Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Horrible Day

Well, I'm glad today's almost over.

It started with me offering to mow the in-laws' lawn. My father-in-law is a demon when it comes to keeping his lawn looking good, but he recently had an operation and the aftercare means no strain whatsoever. The man being the way he is, he ignored that advice, burst his stitches and nearly bled to death. After that, he was willing to trust his now badly overgrown lawn to an amateur like me.

You must understand, my father-in-law thinks I am a walking waste of quantum mechanics, and I don't spend any effort to disabuse him of that view. My lawn is often a tangle of waist-high dandelions that when I eventually do get round to cutting turns out to be made almost entirely of brown grass. I have half a lawn of that grass that turns brown in winter and goes green again in spring, but mine takes its time about getting out of bed and so is often still brown in July.

I estimated two hours for the job and agreed to be there around 10:30 am to 11 am.

Then Mrs Stevie discovered that either a raccoon or a possum had used our front cedar deck as a latrine and so I had to wash the entire deck with soap and bleach (the stench from these droppings, which I find on our land once or twice a year, is truly mind boggling and Action was Called For). There went the first half hour of that schedule.

Then I proved incapable of starting the MrsStevieDad's weed-wacker without help. Mine has a centrifugal clutch and you start it by messing with the choke, pumping the priming button a given number of times, wedging your foot against the cutting head and pulling like mad on the string. The MrsStevieDad's weed-wacker had no clutch, and so when I jammed my foot on the cutter head and gave the starting string my signature pull (the same move is used by Kung-Fu masters for breaking the ribs of attackers to the rear with their elbow) I almost dislocated all the fingers of my right hand at the first joint.

"That's the ticket" I cried, and gave my sneering father-in-law an ad-hoc demonstration of improvisational Folk Dance which he probably didn't appreciate to the fullest, being a philistine.

Once the weed-wacker had been mastered, it was time to meet the lawnmower, the architect of my agonised right arm. Like my mower, it was a Sears model. Unlike my own mower, it wasn't self-propelled. It was quite small and light, however, so that would compensate until the bag filled with clippings. We gassed it up and checked the oil. Everything looked good.

It started after only eight or nine pulls on the cord.

I noticed that the mower actually took more effort to start than my own, despite having a smaller engine. Said engine also ran with a disconcerting "hunt1" which if I didn't know better was the signal of something Not Right in the works.

"It always runs like that" said the MrsStevieDad.

I got almost his entire back lawn done before the mower conked out and refused to run. We pulled the spark plug, which was black as the ace of spades. The engine was running rich, or had been when it was running. The MrsStevieDad ran it through his wire-wheel to clean it while I pondered the problem. Too much gas could mean too much gas or it could mean too little air. The former would probably be caused by the automatic choke not working properly. The latter by a blocked air filter.

The air filter for this mower turned out to be a piece of sponge dampened with oil. First order of business would be to replace that and see if it magicked the engine back to life. I jumped in my car and set out for the local Sears.

I don't know why I did that since they never have anything I'm looking for. I drove to a non-local Sears, then an Ace hardware before giving up. When I got back I told my father-in-law that it was probably easier to get parts for the Space Shuttle than his mower, and he would have to order one. I refitted the filter and pulled on the string, and the mower sprang to life in a cloud of black smoke.

I'll do the front lawn while it is still running" I yelled, and got all but a 5x20 foor section in the middle when the mower quit again and refused to start no matter how many times I pulled the starting cord.

I looked around and rehearsed quitting on the MrsStevieDad. It had now been almost four hours and the job was cursed with a capital cur. I could wait another half hour until the mower engine was cold whereupon it would most likely start (my current theory is the busted choke one) but it was looking like rain. I wanted to quit but much as this man cannot stand the sight or sound of me I couldn't find it in my heart to leave his lawn with a mohawk. The neighbours would have a field day at his expense.

A new plan sprang into being in the cortex of Mr Brain (who was so fed up with the state of affairs he had uncharacteristically been working for me rather than his usual modus operandum of thrusting improvised spokes into the wheels of my plans. I would use Mrs Stevie's car to carry my lawn mower to his house2.

It was beautiful. It was elegant. Mrs Stevie agreed and I drove home and swapped cars with her.

I unscrewed various things and managed to fold the mower up, and by the cunning artifice of sacrificing three or four vertebral discs I got it into the car. I climbed in, turned the key and fired up the engine. I was just saying goodbye to Mrs Stevie when the most gadawful racket erupted from beneath the hood of the car. Then stopped. Then restarted. With a weary sigh I popped the hood and we looked inside to see what was about to ruin our day3. Fortunately it was nothing trivial.

On the Ford Taurus there is one belt, the so-called "serpentine" belt, that provides mechanical oomph to everything possessed of a rotary input requirement. Power steering, alternator, A/C compressor, it all gets driven by the one belt. I took a look in the left hand side of the engine bay and saw the problem4. There was a pulley with a clutch that allowed it to either idle or supply drive to what I suspect is the impeller of the A/C compressor. When the clutch was disengaged everything was noisy but not excessively so. When the clutch engaged the whole pulley shook so much I thought it was about to come off its spindle. The bearing that the shaft was running in had obviously disintegrated.

Gritting my teeth I prepared to ask the age-old question husbands have asked their wives since time began: "How long has this been happening?" to which the standard answer is "How long has what been happening?5", but Mrs Stevie couldn't possibly have not noticed this so I had to surmise the demon-infestation had occurred about the time I put the key in the ignition and the question died unasked on my lips (which were actually busy trying out some new combinations of my favourite swear words, car engines for the use at).

We decided that the engine would probably hold together for the trip to and from the in-laws' place, and we were out of options anyway, so I drove to the MrsStevieDad's place in a car that periodically made loud noises that, judging from the looks of on their faces, convinced my fellow road users that the car was in immanent danger of exploding in a ball of shrapnel. The way the day was playing out the shrapnel shredding would come as blessed relief.

I unloaded my mower, pumped the primer a few times and pulled the starter cord with a wince - my arm had been strained by pulling the other mower's starter about a jillion times that day. My mower burst into life at the first pull and I was finally able to finish the wretched lawn.

I went home some five and a half hours after the job started.

If the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain were still in operation, I could probably get into the worst attempt to cut grass classification in their handbook6.

  1. A rhythmic speeding up and slowing down
  2. I cannot carry large machines in the trunk space afforded me in the fabulous Steviemobile
  3. Or ruiner it, I suppose, since it was already ruined from where I limped
  4. Yes I know, technically it is "a" problem and there could be more but this day of anti-handyman demon infestation has to end sometime and I'm being optimistic because if the thing I'm looking at is what I think it is it will cost mucho deniro to fix thus satiating the evil spirits that have plagued the day's events
  5. It never fails. I get in my wife's car and begin to drive it. Some new aberrant behaviour of the machine will show itself, such as the windshield falling out when the wipers are activated, the airbag deploying when the horn is pushed or flames shooting out of the heating vents while attempting to defrost the windows. "How long has this been happening?" I will ask. "How long has what been happening?" Mrs Stevie will respond, beating out the flames in her hair and clawing the passenger side airbag from her face
  6. The Book of Heroic Failures

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