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Jack Zaleski

Commentary: Old tractor was more than a 'thing'

POST MILLS, Vt. — We are advised to avoid getting attached to things. It's good advice, but some things become more than objects. Think about collectors of vintage cars. Or book lovers. I get that one. I have shelves of books; dozens have attained the status, "keep no matter what."

Then there was the lawn tractor. Was.

It was more than a thing, more than a yard work tool. The John Deere 345 was new in 1997. What a machine! Twin cylinder liquid-cooled engine, 48-inch electric-raise deck mower, hydrostatic drive, wide stance for negotiating slopes, enough horsepower to pull a cart laden with rocks or firewood. By my experience, the 345 was one of the best models John Deere ever rolled off its assembly lines. I owned it for 21 years. I still own it, but — well — read on.

Years ago, the tractor did chores at our home near Horace, N.D. We sold the house, moved into a Fargo townhome, and shipped the yard stuff — chainsaws, garden tools and the 345 — to Vermont, where my daughter could make good use of the equipment. She needed it; I no longer did. And a bonus: When I was in Vermont, I could use the tractor — as if an old friend had just moved to another location.

Last week at my daughter's rural home, I rolled the Deere out of storage, fueled it up, checked oil, lubed fittings on mower and wheels, checked tire pressures, and fired it up to mow a couple of acres of brush near an old saw mill on the property. Routine work.

So what was that smell I detected about an hour into the job? I figured, must be mill shavings getting scorched by the mower blades. Then, acrid smoke wafting out of the engine suggested it was something else. I lifted the hood, flames leaped out. I leaped off. Son-of-a- -----, I muttered as the flames grew, the smoke plume darkened, and the heat drove me back. No water at the mill. I shoveled sand. No help. I hustled down the trail to the house for a fire extinguisher. Couldn't find it. Daughter and I and hauled water up the hill to the inferno that was consuming tires, seat, battery (boom!) and everything else not steel.

It was over in minutes. The machine that had been with me for years was reduced to a smouldering heap of melted plastic, blackened steel and hot ash. All gone. What the hell happened? Mouse nest on the hot engine? The tractor had been in storage for a time. Buildup of grease and dry grass? I did not check before I got started.

Yeah, I know. Just an old tractor. But I knew that machine, from the slip-sound of a worn belt to the stutter of a spark plug to the subtle tilt of a low tire. I had treated it well, so I felt a riff of guilt when I looked over the blackened hulk. Nothing was salvageable. Should I have been more careful about maintenance? Maybe so.

I should quit being silly. Just an old tractor.

Right, guys? C'mon, help me out here.

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