There are No Small Engines; Just Small Minds

I know you are dying for an update on the People’s Lawn Tractor. I would have posted it yesterday, but I was busy being a miserable prick.

That is mostly because things were not going well with the People’s Lawn Tractor. That business about it not starting on Saturday evening, mid-way through the cut? The non-starting thing appears to be an extremely addictive habit where tractors are concerned, because the People’s Tractor had only just begun not starting on Saturday evening, but by Sunday morning it was firmly committed to continuing to not start; some would say it was entirely unable to shake the disease on its own.

The well-being of the People’s Lawn Tractor was thus turned over to The Great Fixini, reknowned magician/handyman locally responsible for such amazing feats as: “The Hanging of a Picture”, “The Installation of Shelves” and (always a crowd pleaser) “The Gluing of the Table Legs”. The Great Fixini instantly knew what to do: he arranged an intervention.

To understand what happened in the course of this intervention, one must first look at lawn tractors from a Platonic standpoint – one must consider the transcendent ideal to which all worldly versions of the lawn tractor aspire. I had no idea small engine repair is such a philosophy-driven exercise, but The Great Fixini assured me that this is very much the case. plato is the original lawnmower manNear as my tiny little brain could figure it (following the rare explanation provided by The Great Fixini), the Ideal Lawn Tractor of Mount Olympus would have a system in which turning the iginition key would cause (warning: technical jargon ahead) zap juice (also known as “electricity”) to travel through wires attached to a “starter motor”. The zap juice causes the starter motor to rotate quickly, because it is an electric motor and that is what they like to do when they drink zap juice, rather like the effect a few too many Black Horses has been known to have on pub patrons in the Water St. district of St. John’s, Newfoundland. The rapid rotation of the starter motor (not the whole thing, actually, just the little shaft and its attachments – if your entire starter motor is rotating rapidly, take it from me, you have a significant problem) is designed to corkscrew this little plastic “thingy’ in an upward direction, where its tiny plastic teeth are yin to the engine gear’s yang, and the crankshaft begrudgingly turns, moving a piston which has the effect of drawing some gas vapour into the combustion chamber, which is then ignited by a spark, and voilà, we have internal combustion in our Engine of the Gods (see Book II of the Republic for a more thorough explanation, but you’ll need to be choosy about the edition you refer to – according to The Great Fixini, many people mistakenly believe Book II contains something called the “allegory of the cave” when it is actually, when properly translated, the section about the internal combustion engine. )

The flaw in the specific and particular instantiation of “lawn tractor” that is the People’s Lawn Tractor was easily identified upon the removal of the housing enclosing the starter motor, a procedure that seemed to flow naturally from the fact that these were the two least greasy screws immediately obvious to The Great Fixini upon raising the tractor’s hood. starterpartRecall that the “thingy” at the top of the Universal Abstraction of the Starter Motor has little plastic teeth that mesh nicely and importantly with certain metal teeth inside the engine. Well, on the starter motor of the here and now, the little thingy’s plastic teeth could only be accurately described by resorting to cooking terminology: they looked somewhat puréed, at least with a respect to one arc segment of the little thingy’s circumference. That is to say that certain of the thingy’s teeth needed to be al dente, but they were instead very much overcooked, which makes it all the more difficult to understand why the engine ate them.

Having identified the problem with our Lawn Tractor through resort to Platonic philosophy and a dangerously limited knowledge about cooking, it remained to design a strategy for the “correctional” phase of the endeavour – the part where the broken thing actually gets fixed. The Great Fixini’s university education had convinced him that philosophy would be of no use whatsoever for such a normative and prescriptive exercise, so he spent the next few minutes casting about for some inspiration as to the appropriate body of knowledge to which reference ought to be made. With much lawn remaining unhewed, no ready supply of replacement parts immediately available, and not the faintest clue as to how one might install a replacement part of this nature in any event, it occurred to him that we were in a Tough Spot. If there’s one thing to be learned from television and movies, it is that being in a Tough Spot can always be overcome by the power of positive thinking. Thus did The Great Fixini turn his attention to an exploration of the psychology necessary to facilitate repair of the tractor.

I had anticipated that The Great Fixini would begin with a spot of intense meditation and a moment of self-affirmation, but it soon became clear to me that I had it all wrong. How could a person’s state of mind and positive mindset possibly affect the performance of a lawn tractor? The Great Fixini assured me that such a plan was just patently ridiculous and obviously doomed to failure.
Obviously, Fixini said, we needed to concentrate on how the tractor felt about itself.

At the direction of The Great Fixini, therefore, I spent the next few minutes whispering to the recalcitrant and sullen piece of power equipment about the power of visualization, about the value of positive imaging and trying to instill a sense of purpose and inevitability about its rise from ignominious defeat, like in Rocky III when Rocky initially loses to Clubber Lang but you totally know that Rocky is going to reclaim his title before the end of the movie. The Lawn Tractor hadn’t seen that movie, but I recounted a brief synopsis of the plot, recommended that the tractor should see it some time, and the tractor pointed out that there isn’t a DVD player in the garage. I agreed to try and remedy that, but felt we were digressing slightly from the purpose of our conversation. Re-dedicating myself to our goal, I gave the tractor a stirring pep talk, like Gene Hackman in that movie Hoosierswhat, didn’t see that one either, eh? – well, it was good too. Refusing to get sidetracked again, the tractor and I soon believed that it could start. I showed the tractor that the starter thingy could still rotate, by moving it manually with my hand. Immediately thereafter, deploying the power of positive thought and steadfastly ignoring the existence of any problem, I clambered aboard and – on The Great Fixini’s signal – turned the ignition key.

Despite the resort to psychology, rather than philosophy, what ensued must be seen as a great epistemological triumph, as the tractor’s belief in its own soundness was converted into an objective and knowable fact in the instant of ignition: the tractor cast off the chains of its addiction to not starting, the engine sputtered to life, and the People’s Lawn Tractor bravely decided to soldier on. As the heroic mower advanced upon the untamed savannah, The Great Fixini was last seen waving a joyous and celebratory goodbye to the adoring throng marvelling at the enormity of his achievement.

What followed next was alternately frightening and frustrating. You could probably conclude – correctly – from that sentence alone that the lawn did not get completely cut before additional difficulties were encountered.

First, there was the matter of the inexperience of the tractor’s operator. Aside from Saturday’s all-too-brief maiden sally down the driveway and across a limited swath of lawn, I am humbled to admit that I had no prior history whatsoever of tractor operation. Keeping this significant disability in mind, it seems to me that – had the entire lawn actually gotten cut on Sunday afternoon with the help of NSTS – we might very well now be marvelling at the courage and skill of a plucky young chap with his can-do Tractor of Philosophy. Unfortunately, this was not my chosen path. Instead, the general public were witness to one of the most shameful displays of mower operation in recorded history. It is difficult, I concede, to imagine that the word “careening” could ever usefully be employed to describe the motions of a 12.5 hp tractor with a heavy mower assembly attached and a portly operator aboard, but I am here to tell you that no other word will suffice. Not a Painting by Pollock;  also not my mowing planShortly after commencing to mow, all semblance of a conventional system or plan regarding the orderly application of mower to lawn was abandoned in favour of a more (at least apparently more) random, almost Pollock-esque method of coverage. To the cynical eye, it might have appeared that what my plan lacked in “higgledy”, it made up for with “piggledy”. More than this haphazard directionality, though, there was the matter of The Wheelie; it is impossible, however, to fully understand this last event completely without turning our attention to the next category of mowing difficulties experienced

By way of segue, then, in addition to the operator’s inexperience, there was the questionable mechanical fitness of the equipment itself. Now, I know that it’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools; nevertheless, and keeping in mind the fact that I claim no especial technical knowledge of such power equipment, it seems to me unlikely that upon attempting to execute a left turn, for example, that the front left tire of the tractor ought to become entrapped by the leading edge of the mower housing. The sudden-ness of the stops that seem to be consequent upon such events, and the ferocity of the quite distinctly unusual grinding, popping and clacking noises that emerge immediately thereafter from beneath an already astonishingly loud device bear, in my mind, bellicose and throaty witness to a possible mechanical deficiency that at the very least needs the attention of The Great Fixini, if not an exorcist with a set of socket wrenches. In addition to these sinister (see what I did there, you Latin scholars?) mechanical challenges, however, there is the issue of the tractor’s clutch. From the very outset of my career atop the device, the locomotion I was able to achieve was notably characterized by some degree of lurching and spasmodic inconsistency even while attempting to travel in a straight line on flat and level ground. At least I believe that the observed locomotion would be erratic on flat and level ground, but it is difficult to say for sure as there is no flat and level ground whatsoever in all of Juniorvania, a fact I discovered to my chagrin the moment I began my maiden voyage aboard the People’s Lawn Tractor. The combination of this last fact, the presence on the tractor of what must be a worn-out and disinterested, possibly homicidal, drive clutch mechanism, and one small (but critical) gear selection error on the part of the operator produced the frightening majesty of The Wheelie. The Wheelie was brief and transient, but its terrible beauty lives on in the memory of all who were privileged to witness it – from afar. With attachment clutch engaged and dual mower blades whirling menacingly beneath the mower housing that was, only moments before, confined to the lowly elevation of its usual station, the tractor poised on a slight uphill grade facing the house, the tractor had reared up on its great haunches for a moment in the sunshine and snarled it’s vigorous disagreement with the operator’s selection of gear number six as the drive clutch propelled the great vehicle onward (and upward) in an instant. It is unlikely, of course, that the great beast would have reared so high as to overturn itself completely, but it would be difficult to convince the tractor’s clearly shaken operator of the physics demonstrably supporting that proposition in the moments immediately following The Wheelie.

Third among the list of additional mowing difficulties was this: limited fuel supply. Operating the tractor in such a fashion as to elevate the front wheels evidently has its costs in the area of fuel economy, in addition to the toll it exacts upon the mental health of its skittish occupants. Approximately eighty percent of the way through to the completion of his canvas, the work of the artist aboard the tractor was rudely interrupted by a thirsty, mechanical cough that announced the extinction of the on-board fuel supply. Efforts to re-supply the tank through use of the many assorted gas cans littering the vicinity of the garage were unsuccessful, as these particular gas cans did not evidently consider it of the utmost importance to actually contain any gasoline in order to be correctly perceived as gasoline containers. Further examination of these cans revealed that each of them has a somewhat dubious capacity to actually “contain” the said gasoline except in the most prosaic circumstances, as not a one of them had an actual cap by which one might prevent the accidental and unintentional ejection of their contents. A brief trip to the local Canadian Tire followed, with a subsequent excursion to a nearby filling station to fill the newly acquired container with the necessary fuel. Returning to Juniorvania (damn that dependence on foreign oil) with a grim determination to finish the job, the tank was refilled and the operator once again convinced to take his place in the captain’s chair. This time, however, a turn of the key in the ignition switch produced only the tractor’s proclamation, in the clearest terms possible, that the “thingy” in the starter motor had developed a very significant existential and essential problem and it had ceased, in any sense of the word important to the actual mowing of lawns, to be.

Even the many talents of The Great Fixini would not, on this day, reverse the effects of these philosophical developments upon the essence of the lawn tractor. It had become in an instant stationary, decorative and inert, rather than dynamic, functional and instrumental.

I am not pleased to report that by now, my own mood had darkened rather considerably. I strode to the garage with my jaw set and my teeth clenched, bent upon finishing the lawn-mowing I had begun a mere two days ago if it killed me.

It nearly did. I had gone to the garage looking for the gas operated push mower kept for touch ups and tight spots such as those in the back yard. This particular device and I had a bit of a history already: it had electrocuted me on Friday night when I was attempting to re-attach the spark plug lead while the mower engine was running. Poor choice on my part, that much I’ll grant you, but the mower didn’t have to so eagerly make the most of the opportunity I presented it to wound me. I had spent the rest of Friday evening rubbing the part of my hand that got zapped, feeling slightly colder than usual, and fielding Spouse’s worried (I think) questions about the likelihood of my imminent demise from that most ignominious of causes: “bizarre gardening accident” (though these are not unknown to befall the drummers of successful bands such as Spinal Tap). You can understand, therefore, that I viewed the gas-powered Tecumseh engine with some suspicion as I set the choke lever, primed the engine with some fuel and pulled the starter cord. Again. And again. And again. The little engine would cough to disinterested life, sputter a bit, then wheeze into torpor no matter what I did – adjust the choke, don’t adjust the choke, curse, swear, yell, wave arms, jump up and down, pull at places where I used to have hair – you name it, I could not provoke this indolent little monster into action through any means.

My eyes barely contained the fire of my rage. Sweat was dripping from my brow, and as the sun glared down at me and my collection of useless small engines, I stomped into the garage again and selected the manual push mower from it’s resting place. I strode purposefully on to the lawn and approached one of the larger interstitial patches (bits of lawn that I had missed on one pass or another aboard the People’s Lawn Tractor) and begin thrashing away at the wild savannah with the whirling blades of the push mower. The grass was tall and thick, and the poor little hand tool and I were wildly overmatched, but we managed to perservere enough to rid the lawn of most of the larger interstitial patches that were distributed somewhat randomly over the growing surface – “most”, but not “all”. There remains a large patch of unmowed grass somewhat evenly distributed around the trunk of a tree growing out near the road. I was breathing like a heavyweight tottering towards the end of a championship bout, the sweat from my brow was developing various estuaries and tributaries and my muscles – trained to within an inch of physical perfection by the onerous demands of my desk job – were screaming in agonized surrender.

I am stubborn. My mind had been made up to finish this job come hell or high water. Most of the hell had been endured aboard the tractor, and the high water was gathering in my shorts as I stood sweating in the hot sun. I looked at the roughly circular patch of un-mown grass surrounding the little tree and said, “I will call you The Island of Tree,” then turned and dragged my push mower back to the garage, having preserved a measure of dignified victory with the power of denial and some quick resort to semiotics.


Note that I promised to publish some photos of the repair process/maiden voyage. That plan was derailed somewhat by yesterday’s antics (both mine and the mower’s). I am still working on a photo essay on this and I still intend to post it.