March 31, 2020

Rite of the Rototiller

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

I rototilled the garden yesterday.  I enjoy it.  It’s a rite of spring.  I add manure from the midden by the barn, empty the composter of the winter’s accumulation and mix everything in while inhaling the warm smell of humus.  After a long winter, there’s nothing like it.  Plus a garden is a great way to save on your grocery bill.

The machine I use for the job is an antique, rope-start lawn tractor, a 1973 Bolens H-16.  There is no recoil.  Instead the rope is rewound manually after every attempt.  Once it’s in use again, it’s a good starting machine.  That said, the first start of every year is generally a protracted wrestling match, man versus machine.

There are a number of tricks I use to help.  I make sure the gas tank and oil reservoir are full before unscrewing the sparkplug and cleaning it.  Then I disengage both sets of drive belts.  (This tractor has hydrostatic drive.  I cheat.  Why turnover the hydraulic pump, too?  I installed hooks on both tensioning pulleys ensuring that’s it’s only the motor I’m turning.)  Last, I add a bit of gas directly into the cylinder before screwing the sparkplug back into place.

Making sure that the key is ‘on,’ I set the choke, adjust the throttle and, saying a brief prayer to pagan gods of machinery, pull the rope.

This year, the tractor started, first pull.   White smoke blew from the exhaust as the engine caught.  The steady throb of that old Tecumseh one cylinder filled the barn.  While I congratulated myself on just how clever I truly am, just how closely in tune to this old equipment I’ve become, the machine stalled.

The smile ran from my face.  I went through the entire rigmarole again.  This time, it was no go.  Literally.

And again.

And again.

And again.

I lost track of the number of times I tried.

Finally I took a break.  My breath came in gasps.  My back ached.  I stared at the ceiling, hands over my kidneys, trying to remaster the art of standing upright.

My wife gave me an odd look from across the barn.  “What’s the trouble?” she asked.

“It won’t start.”

“Maybe we need a new one.”

“Hmmm.”  That’s always my response to any suggestion that we buy new.  It’s a personal bias, I admit, but I’m already older than virtually all our machinery.  If they’re half my age but antique and no good, what does that say about me?

I groaned, wound the rope again, checked the key, micro-managed the throttle and gave another pull.


My language deteriorated significantly.  I yanked and yanked while the tractor balked.  “What’s going on?” I yelled.  “The thing was running.  It just quit.”  Then I thought about that a moment. It’s my last resort too many times.   A light came on.  Finally.  “The problem has to be fuel,” I announced, genius that I am.

I disconnected the gas at the carburetor before following the line all the way back to the bottom of the tank.  There weren’t any problems, but there wasn’t any fuel either.

A glimmer appeared at the end of a long tunnel.  “I didn’t shut the gas off did I?”  I inquired of the barn at large, fingering the valve.

Wouldn’t you guess?  I must have.  Who else would have?  That said, I certainly didn’t recall doing it.  Regardless, that was the problem.

It was amazing how easily the tractor started once fuel entered the equation.  First pull in fact.

Again.  Just like that other first pull, fifty pulls back when I added gasoline directly into the cylinder.

“Image that,” I panted.  “Here I thought this machine was one of those modern jobs that doesn’t require fuel.”

I stepped back and apologized to the tractor, patting its hood.  “Sorry about all those names I called you.”

The tractor ran happily beside me.  Apparently I was forgiven.  Still, I thought about the whole affair as I rototilled the garden using my 39-year-old machine.

You know, old farming equipment really does work just fine.

On the other hand, the operator can be a real problem.