to ask them to ship us some water.

That galled me all the more! A failure! A dismal flop! Boy, I really did feel like just taking off and shoving it all!

But Daddy had always lectured us on running away from our troubles; running away from the problems of life. And that no matter how far we tried to run, or how fast we went, our problems and troubles would always beat us there.

And then Tommy showed up!

In his old T-model truck. Running scared! From straight out of the northland, the eastern plains of Montana, via the scenic route, the long way around through California and across the deserts. Broke! At the end of his rope! Heartaches, troubles. No place to call home. And problems! Problems of his own that made all of ours look like 2-cent bean-hills.

It took a while to get him settled in and become one of us, but he had 41 brothers to work on him, as they had all worked on me.

He became a special friend to Jim and me, and after supper one hot summer's evening, we took him down to the windmill, cleaned the sparker, started up the engine and told him what would happen.

He sat there on the ground in silence for a while, his chin on his knees, listening to it fire and watching it run, entranced by its mechanism. Finally he got up and felt the cylinder and the head, getting zotted on purpose by the sparker as a test. He walked out to the end of the pipe and felt the water coming out of the cylinder.

'Besides, he went on, 'Maybe we'll get us 'lectricity out here one o' these years, now 'at the war's over.'

'I could make ice cubes outta this stuff,' I heard him mutter. Then, 'Go get me an old faucet, willya, an' screw on this here pipe,' he ordered suddenly.

'A faucet?' I asked, not understanding.

'Yeah, man, lookie at alla this water yer wastin'!'

'That's ta keep it from heatin' up,' I explained patientlty.

'An' that there's yer problem, man!'


'It ain't heatin' up ernuff!'

'What?' Jim and I repeated with the same breath.

'I said, it ain't gettin' hot ernuff!'

'Yer fulla hooey ez a Christmas goose!' I told him angrily.

'Look,' Tom exclaimed, trying not to loose his temper. 'Ya know yer ol' feed'grinder engine over yonder inn'a barn?'


'Well, ya pour water in the' big hole in the' top, see.' he explained patiently. 'An' then ya crank it up an' it jus' runs. It runs all day long too, remember? An' it gets hot. Way too hot to touch. An' the' water gets ter bilin' inside! That stuff's steam comin' outta the' top, man! Ya know, steam? What's makes trains go!'

'But it's got a spark plug,' I explained desperately.

'Don't make no difference!' Tommy replied. 'They're supposed to steam a little bit. An' this un'ain't gettin' hot ernuff!'

Anyway, all three of us raced over to the shop, rummaged around in the pipe fitting box and came up with an old water faucet from somewhere. Back at the engine, Tommy screwed it on hand tight, and then casually shut it off 'til it just dripped.

'Wastin' all that good water,' he repeated sadly, shaking his head. 'You-all ortta be ashamed!'

We all stood there and kept feeling the big cylinder, then felt the water dripping from the faucet. It was heating up already.

'Ya see!' he lectured us like an old school maarm, 'When it gets hot, it burns alla that ol' black goop offa the' points inside there, see. So they don't get all cruddied up an' short out! That's what makes it quit. It shorts 'em out an' it can't fire no more!'

Sure enough! As the big old engine began to heat up, it just seemed to settle down and run ever so much better-hitting only about half as often as it did before.

Tommy has always been too much of a man to tell a feller right to his face what he was full of. But I was beginning to see a fresh outlook on the problem. All I could think of was that if he was right, how I was gonna kick myself. Right where it hurt.

'Now, le's go get some more coal-oil for it,' he ordered firmly, adjusting the faucet knob a tad. 'An' you, kid,' he motioned to one of the boys standing around, 'Go get some grease an' stuff in these grease cups! An' you!' he pointed to another one. 'Go get some oil an' a oil can. Fill up this oiler-thing here. An' then squirt oil onta everything 'at moves!'

Everybody took off running.

Finally, just Jimmy and I were left. 'Now, le's go hunt us up some cotton!'


'Yeah, ta stuff in our ears!'

'Stuff in our ears!'

'Yeah,' he said, his patience running thin. ''Cause we're all gonna be listenin' ta this &.*%'*% pieca junk run all night long!'

Along about two in the morning, Big Daddy came and banged on our dorm room door and said it was the most beautiful racket he'd ever heard in his life!

I told him I'd go shut it off.

'Oh, no, no, no, you don't! Let it run, for heaven's sake!'

It was even more beautiful the next morning when we had a full tank of clear, cold, rust-free underground aquifer water.

Everybody got a real bath for the first time in a month!

And we had to drain the railroad car stuff in the river, for even the livestock had quit drinkin' it!

For five years we listened to that thing run many a summer's night, from 'way off down there under the water tank by the windmill. On dark, moonless nights, new little guys, from down below the dorm, would get nightmares just knowing that monsters were charging up out of the river to get them. They would come tearing upstairs in wide-eyed terror and jump in our beds while we held them and hugged them, as their mothers might have done, had they been lucky enough to have had a mother. Then we'd carry them back downstairs, sound asleep in our arms and tuck them back in bed again. Poor li'l kids!

The corrugated sheet-iron for a monstrous stock tank-swimming pool materialized mysteriously down at the station one day, just as Cal had promised and we got it up just in time to ice skate on that winter. Never again did we have to shoo off the cows in the summer for a little bitty patch of diluted river mud!

Trains came and trains went; high school was over, and with it, the very best years of our lives. Time came at last for that long one-way ride into Denver-and the world.

Years later, as a man, I returned to the ranch on the High Texas Panhandle Plains, deep down in the Canadian River Canyon.

Big Daddy was dead. Everything and everybody was new! Electricity! Progress! The old windmill and water tank were gone! No one could tell me what had happend to 'My Ol' Engine'! It was as if a part of me had been hacked away with an axe!

No one cared about what was past anymore!

I've never been back!

Everybody took off running. Finally, just Jimmy and I were left. 'Now, let's go hunt us up some cotton!'