Hit and Misses
“Rise and shine, boys. Time’s a wastin’, up and at-em’.”
“Yessir.” Jamie yawned at his father.
“Or you could just stay in bed today.”
He looked at the shadow of his father lean in the doorway. Never had his father relented once he had awakened Jamie. “Huh?”
“Well, we’re just going to crank the engine today, that’s all. Not much else goin’ on, so if you want to stay home … ”
But Jamie had already vaulted out of bed. “Oh no, we’re comin’.”
“Speak for y’self.” Ned’s voice was muffled by his pillow.
He shook Ned’s shoulder. “Come on, you want to see this thing run just as much as I do.”
“Shake a leg, boys.” His father’s shadow vanished from the doorway.
Ned turned his head sideways on his pillow. “Sleep never hurt anybody.”
“Come on, we gotta get up.”
Ned rolled over, yawned and shook his head violently, then fell back down to the pillow. “All right, but my git-up-and-go done got up and went.”
Breakfast was quiet, except for Jamie’s father.
“The CCC wants to work a deal. They’ve had their budget cut so they’re lookin’ to tighten their belts a little. They need lumber and they’ve got plenty of timber. So the idea is that they cut the timber and send it to us, we saw it up and sell it back to them at reduced rate, but I have to send in a bid.”
“Doesn’t sound like much money, honey.” Jamie’s mother poured coffee, blue hand towel wrapped around the coffeepot handle against the heat.
“It’s not. But if I can keep the saw making money while we get logging up and off the ground for the army contracts it’ll be worth it.”
“Are you taking the work other mills won’t? Is there something you don’t know?”
“I don’t know what I don’t know.” Jamie’s father snorted a laugh. “But I do know if the big mills won’t take the work I’m not going to sniff my nose up at it.” He looked at nothing, pursed his lips. “I could make it a one-time trial contract though, just to see how it works out.” He looked around the table. “Eat up, boys. Let’s go.”
Jamie felt oatmeal was the worst thing a body could eat fast. He did his best, but jamming the food down his throat made the oatmeal feel like concrete before it even got to his stomach. The bouncing trip down the dirt road to the mill didn’t help at all.
When they arrived at the mill the gate was open but there was no one to be seen. Jamie’s father pulled the truck up to the office cabin, killed the engine and got out. “Snow and Marshal are supposed to be here somewhere.”
Jamie heard Snow call out, turned around toward the sound and saw Snow leaning out of the narrow open door of the engine shed just beyond the saw pole shelter. He waved them over. “Over here.”
Jamie looked at his father. His father nodded at him. “Go on. I’ll get the coffee this morning.”
They trotted over to the engine shed. They ducked sideways to come through the door and blinked the sun spots out of their eyes in the darkness.
They heard an unfamiliar rumble of a voice echo in the small space. “Mr. Snow, I think we prob’ly need to lift up those big side doors and get some light in there ‘fore we start workin’.”
They could hardly see Snow’s shadow turn back and forth. “I think you’re right. Hold on a minute.” Jamie heard the rattle of keys. “You boys stay right here. Don’t touch nothin’. ”
Snow pushed by them and out the narrow door. Jamie felt a little spooked waiting in the dark with someone they had only heard speaking, but then they heard rattling chains and a streak of light sliced into the dark interior. The hinges on the top of the wall door creaked but the door stayed put. Streams of light flickered and lashed and showed Marshall the mountain, his face shining like anthracite. He wore overalls with no shirt and a felt fedora set halfway back on his head. He stood still as a stone, hands shoved in his back pockets, while Snow wrestled with the doors against the dirt that had piled up along the bottom over the winter.
“You need some help wid dat, Mr. Snow?” His voice was deep and slow.
The motion of the door stopped and they heard Snow breathe hard for a moment. “You might say. I bl’eve I do.”
Marshall blocked all the light coming in through the door for a moment as he ducked through and stepped out to help Snow. With a squeal of rust frozen hinges the bottom of the door moved and there was Marshall, who lifted it as easily as Jamie could a picture frame. He held it up in the air as Snow found and placed the vertical post supports underneath the corners, the lifted door now making a roof overhead.
Jamie looked over at Ned and saw Ned looking back at him with wide eyes. Apparently this man’s size was not just bulk. But when Jamie turned back, his attention was caught complete by what rested on the dirt floor.
Jamie had seen engines before. He had seen engines of tractors, cars and his father’s truck. He put fuel in the Delco generator at home every night and had even worked on it some. But this was like nothing he’d ever seen. This engine was huge, big as a tractor with two flywheels taller than he mounted to either side of a great horizontal cylinder. It was love at first sight. “What the hell?”
Jamie did not see Snow jerk in reaction to his profanity nor did he see the hard gaze soften into a slow-grow grin as he saw Jamie’s wide eyes riveted to the engine. “It’s somethin’ ain’t it? That’s the hit-n-miss. See that?”
Jamie followed Snow’s finger to a brass plate mounted to the single massive timber that served as the engine base. It read ‘Evans Mfg Co., Butler, PA. 20 HP.’ What Snow had said hit him in a half-beat delay. “Hit-n-miss?”
Snow nodded at him. “Yep. It don’t run all the time.” Snow’s grin grew broad into a laugh as Jamie stared. “I’ll explain it to you as we go along. You’re gonna help me get it runnin’.”
“Oh. Okay.” Jamie looked back at the metal beast. It was as big as a tractor and looked a little like one with its big rear wheels up off the ground but without wheels on the front. At the end of the cylinder hung a collection of pipes, valves and valve wheels, operating handles, steel springs, brass pipes and rods. The whole conglomeration rested on a cast iron base bolted to a single massive timber that rested on two railroad crossties. He saw that beneath caked sawdust and dirt it was painted a medium green with ghosts of thin yellow pin striping curling around spokes of the wheels.
His hands ached to touch it, but he held his fists tight in the pockets of his overalls, not wanting to break it, not wanting to ruin his chances by messin’ something up, though as massive as it was that didn’t seem very likely.
“Jamie.” Snow awakened him from his reverie.
“Huh?” Jamie looked up. “Oh, yeah.”
“Get over to the goo shed there and bring me that can of gas that’s sitting by the door, one of those new tin buckets, a spout oil can and a can of grease. And fill one of those metal pitchers on top of the oil drums about half full of oil from the drums. Bring it all back here. And don’t forget some grease rags.”
Jamie turned back to stare at the engine as Snow talked to Ned.
“Now Ned, if you would, go on up to the cabin and ask Mr. Garrath for the good tool set in the green box.” He clapped his hands to get them moving. “Go on now. It’ll be here when you get back.”
Jamie and Ned turned, grinned at each other and ran.
When Ned reached the office cabin Jamie’s father dad had already had the toolbox set out, along with other tools in a galvanized bucket. “Here ya go. Help him out all you can now, but don’t get in his way, you understand?”
Ned grabbed the box and the bucket and ran out toward the shelter. Just before he reached the door he tripped and spilled the tools on the ground. He gathered them all up and wiped off the sand and dirt on them as best he could against the side of his overalls. Fortunately the box hadn’t sprung open in the fall, though it was upside down. Tools inside clattered when he turned it over. He picked up the bucket and stepped inside.
Jamie and Snow were laying out flat boards on boxes to make tables.
Snow answered. “I’m gonna take apart what need to be taken apart and you boys are gonna clean parts for me and lay them out. Then we’ll grease what needs greasing, oil what needs oilin’ and put it all back together.”
To Ned the rest of the afternoon was a blur of mechanical mystery. Snow pulled the gears and levers of the great engine apart, bit by bit, part by part. He handed the individual pieces to Ned and Jamie.
Ned smelled grease and gas and kerosene. The gas dry-burned his hands as he dipped small shafts and cotter pins and bell cranks and fasteners and rubbed the dirt and grease off with a wire brush and rags.
He dropped parts in the dirt a couple of times and had to reclean them. When they got to greasing and reassembly he handed Snow the wrong ones because he didn’t know what the parts were called. Jamie just seemed to not only know what the pieces were but was handing Snow parts before Snow asked for them. It was as if Snow and Jamie had their own language. Eventually Ned just sat on a bucket washing parts and watched Jamie grease and arrange cogs and cams and shafts and spacer washers and bolts and screws on the boards in mystic order.
“You done this before?” Ned asked Jamie. “You look like you done it a hundred times.”
Snow laughed. “Yeah, don’t he though? You boys makin’ this go a lot faster than I ‘spected.”
To Ned, Jamie and Snow looked like surgeons working on a great mechanical beast. When all the parts were washed he leaned back against the wall of the shed. He felt useless and stupid, seeing Jamie so happy and in his element, smiling with real joy. He hated it. “You guys need anything right now?”
Jamie just shook his head, his gaze never leaving Snow’s hands as Snow fitted the parts together and adjusted linkages.
“I’m gonna go get some water then, ok?”
“You come back quick now, we gonna need you for clean up.” Snow glanced up at Ned, then right back down to his work. “And find Marshall for me, will you? We need him to get this beast cranked.”
Ned left, his hands still burning from the gasoline. He felt like he had nothing specific to complain about, but anger still caught hold in his chest, his heart crusted with black stone. His kinder emotions slid off that glassy surface and fell where he could not find them.
He found Marshall by the water pump, standing by Cyrus. He walked up to them, nodded to Cyrus, who nodded back, then turned to the huge black man. “Mr. Marshall?”
The man nodded at him between sips of water from his mason jar. “Yes? What is it?”
“Snow wants you in the engine shed. I think he’s about ready to try to crank the engine.”
“That was quick. You helped him?”
“Jamie, mostly.” He glanced back at Cyrus, then pumped the handle of the pitcher pump himself and drank from the spout.
Marshall set down the mason jar, set his hat on his head and headed in his constant gait for the engine shed.
“Let me see your hands.”
He looked up at Cyrus and wiped his mouth. “What for?
Cyrus just looked at him, so Ned lifted his hands, palms up. This time Cyrus looked at the palms and then turned them over to look at their backs. “Take that soap there and wash the gas off your hands.” Cyrus grabbed the pitcher pump handle and pushed and pulled.
Ned grabbed the bar of white soap and soaped up his hands in the stream of clear water. “How’d you know they were burning?”
“Saw the red on your hands and smelled gas. Wasn’t too hard to figure.”
Ned rinsed his hands under the stream and then wiped them on the legs of his overalls. “Thanks.” He turned to leave.
“Hold on a minute.”
As Ned turned back, Cyrus reached into the woven bag he always carried over his shoulder. He took out a round tin, opened it and held it out to Ned. “Take a little of this and rub it on your hands.”
“What is it?”
“Something that will take the burn off of your skin. Go ahead, you don’t need much.”
Ned reached out and dipped a small amount out of the tin with his finger. He held it to his nose and smelled. It was fragrant like a plant he couldn’t remember.
Ned rubbed it into his hands. The burn of the gas stopped. “What is it? I mean, what’s in it?”
“Mostly goose grease and whale fat. A few other things.”
He blinked up at the man. “Whale fat? Where did you get whale fat?”
“From a whale.” Cyrus screwed the lid back on the tin and slid it back into his bag. He nodded toward the engine shed. “You better get back.”
Cyrus nodded just once at Ned, then slung his bag back over his shoulder and turned away.
Ned sniffed his hands as he watched Cyrus walk away in his long graceful stride.
When Ned neared the engine shed he heard odd puffing and thumping coming from inside. He poked his head in the door and saw Marshall bent over the engine crank on the flywheel. Jamie and Snow bent over the other side peering into what Snow had called the ‘magneto.’
Snow spat in the dirt. “One more time.”
Ned watched Marshall heave on the starting crank and watched the huge wheels spin over. There was a great hollow throaty metallic puff, then one bang. Marshall backed off. The engine spun, then died.
“Ok, take a break.”
Marshall sat down and leaned his back against the wall of the shed.
Snow mumbled as he peered and pushed at the mechanical assembly. “I need for it to move just a skooch forward.”
Ned watched Jamie jump around to the starting crank and put his whole weight on the handle. The engine wheels did not move. He bounced and the engine still didn’t move.
Marshall pushed up off the ground. “How much you need?”
“’Bout a quarter turn.”
Ned watched Jamie back off as Marshall reached out and readjusted the handle position so he could pull up on it and pulled slowly upwards with one hand. “How’s that?”
“Perfect.” There was a click as Snow adjusted the linkage. “Okay Marshall. Give her one more spin.”
Ned saw Marshall heave on the crank handle and the spokes of the wheels blurred. The great throaty metallic gulps sounded again, then Ned heard Snow curse, just once.
The train whistle echoed from beyond the woods. Ned watched Snow lean back and wipe his hands on a rag. “All right, fellas, you can take off now. We might not have got her cranked yet but we got a lot done and I think that whistle is God’s way of telling us we need a break. We’ll give her a try again tomorrow.”