SWEAT flowed from his face as he leaned over the tractor engine. His eyes were wide as he struggled to extend his arm through the chassis to the valve he was adjusting.
''Give it some gas,'' he grunted, pushing his arm farther in and flattening his face against the hot metal of the tractor body.
''He doesn't know when to give up,'' Uncle Mike said as he depressed the gas pedal. ''This here's a dead tractor -- that's why your dad got it so cheap -- but he's determined to bring it back to life.''
I stood in the cluttered farmyard under the August sun, watching him struggle with that broken-down tractor. The cats had more sense, watching the scene from the cool recesses of the barn. To tell the truth, I wanted to be in the shade myself. But I figured if Dad could work like that, I could stand around in the sun, making a comment now and then so he'd know we appreciated what he was doing.
Right about then, that tractor came to life. It didn't surprise me nor Uncle Mike. I never saw a mechanical thing, particularly a mechanical engine, that wouldn't run for Dad. He worked mighty hard at it, but it was more than that. It was more than just know-how, too. Truth was, he had a special touch.
He never said that, of course. When folks would look at him with wondering eyes, asking him up to the house for some cold iced tea and marveling that he'd gotten whatever it was to work, he'd accept the offer and talk about this and that but never make a big deal about what he'd done. But they remembered, because often he'd saved them days of work and kept them from having to buy new equipment.
Thirty years later, when I went back to the farm country, those who were left asked about Dad every time. ''Always liked Jack. Always admired him,'' they'd say. ''He was there when you needed him and never took nothing but thanks for it.'' Then they'd get this look in their eyes. ''He could sure fix things.''
I didn't inherit his mechanical talent. ''You're not gonna be a mechanic or a farmer when you grow up,'' Dad would say, and put another book in front of me. Yet deep down, it hurt him that I had so little interest in his mechanical activities. I spent the hours I assisted him in the garage or barn showing my boredom in his sweaty, greasy interest. This was dirt work, my expression said; it was OK for him, but my sights were a little higher.
As the years wore on, events came hard one on another. The barn burned. Dad lost the farm. Paying work was tough to find.
In the end, his skill saved him. He rode the mechanical-trouble trail from Canada to Argentina, New Zealand to Denmark.
''Does it go 'sssss-hotcha-hotcha'?'' he'd ask the phone in the night. He'd nod his head, knowing the answer. ''It's the butterfly valve; tighten it a quarter turn. Don't mention it.''
I learned to take advantage of his skills as I grew older. ''I'm buying a newer car,'' I'd say. ''Look it over for me?'' Nothing I ever asked Dad pleased him more.
''Bring her over,'' he'd reply. ''We'll see what she's got!'' I would, and we did, and he never steered me wrong. Those were our finest times.
One day, I asked him to look at a new car and received an answer I didn't expect. ''Don't think I'd be much good to you,'' he said. ''You'd do better to take it to a shop,'' then muttered bitterly, ''darn black boxes.''
The advent of electronics had stolen his thunder. He who spoke with engines could speak no more.
There was a lot about my Dad I didn't know. We weren't close in terms of frequent communication. At his funeral, I learned from his sister that ''he had the talent to be a concert violinist.''
I didn't even know he played.
But one thing I do know -- he was one great mechanic. And the ultimate irony is that I inherited his uncanny touch, but only for computers. When I fix my son's computer now and he looks at me that funny way and says, ''How'd you do that?'' I think of my Dad.
''It's a gift,'' I say.