A Boy’s Promise Fullfilled
by Brent Mathson
As time passed, Grandpa’s little Allis was pushed further and further back in my mind. I finished high school and then went on to college. I bought a car and expanded my mechanical abilities in my attempts to keep it on the road. The first section of my book gives a detailed account of those learning opportunities. That car took me to college for four years and after graduation, it took me to my construction job for another year. During that year’s time, I decided that maybe I would like to become a teacher and teach others the skills that I had learned thus far in my young life, so my car took me back to college for another year. After my second college graduation, I was offered a teaching job at a high school in northern Wisconsin. At the school, I was a one man Industrial Arts department. I taught woods, metals, drafting, electricity, gas engine repair, and any other manual arts that I thought the kids should learn. It was a perfect fit more me. I was expanding my own mechanical abilities while passing my knowledge on to others.
The first year passed with the usual trials and errors that beginning teachers experience, but I survived and was off to a great start my second year when I received the phone call that awakened memories of a promise I had made eight years ago. The voice on the other end of the line regretfully informed me that my beloved grandpa had died. In the days that followed leading up to his funeral, memories of Grandpa flooded my mind. The picture of him riding his tractor through his garden was one that just wouldn’t go away and then I realized that Grandpa’s tractor was still in my dad’s shed waiting for me to keep a promise.
When the weather warmed in the spring, I made a visit to my parent’s farm and naturally went to the machine shed to check on the little Allis. She still sat there just as I had left her over eight years ago. I climbed onto the seat and as I sat there, I realized that my knowledge of rebuilding engines had greatly expanded due to the lessons I had taught to my students. The shop where I taught also had the specialty tools that would be required to rebuild an engine. A plan began forming in my mind, and I smiled and nodded my head. It was a good plan, and I would start on it immediately.
When I headed back to my home Sunday evening, I had an Allis Chalmers model B engine in the trunk of my Mustang. Luckily, the little four cylinder engine only weighed a couple of hundred pounds, so it didn’t put too much strain on my car. In the morning, I took it to the school shop and had a couple of my students help me unload the engine onto a workbench. That same day, during my Gas Engines class, I demonstrated the procedure for completely disassembling a tractor engine. At the end of the class, all of the parts were neatly laid out on the bench in the proper order. Grandpa would have been proud of me.
The next day my Gas Engine’s class got a lesson on checking engine parts for wear. The cylinders were in amazing condition for an engine that was nearly forty years old. The walls were smooth and shiny and measured only a few thousandths inches of wear. The pistons were in similar condition and would definitely be reused, but the forty year old rings would be replaced. It didn’t take much of an inspection to determine that the crankshaft would have to be sent to the machine shop to be turned down. New bearings would be ordered when the crank’s final dimensions were known. The oil pump showed no signs of wear which is typical of oil pumps in well maintained engines, and I knew that Grandpa had maintained his engines. The rest of the components in the block consisting of the connecting rods, camshaft, and lifters were all in acceptable condition.
The head was completely disassembled just as the block had been, and the valves, lifters, springs, and keepers were tagged so that they all ended up in their original positions. The rocker-shaft was cracked and would have to be replaced and of course the valves and seats would need to be ground, but otherwise the head was good to go. I picked up a new rocker-shaft that night at the implement dealer, and the next day I demonstrated the proper way to grind valves and seats. I got the students involved by letting them hand-lap the valves to the seats. The next day in class, the head and its parts were reassembled, and the completed head was set aside until it could be installed on the block.
The following week, the reground crankshaft arrived with the news that the main journals were ground ten-thousandths under while the rod journals required twenty- thousandths to be removed. I made another trip to the implement dealer and picked up the proper bearings. My Gas Engines’ students honed the cylinders and then cleaned them until they passed my white gloves test. The crankshaft was installed, and main bearing clearances were checked with plastigauge to insure they met the tolerances. Pistons were installed with their new rings, and the rod bearings were also checked with plastigauge. Lifters and the cam shaft were slid into place making sure that the timing marks were aligned. Once the head was torqued to the block, the engine was ready to go home.
On my next trip to visit my parents, there was a rebuilt Allis Chalmers B engine in the trunk of my mustang. Dad was surprised when I opened the trunk and showed it to him. “Do you think it will run?” he asked with a tone of skepticism in his voice.
“It better,” I answered with a chuckle, “or my Gas Engines’ students will probably be looking for another teacher.”
With Dad’s help, the engine was back in its proper place in a couple of hours’ time. Water and anti-freeze were put in the radiator. Gas was put in the tank, and Dad smiled when I said, “don’t forget the oil.” I grabbed the crank and started pulling. I cranked that engine over until my arm was sore and only got a couple of sputters out of it.
“I guess your students are going to have to break in a new teacher,” Dad joked and then went over to his Jubilee and climbed into the seat. He started it up and then drove over to where I stood by the Allis and tossed me a chain. “Hook it up,” he said, “and I’ll give you a pull to see if it will start.”
I reasoned that the newly rebuilt engine could be stiff and hard to start and welcomed his suggestion. I hooked up the chain, climbed onto the seat, and slipped the gear shift into second gear. When I nodded, my head, Dad gave me a tug. He pulled me fifty yards but the engine only sputtered. Finally, I held up my hand to stop what was proving to be a futile effort. Shaking my head in frustration, I stepped off the tractor to more closely examine the engine. I focused my attention on the magneto and spark plugs and then I spotted something that made me shake my head a second time-this time in embarrassment. The plug wires were installed as if the number one cylinder was in the back of the engine instead of the front where it actually was. I quickly changed the wires remembering that the firing order was 1-2-4-3 from the FRONT of the engine. I climbed back onto the seat, gave Dad another nod, and in less than twenty feet the engine snapped to life and continued to run smoothly.
It’s amazing how much joy a simple thing such as a smoothly idling gas engine can bring to an individual. When you factor in the cost for parts and the hours of labor spent disassembling and then reassembling a mechanical thing, maybe that joy isn’t so amazing. What truly was amazing was the fact that Grandpa’s little Allis was running better than it had run in many years, and my dad and I wouldn’t and couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces.
My dad now had two tractors to work his little forty acre farm where he raised sheep and pheasants. He used the Ford Jubilee for the field work and to pull the baler when he made hay. The Allis was used mainly to pull hay wagons to the barn where they were manually unloaded. When dad bought a used hay elevator, I surprised him with a PTO unit for the Allis tractor that I bought from a tractor salvage yard for seventy-five bucks. Now in addition to pulling wagons, the Allis could also power the elevator and that’s just what she did for the next twelve years.
It’s been said by many great minds that life should be lived each day to the fullest and that the joys that each day presents should be enjoyed to the fullest because one never knows when life will throw the clinker that will bring those days and those joys to an end. I experienced the joys of helping my dad on the farm that he loved so much. I felt the satisfaction of driving my grandpa’s tractor, pulling loads of prized alfalfa hay. Feelings of total happiness would overcome me as I watched the little Allis churning the bales up the elevator. All of those feelings came to an end May 20, 1991 – the day my dad died.
From forty acres of weeds, and broken fences, and dilapidated buildings, a young man and his wife, having little in this life other than love for each other and a dream, built a home and a beautiful farm. In my dad’s absence, the farm could not be the same because there was no one on this earth who could love it as much as he had or work so hard to make it prosper. Oh, the forty acres would continue to be a farm because my mom would have it no other way, but the sheep would be sold, and the pheasant pens tore down, and a little Allis Chalmers tractor would go back in the shed.