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By Staff | Jul 8, 2011

It took a while, but “one of these days” finally arrived.

Last summer I revivified the John Deere “A” I had driven as a kid. The tractor had been moldering in a state of disrepair and disassembly for nearly 20 years, so resurrecting it took an effort roughly akin to that of constructing the Panama Canal.

After innumerable tribulations and no small number of missteps, the “A” putted back to life and was once again capable of moving under its own power.

I later purchased an old sickle mower for the “A” so I could clip weeds and such. The “A” and the mower were noisome and unwieldy; driving it meant enduring heat and bugs and dust, just like when I was a kid. It was wonderful.

But there was a problem. Every time I started the “A”, it belched out a plume of oily smoke that could be seen from space and caused airliners to divert.

I consulted numerous Johnny Popper buffs and the consensus was that the “A” needed a proper breaking-in.

Like any workhorse, the “A” wanted to work. Nay, it needed to work.

My neighbor, Marv Hope, an old tractor expert, suggested that I drive the “A” over to his place and give it a workout with his dynamometer. You know you’re dealing a hardened tractor devotee when he casually mentions that he has his own personal dynamometer.

I told Marv I would take him up on his offer “one of these days.” It took nearly a year, but that day recently came.

On the appointed morning, I made certain everything regarding the “A” was in perfect order. The gas tank was topped off and the crankcase filled with fresh oil.

Certain of success, I fired up the old girl and set out for Marv’s place.

My wife insisted on following me in our car since my route would take me down a local highway. I grumbled a bit, saying that I didn’t need any help. Did she think I was 12?

The “A” popped along like a two-cylinder top – right until it up and died. Midpoint in our journey the tractor suddenly lost power, as if it were out of gas or the ignition switched off. Except the gas tank was full! And it doesn’t even have an ignition switch!

Thank goodness my wife was there to help! I knew it was a good idea to have her follow me.

Jumper cables were applied and the “A” came back to life – only to expire again in half a mile. Hoping for a rescue, I called Marv.

Marv arrived within minutes and began a methodical diagnosis. He soon determined that the magneto lacked spark, perhaps due to a bad condenser.

He also noticed that one of the coil clamps had rusted away.

“I have those things at home,” said Marv. “I’ll be back shortly.”

You know you’re dealing with a hardened Johnny Popper aficionado when he casually mentions that he has such parts on hand.

Marv soon had the “A” running and I resumed my voyage. As I neared the town of Sinai, it occurred to me that the “A” had last traversed this particular patch of asphalt when I was 12 and hauling wagonloads of oats to the elevator.

My stately pace provided ample time to count cracks in the highway. This method of travel is poles apart from modern modes of transport. It’s not just the relative lack of speed.

A person is also exposed to the elements and thus actually experiences them. The sun warming your back; a soothing summer breeze; the aroma of ripening wheat; the sweet fragrance of rapidly growing corn; the earthy, funky tang of a summertime slough.

Upon arriving at Marv’s place, the “A” was connected to his dynamometer and given a rigorous workout. As a bonus, Marv showed me his collection of old tractors. Not all of them are fully restored, but I could tell that each is cherished.

The break-in mission accomplished, I thanked Marv profusely and pointed the “A” homeward.

My route took me past the farm where my great-grandfather Henry homesteaded, which caused me to cogitate about history and all the guys – uncles, grandparents, neighbors, my dad – who once worked with this tractor and are now gone.

They may have had a tough time swallowing the concept of a computer controlling an engine, but would be right at home with such devices as magnetos and brass floats and needle valves.

We’re fortunate that rural America is home to quiet heroes such as Marv. I think my 12-year-old self might have even given him a nickname, perhaps something along the lines of Magneto Man or Dynamo Guy.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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