Minnesota Men and Their Machines
by marty gallanter
This piece was also known as Midwest Men and Their Machines and
became part of the 1999 Vermillion Literary Project
publication from the University of South Dakota .
(Tyler, MN) As the horror Midwest winter of 1996/97 comes to a close, at least on the calendar, I shamefully admit that I have been secretly wishing for at least one more snow storm.
I know! We've had more than enough. Too many folks have been put at risk on the roads, too many school days are lost. And the current snow cover already threatens a coming season of melt and mud that will, at the least, delay planting and at its worse flood out entire communities. But I can't help myself. This small exercise in seasonal heresy is a direct result of my new found knowledge. In the fourth winter of my Minnesota life, I finally understand the mystic of Minnesota men and their machines.
This revelation is meaningless unless you understand me as a transplanted New Yorker. In New York, references to the use of "a machine" usually evokes images of nothing more imposing than the local ATM, probably the most complicated mechanical device with which any New Yorker struggles on any given day. Not that access to and control of money isn't important, even powerful. But city dwellers view the ATM, and other periodic encounters with machinery, as battles against opponents in a war of survival. One must conquer the bank mechanism to reach one's own cash reserves. City people in general, and New Yorkers in particular, view machinery as devices controlled by strangers designed to make their lives more difficult. The snow plow that buries the bus stop, the garbage truck that grinds away at five in the morning, even the computer network that refuses to awaken on a Monday morning are mountains to be climbed.
When I moved to rural Minnesota four winters ago, (that's how we count time up here, by winters) I brought my subconscious New York attitudes along with me. I hired a man and his machine to blow the snow from my driveway. I bought the simplest lawn mower I could find and engaged the neighbor boy to run it. Unknowingly, I separated myself from one of the very definitions of Minnesota manhood.
Then arrived the winter of 1996/97, by all accounts around the town cafe, the worst in thirty years. The man I had hired to blow my snow decided to abandon this line of work and the crisis was created. I could have hired someone else, but my next-door neighbor, a slightly built woman, now single and living alone, found herself the owner of a monstrous snow-blowing machine far too large for her to handle. In her mind, there seemed to be a natural solution to this problem. She would provide the machine and I would provide the labor to clear both our driveways. There was no point in trying to explain the way I felt. I'd lived here long enough to know that she wouldn't understand, so I swallowed hard, buried the New York distrust of mechanical devices and agreed to the deal.
One does not just enter such a new world ill-prepared. Observation told me it was necessary to obtain the correct clothing. The regulation uniform seemed to center around a pair of exceptionally ugly brown overalls. I did notice that equally ugly coveralls were acceptable but as a novice, I decided it was safer to stay with the mainstream. The pair I purchased were so bad that a New York friend, who teaches at Manhattan's famous Fashion Institute of Technology, commented that the only way the clothes could be any uglier would be if they were red. (PS - Robyn, they make them in red) With my fashion confirmation in place, I nervously anticipated the first snow storm and didn't have long to wait. Early one morning I arose to the sound of snow blowers all around and I knew that my status in the community, as well as that of my neighbor, would now depend upon how fast I could clear these driveways. No further delay would be permitted.
Assisted by an electric starter, the 8 ½ horsepower engine turned over and roared to life rather easily in the -5 degree morning air. While the big yellow machine did seem to have some mind of its own, for the most part it lurched forward only when I depressed the left hand lever and blew snow only when I held down the right. By letting go of both, the machine stood useless and helpless, rumbling in the driveway. I began to feel a sense of control and with it the beginnings of power. As I played with the handle that engaged the corkscrew shaped blade, I started to understand that despite its angry sound and dangerous demeanor, I was more in charge of this thing than it was of me.
Following my instruction, the beast bit into a four-foot-deep drift and within moments the snow flew to approximately where I had wanted the stuff to rest. I was exhilarated... a true frost covered aphrodisiac.
An accurate description of the of the adrenalin rush that rose up within me is linguistically impossible but as my neighbor's two impassible driveways became vehicle-friendly paths, my sense of power and control grew. Even the town snowplow's attempt to reseal the entrances was only transitory as man and machine re-ground the pile of white stuff and moved it to the sidelines of our winter existence. With each pass, the machine came closer and closer to becoming my partner.
I fed my new yellow steel friend some gasoline, reclaimed the sidewalk between our two houses and removed the snow from my own driveway. When I finally shut down the engine, my neighborhood was silent. After two hours in close proximity to a poorly muffled 8 ½ horsepower engine, the winter, snow-dampened quiet was more than strange. Up and down the street, other brown-clad men were standing, admiring their own work and examining that of the others. I was the last on the block to finish, but their expressions gave me the support I needed. "Not bad for a city boy," their eyes were saying. We acknowledged each other's triumphs over nature with silent nods. Minnesota men do not discuss these thing. We let our machines talk for us.
Though, like everyone else, I spend the winter complaining about the weather, I must admit that each subsequent snowfall was an adventure. I woke before dawn, lay in my bed waiting for the sun to rise... tried and often succeeded at being the first snow mover out. Most mornings I was shutting my machine down while the others were still roaring. The victorious battles against waist-deep piles of snow made my heart pound and my blood pump rapidly, despite the sub-zero weather. At the end of each encounter, I returned to my home consumed by a huge appetite for a country-style breakfast. Fortunately for my waistline, I rarely gave in to the urge. My only regret was that my mechanical ally in the war against nature was forced to rest in a cold garage while I drank coffee, consumed oatmeal and basked in my wife's compliments.
All things end. The winter is coming to a close. My neighbor will likely move and take the yellow machine with her. I will be forced to buy my own apparatus or return to my old ways and hire someone to come over after each snow storm (I don't think so).
And this spring, as I watch
the farmers preparing their fields with monster tractors controlled by their skilled
hands, my usual awe will be tinged with envy. They own some really big machines. I guess I
could volunteer to help with the planting and later the harvest. Maybe they would even let
me try out one of those babies. More likely though, I'll just wait for the inevitable
return of the Minnesota winter and, while waiting, wonder why a man would want to live
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