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Cast Iron Epidemic

Fri, Jan 26th, 2001
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Monday, January 29, 2001

I decided that it was time to change oil in both of our vehicles last Sunday. I drafted our sixteen-year-old son, Matt, to help. I thought it was a good opportunity for Matt to profit from some of my long experience and practiced technique in the ways of the mechanical world. Besides, it required lying on the snow-covered driveway and crawling face-up underneath cars. That sounded like more fun for him than for me, so he got the job.

This easy decision to change oil was an easy decision for me, but it reminded me of the worst mechanical malpractice I ever committed. That occurred about twenty years ago when my wife and I started farming. We went to a couple auctions and picked up three tractors that I thought were fine examples of horsepower ready and able to conduct the minor business required on our small dairy farm.

Our main power source was an Oliver 1600 diesel. It was a nice tractor with low hours, nice paint, and good tires. Next in the power lineup was the two-banger John Deere 70 complete with hand clutch and power steering. Completing the team was a wagon-pulling, elevator-running Farmall H. Although we were not in a position to "never pull a hitch-pin" like some neighbors who had as many tractors as implements, we should have had enough power to take care of our few acres of corn and hay.

Trouble started in the spring of 1981, when I was doing routine maintenance on the Oliver. I noticed some oil in the antifreeze. I knew that was a bad sign so I consulted with the mechanic at the implement dealership in Altura. As we stood in the nearly empty dealership shop, he assured me that he could check out the tractor and have it back in about a week, regardless of what he found wrong. He told me he was not busy so he could devote his full attention to my tractor. I brought the tractor to the shop the next day and he set to work. I stopped by a week later and saw my tractor in a thousand pieces sitting in the corner of the shop, surrounded by the shattered bodies of four other tractors in similar disarray. The haggard mechanic explained that there had been a sudden rush of business and the other mechanic had quit. Furthermore, my tractor needed parts that were not easily attainable. He had no idea when my tractor would be finished.

In the meantime, my John Deere 70 had decided that it, too, needed some time off. Although it was completely capable of handling the chores while the Oliver was laid up, the John Deere must have felt overwhelmed and checked out of the action with a cracked block. It went off to the mechanic in Plainview where it underwent a series of increasingly serious, expensive, and time-consuming repairs.

Now it was getting into spring work time and I needed a tractor with more power than the Farmall. I went to the dealer in Altura and rented a tremendously overpowered Massey Ferguson. Recently overhauled and with over one hundred horsepower, it hardly felt the three-bottom plow tugging at its drawbar. It plowed, disked, and sowed our ten acres of oats with comfortable ease before a blown head gasket suddenly took it down. With white smoke pouring out of the stack, it crept back to the farmyard where it collapsed in a heap.

Back to the dealer I went to rent another tractor. I came home with a very nice Oliver 1750 diesel with a cab. This Oliver was not the tractor that the Massey was, but it was sufficient to get some of my corn ground tilled and some corn planted. Then it died when the clutch went out. It limped back to the farmyard where I lined it up with the ailing Massey.

I went back to the dealer. It should have come as no surprise to me that he was out of tractors to rent. There was another dealer in town who had not heard of me and allowed me to rent a nice International 656 with hydrostatic drive. I had always wanted to drive one of these and I had a very nice trip home. After milking that evening, I went out to plow. Within minutes of getting to the field, the water pump went out. It was a weekend, so no work got done until the dealer fixed the tractor on Monday morning.

After doing life-threatening damage to five tractors, I managed to finish my fieldwork with the International. The Oliver dealer called the day after spring work was completed to tell me that the Oliver was fixed. The John Deere dealer called the day after that with similar news about the John Deere. The Farmall H had made it through the cast-iron epidemic unscathed, only to fall victim to a bad clutch six months later during the vicious blizzard month of January 1982.

It was a streak of mechanical bad luck the likes of which I have never heard. Since then, I have always been wary of things mechanical. I will change their oil, but I dont turn my back on them. They cant be trusted.

Wayne Pike

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