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Spare Parts: Sleeping dogs and lies

By Ernie Copper

As summer draws to a close, I’m left wondering why it is that a motorcycle, tractor or car can lay dormant for years, but the second you try to start it and it doesn’t fire, nothing else on earth matters besides getting that machine started. I’ve had several opportunities to examine this vexing issue this summer, yet the question remains unresolved in my mind.

I decided to participate in a small bike show this summer and as I got the bike ready to show I decided it would be nice to answer “yes” truthfully if I were to be asked if the bike runs. It ran when I parked it, they always do, but that’s not the same as knowing if pressed you could prove it runs now. The bike in question is a high-compression, two-stroke motocrosser that is not the most pleasant bike on earth to start. Before thinking about kicking it to life, you’d better have a boot on and you’d better have fresh premix in the carb. Fittingly, I had neither.

So off came the bowl for the requisite cleaning and fresh gas and oil were mixed. Not wanting to ding up the expansion chamber before the show, I decided to bump start it by pushing it down the street jumping on and popping it into gear. The first few tries were not a roaring success. Then came the call to dinner from the back porch. Reflexively I answered, “I’ll be in in a minute.” I’m not sure there is any other response to that call, is there? In all honesty, I’ve never been to the table in anywhere close to a minute after saying that and if you put a stopwatch on me an hour is probably being optimistic.

With no fire in the engine and a full belly, I called it quits that night but went to sleep troubleshooting the hard starter that really didn’t need to be started anyhow. The next day I continued the mental checklist until I got home from work. I was afraid to put the boot to the kicker for fear I would scuff up the expansion chamber before the show. This bike often kicks back and has an oddly shaped kick pedal that occasionally results in my foot slipping off entirely. A few more trips down the slight grade beside my house were in order and left me with a bike that was running. The crisis melted away.

Until, that is, I started wondering why my dad’s antique tractor hadn’t started lately and by lately I mean the last two years. Dad’s had some health issues recently so things in the care and maintenance department aren’t what they usually are. This post-war John Deere is a very simple machine so before I ever got to the shed I was ready to cover the basics. Fresh fuel, fresh oil, drain and clean the carburetor float bowl, top off and charge the battery. Positive ground always messes with my mind, but after I got that straight I charged up the battery.

The old girl would turn over, but wouldn’t fire a shot from either of her two cylinders. I was now consumed. Starting fluid didn’t make a difference either so I started looking for spark. There was none in sight. I went to the ignition switch and after clearing away a nice cozy mouse condo, found the little rats had chewed through one of the necessary wires! I had no fields to plow, no crops to harvest, and no real reason to be so singularly focused on this machine. But I simply had to get her running once I started to care again. It hadn’t mattered the last two summers, but now it was the only thing that did matter.

To confirm that the wire was the problem, I hooked up a jumper wire and she was running in no time. Peace, calm and accomplishment washed over me.

I’ve decided it must be fear. Once I try to start something that won’t start, I guess I worry that the reason may be that catastrophe has struck while I wasn’t looking and ruined some unobtainable widget that will leave the entire machine a shell of what it was. Fear that it won’t be as simple as a fouled plug or wire that has been chewed. Even worse it will have been my fault for not putting it away with better care. There is pride involved on some level. I always wonder when I come across an old machine that sits neglected and not running if the owner knew when they walked away from it that it would be the last time.

I never plan on the last time and that’s why I keep waking those old, sleeping dogs. It’s been a while since Dad’s moped was running. Gotta go.

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