My Ol’ Engine

By Staff

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!’

‘What?’

‘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?’

‘Yeah!’

‘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!’

‘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!’

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