Sunday, April 10

Are we there yet?

Kids get bored in the back seat during a long trip. “Are we there yet?” is often heard as the parents try to distract them with “Oh, look at the big silo!” Or “Oh look! There’s a cow!” There’s not a chance that today’s kids will fall for that stuff for very long.

To me right now “Are we there yet?” really means, “Is winter storm season over yet?” We need to do some work on our road but don’t dare start until we’re pretty sure we won’t get another half a foot of rain in a day. My rule has been to wait out the winter till things are almost guaranteed to be dry, but by then the road can get too dry to work with our little road grader. It lacks the power and weight to work the road when it’s adobe-brick-hard.

A mighty two-cylinder all-aluminum all-Italian diesel engine makes it go.

Add to that the fact that one of the hydraulic rams that adjusts the angle of the “mold board,” the big blade in the middle of the machine, will bend if I hit something like a root or rock that won’t move. When that happens, it often means a trip back home where I keep the tools necessary to re-straighten the ram rod, which of course means less time on the road where the machine belongs.

It’s the lower ram that bends.

We used to have a full-size road grader, a big Caterpillar built in 1929. Being old was the main problem it had, and it was not very fun to drive either. When we first got it, we had to clean out the fuel tank. Besides a lot of sand, we found six feet of manila rope, an engine oil dipstick, several tin cans, several rocks, a wooden ruler, a bath towel, a rat and two large birds. Its massive three-cylinder diesel engine probably topped out at 700 RPM. To start the diesel, you had to hand-crank a smaller two-cylinder gasoline engine, which I had to remove and rebuild. There was always the possibility that you could get a broken arm cranking that little beast. The grader had power steering which only worked on straightaways and gentle turns. If you had to make a hard turn, the power steering quit. Steering was fine going to the left, but going right meant you’d have to back up and make several passes to get around a turn. Oh, and speaking of backing up, the transmission was so wrecked you couldn’t use first gear. Second gear made the machine go so fast you couldn’t move the blade quickly enough and would often gouge the road or miss the surface with it entirely. Also it had so much end play in its crankshaft that it affected the clutch; uphill the clutch barely engaged, and downhill it could barely be disengaged. If you hit a bump in the road too fast and made the front end bounce, the front wheels would flop to one side (used intentionally, tilting the front wheels was necessary to keep on track when moving a big load of dirt in a turn). So you’d have to stop and re-set the front wheels to upright. Only two of its six wheels had brakes, but they almost never worked anyway. One day a friend, Henry Davis, and I were doing some road work (it took two people to steer this thing) when one of the big back tires went flat. It was on what’s called a split-rim wheel with a bent keeper, surely a death sentence on such a large wheel if you didn’t know how to fix it exactly right. The rim could blow off with terrific force and slice a big Hula Hoop® out of your body. Henry and I looked at each other, shook our heads and decided that neither of us wanted to die quite yet. We drove the grader to its final resting place up the hill and parked it. Years later a phone company worker who restores old tractors and bulldozers spotted it. We gave it to him and he cheerily hauled it away.

In the meantime we bought the grader we have now.

Nine control levers! No waiting!
The mold board moves up, down, left and right, tilts, angles and dances.
The entire front end of the machine extends up to four feet and swings left or right.
Then there’s the dozer blade and scarifier controls. Makes your mind boggle!

On soft roads, it does marvelous work and its power steering works all the time and it doesn’t have a traditional transmission so you can go really slow or really medium-speed or anything in between. It has a bulldozer blade on front, and a three-tooth scarifier you can use to chew up a hard surface.

The scarifier chews ’em up.

In all the years we’ve had it the only trouble it’s given us is the starter solenoid getting sticky. I am very familiar with the insides of that device and can remove and fix it in an hour with my eyes shut. Between uses the battery stays fully charged by a tiny solar panel stuck on one of the machine’s uprights that supports the roof over the cab. Our biggest problem is that we don’t have a garage for it, so it stays outside, and our horses have developed a taste for upholstery foam.

Horse feed.

The seat is a mess. But when you’re doing serious roadwork, you stand up anyway so you can watch what your blade is doing.

Soon I’m going to give it its annual oil change and have it ready for work. But the question still remains:

“Are we there yet?”


Daffy said...

IS there anything that can touch the baked hard "hard pan" as my Father called it? My Grandfather used to operate a D-10 for Edison Company; I think he used to complain about it!

Tom Hurley said...

Hard pan is a whole ’nother animal. While our dried road crust is like a brick, hard pan is like extra-dense reinforced concrete. When farmers planted in some parts of the valley, they drilled and blasted hard pan with dynamite to make holes for tree roots. “Ground engagement” tools like dozer blades can’t cut it.