Back Surgery, Farm Tractors, and Tea Parties, Part One

I suppose I should just admit it, and be done with it. I’m getting old.

Not too old, mind you. Just old enough that some parts of me are wearing out a bit ahead of schedule. I’m not referring to the effects of long gone accidents, such as broken hands and feet, impaled knees, fractured wrists, or torn flesh. I’m talking about the delayed effects of design flaws created during my manufacture period way back when my personal universe was the size of my mother’s belly. About then, the genetic blueprints of me decreed a weakness in my lower back that would not become apparent until five decades later.

Presently, I am recuperating from a three-plus hour surgery to correct that weakness. I now have a half dozen pieces of titanium embedded in me, a slightly lengthened and straightened spine, and relief from the pain that that weakness had caused me for the past several years. (I really don’t need to be even taller. At my height, I already had trouble getting in and out of automobiles built for people more than half a foot shorter. Adding even a fraction of an inch in height just makes it even more of a hassle. Oh well. It’s a small price for being rid of the constant pain.)

Healing from surgery takes time. Lots of time. For me, there is both flesh and bone that needs to heal, and that means a lot of my energy is going into that healing. So much energy, in fact, that most days, sometime in the afternoon usually, I abruptly find myself exhausted. It comes on so quickly, sometimes in mid-stride or mid-sentence, that the transition from robust Rambo to weak-kneed wimp would be startling if it were not that I am too tired to notice. That it happens that way answers a question I have long wondered about myself. I am a diesel engine. Sort of.

Well, not literally, of course. I will explain.

I grew up on a farm in eastern Iowa. When I was about ten years old or so, we got our first truly powerful farm tractor, an International Harvester 806, eventually followed by even more powerful models. The reason they were bigger and more powerful rested on the type of engine that powered it. All of our previous tractors had been gasoline-powered, using the same fuel as most automobiles of the day. The 806 had a diesel engine. It burns diesel fuel, a characteristically different petroleum fuel than gasoline, because it is a characteristically different kind of engine.

A diesel engine sounds differently from a gasoline engine. It also smells differently. (I personally prefer the sweet perfume of diesel exhaust over the acrid stench of gasoline exhaust, but it seems I am in a distinct minority for that position.) And it runs differently. The single most important reason is the absence of spark plugs. Diesel engines don’t need them. I won’t go into the details, but it is enough to know that a diesel engine tractor must be operated a bit differently in the field than a gasoline engine tractor.

When a gasoline tractor bogs down under a heavy load, such as pulling a plow through a wet patch of soil, it is immediately noticeable that it is working harder: The engine starts making more noise, a deeper growling noise, and the forward movement slows down a bit. These signs are hard for the operator to miss. He must do something different quickly or risk killing the engine under full load and possibly break something on the tractor or the plow it is pulling.

For a diesel tractor in a similar situation, it reacts very differently: It does not make more noise, it does not slow down. When it reaches the point where it no longer has the power to pull the plow, it simply stops.

Dead silence.

Abrupt stop.

No warning.

The silence is quite disconcerting compared to the roar of the engine a moment before. (I can personally attest to that.) Such an occurrence is a big surprise to the operator of a diesel tractor, usually new to running one, mostly because he was not paying attention to the signs it was indeed giving him: Jet black exhaust and a rapidly rising engine temperature. But black exhaust sounds the same as any other color, and high temperature has no sound at all, so he should have been looking at the temperature gauge or the exhaust stack every few of seconds.

I do not think I have jet black exhaust or rapidly rising temperature when I suddenly shut down in the afternoons of late, but the abruptness does remind me of a diesel engine under heavy load. I’m probably doing too much too soon (I went back to work 12 days after the surgery), so I really have no reason to complain for ignoring the signs of my self-imposed heavy load. But I do have my answer. I am a diesel engine. Sort of. I just have to remember being a diesel engine is not always a good thing, especially when working under a full load. And most especially not good when that “full load” is unnecessary or dangerous.

So what does all this mildly entertaining monologue have to do with tea?

Comparing me to a diesel engine makes me think about a phenomenon that has been going on in the U.S. for the last year or two: The rise and rationale of the Tea Party. I’ll explain that in Part Two.

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