When we don't hear noises we can't sleep

LIKE the chap in Moliere who spoke prose all his life and never knew it, I have lived with malfunctions. I never thought of them as such until I heard them referred to euphemistically in terms of space travel, and I had chills as I realized what they mean up there when there is no way to call Sears, Roebuck and have the man come Tuesday. Having always called a leaky faucet a leaky faucet, I wasn't exactly ready to adapt to malfunction.

Country living makes most everybody handy, and over the years I have been able to fix many things. Fix, or make do. As a boy, I could take my Model T apart and reassemble it, usually with a pan of bolts left over, and thought nothing of it. Times have changed, and I don't even know where the battery is in this new automobile, and it wouldn't help to recall that my Model T didn't have a battery.

One of my persistent malfunctions had to do with the Buckeye mowing machine. I had the thing a good many years and it kept malfunctioning. It was a one-horse job with a four-foot cutter bar, and we had shortened the ''sharves'' so we could attach it to our doodlebug tractor. This tractor was homemade with a Model A engine on a Chevy chassis with a double Buick transmission and a Dodge rear end. All told, mostly for bolts and washers, it cost me $7 and we used it for all farm work for over 10 years. With the double Buick gears, I could put both into reverse and go forward with incredible power and invisible speed.

Now and then this tractor malfunctioned, but never so much as the boughten tractors I had afterward, and it was the Buckeye mower that was always in trouble. For one thing, it would howl. It had fiber washers in the gearbox and these would wear and then howl. We would be mowing away in the sweet grasses of a bright June morning, bobolinks a-twitter and wild strawberries rampant, one of us driving the tractor and one working the mower, and all at once would come this yelp like the proverbial lost soul with its tail caught in the door.

Everybody within 10 miles would smile knowingly at our malfunction. We kept spare washers in the little tool box attached to the mower, so we'd take things apart and fit some in. The howl had one good point - it gave the doodlebug a chance to cool down.

Back along we had some city friends come for a weekend, and they came down from the chamber for breakfast all bug-eyed and droopy. Hadn't slept a wink. Noises. Noises they never heard before. Like, for one thing, a motor of some sort that kept turning on and off. It was our water pump. Every time a cow down in the barn took a drink, the pump would turn on and our house would vibrate with the reciprocating piston. We, yokels and bumpkins who never had a public water line, were accustomed to water pumps and never heard the noise. We were like the lighthouse keeper who woke up when his foghorn failed and said, ''What's that?'' If our water pump kept silent for a while, I'd get up to put on clothes and boots and descend to the cellar to investigate the malfunction. It happened so often I kept tools right there, even to a workbench and vise. We could only tell our sleepless guests that when we don't hear noises in the night we can't sleep.

Malfunctions, I recollect, were always reported to me as ''not working.'' I'd come into the house to hear, ''Love, the dryer isn't working.'' This conveyed little, except as to a likely location. I learned to look first at the breakers in the electricity box. Once I took the washing machine all apart and found nothing wrong with it, so I reset the breaker. Lately, because of my failure to keep abreast of advancing technology, resetting breakers is often about all I can do. That, and calling the man at Sears, Roebuck, who comes Tuesdays. I find it disconcerting to pay him his service charge if all he does is reset a breaker. Next time I call him, I'm going to tell him I have a malfunction.

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