The Old Machinist
Nik Colyer


   He was deeply bent, with gnarly hands that were swollen from too many
years in contact with engine grease. His thick yellowed glasses covered
bushy grey eyebrows, the only hair on his head. An ever present cigar
drooped from one corner of his mouth and a paunch the size of Texas hung
out over his belt. He seemed to always wear the same greasy blue coveralls
carefully buttoned to his chin. His shop was an old barn which had
obviously stood long before the city grew out far enough to surround him.
He was there long before the busy four lane roared behind his six foot
dilapidated wooden fence. He was probably there when there was little more
than a horse path winding past his property.
   On his side of the barrier, piled as high as the fence, lay two acres of
old cardboard boxes, broken refrigerators, stripped washing machines,
rusted car bodies, burnt out blenders, thread bare tires, bankrupt brake
shoes, decomposing engines, drums of used oil, casks of roofing nails,
corroded gooseneck drains and miles of corroded water pipe.
   The barn/shop smelled like grease and cigars. It was so crowded, we had
to walk down narrow isles, dodging the more valuable objects he was keeping
out of the rain; Brass pipe fittings, antiquated tools, a drill press made
before the turn of the century, and an engine lathe with a ten foot bed.
   Surrounding the lathe, surrounding every standing tool, interlaced with
oil stained drawings, empty small parts boxes, broken tools, old hamburger
wrappers, discarded empty soda and beer cans, was a mountain of accumulated
curled metal lathe chips. Everything could easily have been there before
the second world war.
   At that time I customized Harley-Davidson's, including rebuilding the
engines. I went to him because, though he could hardly move from one work
station to another without a profusion of groans and moans, he was the best
machinist in a ten mile radius. Many times I watched him create a steel
machine part by simply by going out into one of his piles and finding an
old rusted plug of metal, then clamping it into his lathe and trimming off
the excess.
   I came to him to have Harley piston cylinders re-bored. It was a simple
request, one he only charged ten dollars to accomplish. I fed him a steady
supply of engine barrels every week and over the months we struck up a
working relationship.
   After a while I learned to save up my cylinders and take them over at
the end of the week with a six pack of beer. When I had time, I loved to
sip beers and rummage around in his shop. He had stories. "This old oil
pump came out of a thirty-seven ford," he'd say. "The six inch thick
stainless steel shaft standing in the corner will some day be the drive
shaft for a ship that's being built. This is a carburetor for a forty-nine
Hudson." He had a place in his memory for each object. He had  story for
each. We often sat around, drinking a beer, or two, talking about days
past. One day we got around to my favorite subject, motorcycles.
   He got a gleam in his eye. "Behind that lathe," he said, "under the
pile, is an old motorcycle I parked back there, oh. . .I'd say twenty-five
years ago. We could pull it out and have a look at it if you want."
   'If I want,' I thought. 'I'd love to.'
   We spent the next hour carefully moving old radiators, clutch linkage,
the rotting wooden prop of a bi-plane from the thirties, spoke wheel rims
from a model 'T', and a profusion of rusted rejected machinist workings.
Each removal brought on another story. Each carefully displaced object
another tale of adventures of younger days. It was an unraveling of his life.
   We finally got down to the motorcycle and opened up a path to pull the
bike outside. We struggled it out under the shade of the ancient pepper
tree. The tires were rotted. The leather seats and saddle bags were cracked
and broken from neglect. But, the paint was still red. It was as close as I
ever got to an un-restored, in-line four cylinder 1927 Indian 'Ace'
motorcycle. It was easily as big as a Harley.
   The sparkle in his eye brightened when he said, "Get me that can of gas
over there and let's start her."
   "After all these years will it still start?" I asked.
   "When they made something back in those days, they made em' to last.
I'll bet you the next six pack this thing'll start first try."
   So I bet him. We poured the fresh gas into the rusted tank, drained the
carburetor and changed the coagulated oil. He painstakingly swung a leg
over the bike, pulled the distributor around to retard the spark, leapt
into the air and put his full weight on the kick starter. The engine kicked
over, started and purred like it had a fresh tune-up.
   There were many six packs of beer to be shared on many Friday's after
that day, but none I remember as well.
   Even today, thirty years later, whenever I'm working with my lathe, I
think of that old guy and his surprise under the piles of trash.
   Though I was sure he was long dead, years later, I drove by to see if
the old barn was still there. A fast food joint sat on the property.
   I've always wondered what happened to that old man and his Indian

        Copyright 1999 by Nik C. Colyer.  All rights reserved.

Nik C. Colyer has been a novelist for seventeen years. He offers for free,
his third novel Maranther's Deception (a story about being lost in the
desert) in ten page installments once a week. Contact him at: nikbar@nccn.net