By Roger Barbee
The spring of 2001 was, in my memory, much like this one -- lots of rain and chilly. I remember it because it was when I purchased Red Hill, and it was when I met him.
We met because there was a water problem stemming from Red Hill that caused an issue with the septic system, and since he and his wife lived slightly downhill from Red Hill, it had, shall we say, an unpleasant influence on their space. It was not the best way to meet anyone, but they both proved to be the best of neighbors and soon, friends.
Over these 13 years he and I have shared much -- everything from meals to heated political conversations to him helping me wire my shop, to him doing maintenance on my zero turn mower, to just two fellows sitting in the sun talking about whatever seemed important at the time.
As often happens in life, he became a fixture in my life and soon family and friends would ask about him. Even last summer on a visit to Oxford, England, people asked about him. Before we moved here full time, his presence each weekend was something I anticipated for his advice about some issue concerning a machine or to share a joke with or to a discussion concerning some event of the past week. His presence, in this fashion, became a constant for me, as I came to expect seeing him bent over the hood of whatever vehicle he was working on -- his head and hands deep in the complexities of an engine, and his rear in the air like a flag.
One Saturday afternoon several years ago, as I was going to my shop, I glanced down the hill to see him sitting on the wall next to his basement work room. In his driveway, with its hood raised and engine running, sat the 1963 truck he had been working on for the past few weekends. Later, when I left my shop to go to the house, I saw him still sitting in the same spot with the truck still idling. When I saw him about twice more in my travels about the yard and my shop, my curiosity won. I rode my power chair down to him and asked,
"Whatcha' doing? You OK?"
"Yea," he said as if puzzled by my inquiry, "I'm fine."
"Well," I said, "Whatcha' doing, then?"
It was then that he looked at me with amazement and responded, "I'm listening to that engine."
Dumbfounded, I ask, "Why?"
"It's got a ping in it, don't ye hear it?" he asked with exasperation.
I sat for a few seconds that seemed like hours, both of us aware that I had no idea of what he spoke. Finally, I wished him well, and went up the hill to marvel about a man who could not only hear a "ping" in an engine but eventually correct it.
Some of our best and funniest conversations concern politics, especially the issue of gun control. A fine hunter and marksman, he has shared his wisdom of firearms with me and sometimes we would shoot at a target set on my back three acres.
He was quite a shot and seemed unable to understand how I could be so inept at hitting a stationary target. Yet, he always remained calm and never quit teaching me the nuances of marksmanship. His is a deep appreciation for the use of a gun and hunting. He taught Max, our oldest grandchild, to shoot a BB gun.
Once, when I called the county sheriff to complain about a fellow neighbor who was baiting and shooting crows on a Sunday afternoon, I found a copy of the commonwealth's hunting regulations in my door the next weekend. It took me some time, but I eventually figured out he had placed it there. When I commented on it, all he said, with his head under my mower correcting something wrong, "I figured you oughta' know the laws you call the sheriff about." Another lesson learned from him.
All of us, I believe, have a gift, and his is with any machine. He has a sense for and an appreciation of any engine -- from that of a diesel 18-wheeler to a weed-eater. He always seemed to be elbow deep into one or the other or both. His hands speak to the years of laboring with nuts, bolts, grease and oil. They are monuments to his craft in getting many parts to function separately but together in a well-timed order. No maestro ever conducted an orchestra better.
These days, because of his illness, he does not tinker much with his machines. Yet, on the rare, sunny afternoon that I see a hood raised down the hill, I go. Thirteen years is such a brief time.
Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.