Frank, who was seldom seen without a stogie in his mouth, was the kind of master of all things that every farm neighborhood needed. He could, with only a slight exaggeration, tear apart a tractor’s engine while blindfolded and expertly rebuild parts on a metal lathe.
Like many other mechanics of that era, he was much better at fixing other’s equipment than his own. His red and rusty pickup bellowed smoke when he backed it to the milk house door to fill milk cans with fresh water. It was necessary to do so because his well had gone kaput several years before.
His prize possession — a rare Stearns-Knight car that in mint condition was fit for a wealthy Chicago gangster — was, on rare occasion, driven on the narrow gravel road that linked several dairy farms. His steel-wheeled tractor, a bulky monstrosity, had a more practical use.
The tractor, when attached by a long belt, powered his finely calibrated threshing machine.
Frank collected the machines much like children hoarded baseball cards. Frank ran threshing operations from atop the machine, adjusting this and that so little wheat, barley or oat grain was blown into the straw pile.
The baler, which on moon-lit August nights worked until midnight, went around and around the stack until it was reduced to an ant hill.
Discarded threshers were kept at the bottom of a hill in a metal graveyard alongside abandoned Hudson, Chrysler and DeSoto cars.
His barn was filled with tires, engine parts, nuts and bolts in a way that only Frank understood. The barn also contained an Indian motorcycle, which was the king of cool in the 1920s. Friends said that he drove it with reckless abandon.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of him. Although he knew which tile-lined pipe outlets carried the coldest water and could discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each tractor brand, he seemed difficult to get to know.
I had no idea that he handled dynamite and blasting caps with aplomb. Later, I learned that it was a minor miracle that he didn’t blow himself and others sky high because he was a little reckless.
When pastures were to become fields, trees needed to be felled and stumps blasted from their roots.
Frank sets the charges, lit the fuses and told the children who watched to hide beneath a nearby hay wagon. We watched as roots reached the stratosphere, smelled the dynamite, and marveled as smoke rose from the ground.
Frank, who like many others, never really retired. The antique threshing shows, which were so much a part of his younger self, were the perfect place for his skills and steel-wheeled behemoth.
Although threshing shows remain popular and are held throughout farm country, I wonder if they will end with the current generation who attend to relive memories of when they were young and the machines were new.
It’s uncertain if four-wheel drive machines equipped with air-conditioned cabs and global satellite positioning equipment will be attractions in the 22nd century.
Frank and his ilk were 20th century stalwarts who benefited many with their know-how. His mechanical skills were admirable back then, and my admiration has not dulled in the years since I last saw him coming up the drive in his rusty truck.