April 24, 2017

Stuck in a Universal Truth

Illustration by George Danby

Illustration by George Danby

• By John F. Chisholm •

We all know Murphy’s Law:  If something can go wrong, it will.

It’s simple, elegant and demonstrable.  It is Truth.  Speaking personally, I must have proved it ten thousand times.  More.

I’d like to formally propose an axiom to it:  Whatever it is that goes wrong will only do so at the worst possible time.

I can’t believe this is original with me.  Somebody else must have noticed this previously.  The problem arises that it isn’t an accepted addition.  Not yet.  I want to change that by formally proposing it here.  Now.  At once.

We all know that scientific methodology requires experimentation and proof.  Like that government study which conclusively demonstrated that if your grandparents don’t have any children, you won’t either, formal exploration of the obvious is required before general acceptance is possible.

To that end, I have an experience to relate.  If I appear to add excessive detail, please remember this is to prove conclusively the proposed axiom.  Here goes:
I have an OC-3.  The ‘OC’ stands for Oliver Crawler.  It’s small bulldozer.  Made in the early1940s by the Oliver Corporation, it’s a great little tractor  ― once it’s running.

A magneto fires the sparkplugs.  I have no problems with that.
There is an electric system though.  That’s for the starter.  I have lots of problems with that.  It’s a six volt circuit and not very effective.  No.  To be blunt, it seldom works.  Because of the blade mounted in the front there’s no crank start.  That’s too bad.   It needs one.  Desperately.

Starting this tractor can be a huge challenge.

Mechanically, it’s sound.  I ought to know.  It’s completely rebuilt.

It’s important to note that the difficulty starting this machine isn’t just my tractor.  I’ve seen a significant number of other OC-3s rewired into 12 volt systems.  It’s a tempting conversion.  Alas!  The inevitable results are twisted and snapped starter armatures.  I’ve seen a lot of those, too.  Remember, we’re talking about a seventy-year-old tractor.  Today those starters are scarce and expensive if found.  Very.

I went a different route attempting to solve this problem.  I added a second six-volt battery hooked in parallel.  These batteries turn the engine over at a snail’s pace, groaning with the effort.  Speed isn’t important for a magneto, but that’s not saying the system is effective.  Making the situation even more aggravating, the engine pull-starts like a charm.  Unfortunately that requires another tractor as well as a second operator.

Working by myself, pull-starting is a seldom available luxury.

This time of year, the snow has almost disappeared from our fields.  The frost is still in the ground though.  Wheeled tractors make an awful mess; ruts, mud and mire.  Worse, they become stuck in the process.  The crawler however has very low ground pressure.  It takes a lot to get it stuck.  (It can be done, however.  Trust me.)  Plus there’s a winch mounted on the back which is invaluable pulling out almost anything, itself included.

These are great reasons to own this tractor.  Plus year round access to our fields is critical.  There’s too much to do over the entire year to sit, twiddling your thumbs through any part of it.  That includes waiting for the frost to leave.
This past Easter Sunday was a gorgeous day.  Robins flocked on the remains of last year’s grass.  Deer sunned themselves around the edges of our fields, searching for the first green shoots.  A warm southwest wind blew the sounds and smells of spring about.  I drove the crawler across the soaking fields, emptying last year’s nests from our birdhouses.  There are a lot of those.  The woodcart was hooked on with a stepladder, tools, linseed oil, roofing tar and all the what-have-you needed to clean and repair them.

The steel tracks made squish, squish, squish noises clanking forward over the soft, super-saturated ground.

One moment, the day was wonderful.  Beauty surrounded me.  I beamed.  The next, everything turned to mud.  The transition wasn’t merely abrupt.  It was instant, the dark being far blacker than the day had been light.  Why?  Because way, way down in the far southwest corner of our fields, twenty feet from the furthest flung birdhouse on our property, the tractor stalled.

The silence deafened.

This could only happen here.  You know it.  I know it, too.  But consider the proof:  The area surrounding me was the wettest, squishiest, least likely to support a wheeled tractor piece of ground we own.  Further, the winch used to retrieve tractors from these situations was attached to the machine I was sitting on.  The one that stalled.  (The winch is driven by the transmission.  If the motor isn’t running, the winch isn’t either.)

I examined  the situation and tried to be methodical.  First I searched for a reason.  Why did the tractor just quit like that?  I checked the gas, the carburetor, the air cleaner and more but couldn’t find an excuse. Of course the actual reason is clearly defined by Murphy Law and further refined by the proposed axiom but I can’t answer this proof with its obvious conclusion.  Not yet.  I had to let everything else go wrong, too.

It did.

I wore both batteries flat attempting to restart.  The overheated solenoid melted, burning my hand.  The starter motor smoked.  The wiring turned to toast.  No surprise.  The tractor didn’t restart either.

I walked all the way back to the house and spent my time completed other tasks, waiting for my wife’s return.  It was after four in the afternoon when she finally arrived.  To say that she was thrilled by the opportunity of pull-starting the crawler after wading through more than a half mile of mud to reach it is probably an overstatement.

But that’s what we did.  When we arrived, I disconnected the woodcart.  Then, just before the Cockshutt mired itself completely, thoroughly and totally, it pull-started the Oliver.  The wonder isn’t that the Cockshutt got stuck but that it made it all the way down to the quiescent crawler in the first place.  Its drivers were halfway to the axle in mud when I hooked a chain to the crawler.  That was heading downhill.  Disconnecting, turning the Cockshutt around and heading uphill did the damage.

But at least the Oliver was running again.  So the crawler returned the favor, pulling the Model 30 all the way back to Tay Road.  With hand on the throttle and foot on the clutch, I sat on the edge of the seat, terrified that it would stall again.

With my wife safely headed for the house on pavement, I turned around and went back to retrieve the woodcart.  In so far as possible, I repaired the ruts the Model 30 made on my way back down the hill.  Finally way down in the southwest corner again, I reconnected and pulled the woodcart home.
It was well past dark when I got here.

I put the equipment away, locked the barn and headed to the house for a shower.  I needed one, no doubt about that.

But that’s when I remembered that I’d failed to clean that final birdhouse while I was down there.  I froze in my tracks, thinking about it.  A long groan escaped my lips.  I’ll have to go down there again ― before the flycatchers return and before the ground dries out, too.

Think about that:

Sure, Murphy Law caused all this.  There’s no other explanation.  Look at everything that went wrong.  Moreover, look where it all happened.  Add to those facts one other:  With all the time, effort and work expended, the job still isn’t done.

Now I’m not greedy.  I won’t add that as a second corollary.  But I’d say all the above proves conclusively the proposed axiom:

Of course, if something can go wrong, it will.  That goes without saying.

But clearly, over, above and beyond that, it will only do so at the worst possible time.