How I mastered a mastodon

I like small things. I run a small lumber business with one full-time person: me. In my wood shop I use small power tools. We used to move lumber around the yard with a little farm tractor and unload tractor-trailers by hand, a grueling five- or six-hour job with four or five helpers. That is, until somebody dropped a board off the truck and hit my little sister on the head. Time to buy a forklift.

I told Doug - an engineer, weekend logger, and lumber wheeler-dealer - that I was looking for a "bunny" forklift, the smallest machine that could lift a lumber pack off the top of a tractor-trailer. We were unloading his semi, one board at a time. He agreed that I should buy something to unload his truck.

Doug likes big machines. One of his hobbies is ferreting out old log skidders, loaders, and forklifts the way some people look for antiques. He rebuilds them and sells them to unsuspecting people like me. Doug's yard was getting cluttered with old parts, and I suspect his wife finally had put her foot down.

"Peter, how would you like my old loader?" Doug said. "I have two other newer ones I'm working on now, and the backyard is getting full."

"How big is it?" I was getting desperate. As long as it could lift at least 6,000 pounds.

"Let's just say I use it to pick up old forklifts," he said. "Lifting capacity isn't an issue."

"What kind of machine is it?"

"It's sort of a Baker-Lull," he said. "They've been gone for years, bought out by the Otis Elevator Company. They built loaders for the military during the Korean War. It has a seat for the machine gunner. I put three retreaded Boeing 747 tires on it. Most of the electric parts I replaced with Ford parts. The carburetor is from a Chevy C-60 truck."

"Well...." I hesitated. If something broke I'd never find parts. Many of our rural neighbors put rusty hay rakes and manure spreaders in their front yards as lawn ornaments. That's what I would have to do with a dead loader - maybe hang a couple of baskets of impatiens from the forks and plant petunias underneath. If I backed it up to the road, I could weld our mailbox to the bumper.

Doug felt a sale coming on. "I tore it down into a heap of parts and put it back together," he said. "I'll guarantee it. The Hercules people tell me that '54 engine was the best they ever built. If anything breaks, I'll make you a new part."

I hoped he'd keep his promise.

A couple of weeks later, Doug backed his truck into the driveway with "Ethyl" on the back. For some reason he wanted to unload in a spot where there was a bank behind - something to stop Ethyl should her brakes fail on the way down the ramp.

She looked like a collection of scrap iron assembled into an Impressionistic mastodon by a junk artist. She stared straight ahead, two beady headlight eyes and a large forehead from which protruded two five-foot-long iron tusks. Three massive rubber tire feet and one smaller cracked and pitted tire supported her bulk. Ethyl was mostly gray and rust-colored, splotched with faded orange and yellow paint. Doug unchained the beast, climbed aloft, and perched just behind her head. She roared, a low hoarse bellow, snorted a cloud of gray smoke, and limped backward down the ramp, coasting up against the bank.

I mounted the steps and climbed into the gunner's seat beside Doug. He showed me the choke, gas, clutch, four-wheel-drive lever, and the location of first, second, and third gear. "You don't want to go higher than that," he said. "I had to rebuild the transfer case - don't want to do it again. She doesn't like cold weather. You'll have to heat the engine if the temperature is below 30 degrees.

"For reverse, there is a little metal ball missing. Now, you keep it in reverse by holding the lever, but it pops out sometimes, especially on hills. The brakes - well, you probably know about brakes on old machines." No, but I do now. "Don't ever aim her toward a place you don't want to go. Tilt the forks and put them down. They'll cut a foot-deep trench in pavement. That'll stop you.

"Oh ... there's no voltage regulator," Doug added. "When the battery is low, hook this wire to this terminal, but don't leave it there or the acid will boil out of the battery. And when you extend the forks, make sure you pull them back in before lowering them or you'll snap a hydraulic fitting. That would be a very bad thing."

I nervously wrote out a large check to Doug, who pulled out of the driveway with a wave, missing the mailbox by less than an inch. I looked up at Ethyl. She glared back. I once read that an elephant will obey a master she respects. If you do not earn her respect, she'll kill you.

Over the next year, I snapped a couple of hydraulic fittings, killed the battery, coasted down hills at amazing speeds in reverse, and carved incredible ruts into the lumberyard. Ethyl frequently spilled whole lumber packs without warning, skittering boards down a hill the way a toddler clears his high-chair food tray. I spent hours picking up one board at a time as she patiently held out her tusks.

In my free time, I started making little improvements - a new voltage regulator, a fresh paint job, a rebuilt carburetor. I mounted matching tires on the back so she no longer limped. Ethyl responded to my care. She likes being parked inside at night and starts for me despite subzero temperatures.

Doug comes by periodically with lumber to sell. "She looks beautiful!" he says. "I wish I had her back. I've had nothing but trouble with my Pettibone."

Something else happened. Either Ethyl shrank, or I grew. She isn't as big as she used to be. I admire her strength and respect her idiosyncrasies. I think she respects me, too. At least she hasn't tried to kill me lately. As much as is possible for man and machine, we've become, well, friends. And I never point her in a direction I don't want to go. That's a good rule to apply in many areas of life.

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