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Remembering and Wishing

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

It was hot, hot, hot at the fair. Nineties. Humid. The heat was coming up off the asphalt on the midway, drying my kids up like French fries. After we finished the water we'd brought along, I kept buying bottles of cold water and emptying them into my babies. Liam found a way to keep cool in the cattle barn.

The heat collected under the carousel's canopy, and Liam almost swooned as we waited for the music to begin and the horses to start their dizzy gallop.It was time for ice cream. I followed the sound of a one-lung gasoline engine, circa 1900 or so. It sounded like a John Deere, and it was. This was the first model of engine my dad ever restored, and by the time he died, he'd restored dozens. He was good at it. He tore them apart and cleaned and greased every moving part, and then he painted them in original colors, sometimes asking me to do the lettering or pinstripes, and put them back together. He'd sit on a bunch of newspapers on the basement floor with hundreds of little parts spread out around him, his legs out like a kid playing marbles, and mutter to himself as he worked (or played).

He would have liked Liam and Phoebe, if he had ever gotten to meet them.

When he finally got them reassembled, he always liked to start them up for the first time to see if he'd done it right. Remember, this was in the basement of our house. The exhaust would drift up the stairs, along with the sometimes deafening report of the engine firing (if he hadn't put a muffler on it), and when she couldn't stand it any longer my mother would stomp over and holler DAAALE!!! down the stairs and slam the basement door and you'd hear him shut it down, the flywheel coasting to a whispered halt. Then you'd hear some muttering and tinkering and before long he'd give the flywheel another crank and the whole show would repeat.

Because I'd been hanging around like a dirty shirt while he rebuilt the things, I always ran downstairs to congratulate him on another busted-up engine brought back to life. I always wished my mom would at least go down a few steps to take a peek at what he'd accomplished, but she didn't think much of having to pick her way through antique engine debris to get to the Maytag.

The man tending this ingenious setup--the engine is turning the ice cream makers' cranks-- was pleased to have someone come by who knew what she was looking at. I was taken away by the pop and chug of this noble machine. All that iron for a quarter horsepower.

Something was wrong, though. It looked right, sounded right, but the nostalgic loop was incomplete.

You're not burning gasoline in this, are you?
Nope, Coleman fuel.
I didn't think it smelled right.

The ice cream was darned good, nice and sloppy, but not as good as Dad's. Mom used to buy Golden Guernsey milk and put extra vanilla in, too. This was made with regular old Holstein milk, I think. Dad was forever trying to figure out how to hook an engine up to the churn, but never got the ratios right. He'd have loved this, hanging out all day making ice cream. He used to take his engines to the Virginia State Fair in Richmond and come home hoarse from talking about them all day.

Good thing this old Deere wasn't burning gasoline. Had I caught the scent of that old familiar exhaust, I know I'd have stood there and bawled.
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