Tools of the Trade
You may have never heard of a Hotsy, but Tom and Nate, my Vermont neighbors, certainly have. It is just one of hundreds of tools that are housed in their commercial garage just across the road from Floyd Skidmore’s place, the one with a front yard that looks like Old MacDonald’s farm, assuming that he lived in a used-car lot. It’s a carnival of plows, campers, brush hogs, pickups, tires, trailers, beefers, and goats, the latter often making forays into Tom’s garage, looking for a nice PVC pipe connector to gnaw on for lunch.
The Hotsy is a pressure washer with a twist. It is a large water heater powered by kerosene. Just press the trigger and you get instant hot water, great for cleaning trucks, pickups, bulldozers, and excavators. Tom picked it up for $200, refurbished it, and, with a twinkle in his eye, noted that a new one will run you $4,500. His garage has a well for changing oil that is kept dry by a sump pump. (The garage was built in a swamp years ago.) He has welders, grinders, sharpeners, drills, bits, wrenches, chop saws, air compressors, plumbing pipe, chain saws, washers, bolts, machine screws of every size, wire, gaskets, oil filters, a small office, and a STIHL calendar featuring a chain saw, a chopped motorcycle, and, of course, the girl. Outside, there are 200 tons of screened gravel, a sander, a small fortune in good topsoil, and a salt pit for storing the sand-salt combination that they use for doing driveways in winter. He plans on installing a septic system later this year and sprucing up the property with evergreens. I’ve seen Tom fix a hundred different things over the years, including bad taillights, generators that wouldn’t start, grumpy chain saws, and an old Jaguar that had stuck float valves in one of its carburetors. (He gently whacked the outside of the carburetor with a large wrench.) He’s used a Sawzall to free a large woman trapped after she fell through rotten decking around a log cabin; he’s winched his Ford pickup and mine out of countless mud holes and ditches; he’s repaired the ancient oil furnace in the basement of his farmhouse on sub-zero nights in a snake-infested dirt cellar; he can change the oil on everything from an excavator to a rototiller; and he can pull a lead ball out of a black powder rifle that misfired without shooting himself. He can also field dress a deer, hill a row of potatoes, disk a field, and drain the water from a cabin before winter sets in. He doesn’t like bats or spiders, although he once had to chase a colony of bats out of his living room with an old tennis racket, something that I remind him about at least once per year.
More than 20 years ago, I was having trouble with my International 404, a large mule of a tractor that was about as easy to turn as an oil tanker. It wouldn’t start, so I called Salem Farm Supply for help. The repair guy showed up, cleaned the battery posts in 2 minutes flat using a battery post brush, started up the tractor, and charged me $65. Since then, that brush has been my favorite tool. I have saved the day numerous times when guests at the farm could not start their cars on Sunday afternoon or when an old jalopy sitting in my barn wouldn’t start even after the spring battery charge. For less than $10, this tool makes me look like an expert.
The right tool, however, is mostly a modern invention. Even as a kid on the farm, I remember when a hammer, pliers, wire, baling twine, a screwdriver, and a crowbar took care of most in-the-field repairs, like when the baler was delivering broken bales or the plow on a pickup would not lower properly. Today, we depend on the right tool for the job; back then, we depended mostly on confidence. I have watched Tom’s son Nate do the near impossible: replace hard-to-reach hydraulic hoses on a backhoe or loosen up a frozen bolt the width of a bread plate. Most of us would give up before we got started.
One August evening a dozen years ago my oldest daughter, Whitney, took off down the road on her pink and white bicycle, handlebar streamers afloat as she passed our neighbor’s henhouse, and then disappeared down the narrow dirt road. I waited a bit, figuring that she needed to have a good head start, and then finally started up the red Ford 150 and headed out toward New York State. I found her a few miles away, down on the flats between hay fields. Twilight was coming, a dog was barking, and she was stopped by the side of the road, the bike hidden in the long grass. I drove by, turned around, and came back. I put her bike in the flatbed and she hopped in. We drove back home without a word spoken. Sometimes one is not given the right tools to deal with what life has to offer. You just do your best, like the old farmer with nothing more than a hammer, pliers, and the confidence that things will turn out right.