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Vlad the Tiller

The ancient Montgomery Ward tiller was black with age, the original red paint barely visible. The ancient relic sat on my father’s trailer looking as if it resented the living. On its surface was an unholy mixture of grease, oil, and organic crud that had accumulated over forty years of use. “It probably just needs to have the gas drained and the carburetor cleaned,” my dad said. Sure, its five-horse, Briggs & Stratton engine had roughly seven parts – a piston, carburetor, spark plug, drive shaft and… okay, maybe four parts. It had the aesthetics of a Soviet prison and the ergonomics of a church pew. No part, save for the pull cord handle, was made of plastic. Wrought of steel and iron, it cared not for its users comfort or pleasure. “You can use the little Mantis tiller if you want. I don’t know if that one is going to start,” he said. The modern, two-stoke tiller he spoke of was a fraction of the weight of Vlad the Tiller, and highly efficient - there was no way I was going to use it. The old Montgomery Ward tiller had been a constant throughout my cognitive existence since I could remember. I had watched my father wrestle with it year after year, as he had his. Taming the tiller was a rite of passage. It not only meant that you possessed the physical strength required to wield its earth breaking power, but you were in such a place in your life that a garden was not only financially possible, but required. Single, twenty-somethings did not grow gardens. Grown men with families for which to provide did. Grocery stores be damned. As I looked at the dejected tool sitting in front of my shed, its crude muffler rust-welded to the block, I noticed a strip of duct tape across the cowl that read “Martin” in black marker. I then remembered the tiller had once seized solid and had been repaired some years ago at my father’s then-current employer, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Yes, they let convicts work on machinery with blades. Maybe the thing would start after all. After a hose-down with degreaser and re-lubricating the pull cord wind clutch, I began in earnest to start it. I cheated and removed the disintegrating foam air filter and poured gasoline directly into the carburetor. I thought that if I could get fire, all would be good. I pulled the cord and the tiller sputtered and roared to life before falling silent again. Cheap tricks were going to get me nowhere. The gas that had been sitting in the carburetor for at least five years – the last time my grandfather used it before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and was banned from using it. I continued to play with the choke and pour gas into the carburetor in a vain attempt to coax the dinosaur to life before acknowledging that a simple fix was not going to reverse years of neglect. I carefully removed the gas tank and drained the yellow, acrid fuel. I then removed the simple carburetor and cleaned it in gas. Hunched over the machine, my back began to ache as I swatted


mosquitos and gnats. I imagined my grandfather doing the same to the soundtrack of Hank Williams and then later, my father to Journey or Neil Young. Then, time seemed to stop. The tiller did not know what year it was. It burned the same oxygen and fuel mixture it had for forty years. It was designed to be serviced and maintained by its owner, and had been for decades. I had not Googled maintenance procedures on my smartphone. I was doing what my father taught me, as it was taught to him, in the verbal tradition. After removing and cleaning the parts that provide the simple process of “suck, squeeze, bang, blow,” I reassembled the pieces with no more than a screwdriver and 3/8 inch wrench. When the new gas was added, two pulls were all that was needed to resuscitate the old girl. It coughed and breathed with the familiar “pat-pat-patpatpat” sound of my childhood. Without stopping to put away my tools, I engaged the clutch and drove it over to the recently plowed patch of dirt that was to be my garden. Within ten minutes, I had tilled the area twice in the same amount of time the little two-stroke Mantis tiller would have taken to do half. The big steel tines effortlessly churned the soil through roots and grass. It sputtered and died twice, but always fired up immediately upon the first pull of the cord. As I wrangled the bucking tiller, I thought that I must have looked like my father when he used it – shirtless with a farmer’s tan and eyes locked ahead in concentration, on the edge of control. Montgomery Ward, a legacy of the industrial revolution, has long since been dissolved and liquidated. It’s once proud name has been bought and sold again by various investment groups since the midseventies. There has been mention of reviving the old power equipment line under the Montgomery Ward name, but in that unlikely event, the products would be made in China or overseas elsewhere – as the boon of postwar American manufacturing is long gone. As depressing as that may be, there still is some consolation. While there may not be an immediate or even eventual resurgence in American manufacturing, we can take pride in the past. The archaic steel tiller still lives and turns the soil as it has for years. It will likely keep doing so until the parts are no longer available or there is no soil to break – or growing one’s own food is illegal. Maybe my son will even use the damned thing.


Vlad the tiller  
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