Earth Day Everyday … Tuesday

Mike McPhetres … He Fixes Things

by Stephen Morris

In front of Mike McPhetres’s Farm-All-Fix is a 1946 Farmall A that he loves to work on.

1946 CASE IH FARMALL B For Sale In Watertown, South Dakota |

“Originally, it was projected to have a 7 year life span, but it was so over-engineered that it’s still running today, and with proper care and maintenance, it will run for the next 100 years,” says Mike, a slender man with a quick smile and an aura of too many things to do.

The same cannot be said for most of the other products scattered around his shop and yard. The parking lot is a cross between a hospital and a graveyard. Some of the patients are living, others have breathed their last, some are waiting to be cured. Beauty is contributed by the surrounding green hills and Ayers Brook just across the road. It’s an unlikely backdrop for the assortment of old tractors, lawn movers, and other manifestations of the internal combustion engine.

1946 Farmall M Tractor - Tracy, Minnesota | $3,435 | Machinery Pete

This day I have brought back a chipper/shredder, borrowed from a neighbor, that refuses to start. I brought it in to Mike a week ago, who got it started and running smoothly, but when I got it home … No go, showboat. Now I’m back in his yard, unannounced on a Saturday morning, throwing myself on his mercy.

Mike is both puzzled and engaged at the challenge. He’s not the kind of guy to charge you for something that doesn’t start if it doesn’t start, know what I mean? He gives it a pull. Nothing. I breathe a sigh of relief. At least it wasn’t me doing something stupid. He removes the sparkplug and gives a squirt of gas. Instant ignition. Runs like a charm. He shuts it down and tries pulling the cord again. Nada. He opens up the carburetor. “Seems like some floating junk in the gas,” he observes. He installs a gas filter. No help. This is a head scratcher.

Meanwhile, other customers come and go. Someone wants to rent a U-Haul (Mike has the local franchise). Another person wants to rent a lawn mower for a weekend. Someone else buys a new lawn tractor. Everyone knows Mike by name. Everyone has a thought on why the chipper/shredder will run, but not start. Mike acknowledges them all with a slight nod as he continues his methodical adjustments, the tailgate of my truck serving as the workbench for the chipper/shredder.

“Isn’t this a great day to be working outside?” Mike asks. He’s got that one right, bright sun, cool breeze, billowy clouds. “Not such a great day for a dance recital,” he grumbles with a smile. He thought he had attended his last recital a year ago when his step-daughter graduated from high school, but now she’s come back to help with the younger students, and Dad’s presence on recital day is just as important as ever.

1946 Farmall BN Tractor | S92 | Gone Farmin' 2011

It’s a Saturday morning, the time when men load up their trucks with purposeful things and pick them up and drop them off and get them fixed. The customers start arriving in a stream. Some require attention, but some just call out a greeting to Mike and go purposely about their business. Mike’s got the chipper/shredder purring now, but when he turns it off, the %$#!! thing won’t start without a shot of gas directly into the carburetor. Mike is calm enough about it, but I’m starting to get agitated, seeing my Saturday to-do list lying unchecked before me. Plus, I’m getting concerned about accumulating more expense.

“How’s business?” I ask in between adjustments. Mike gestures to the surrounding mowers, snowblowers, lawn tractors, and assorted manifestations of the four-cycle engine.

“There’s no shortage of things that need to be fixed, and I can fix most anything. The problem is the way the manufacturers price the parts, you get into anything major, and it’s just as easy to go down to Home Depot and buy a new one.”

I wait for the speech on the poor quality foreign manufacturers, short-sighted retailers, and how they don’t make things like they used to, but Mike resists the temptation to climb onto the soapbox. Not that he doesn’t have thoughts and insights on the global economy. “Right now the engineering on a lot product that comes from Asia is substandard, but it’s improving. I’ve heard that a lot of American firms are sending their best engineers overseas to oversee manufacturing operations. In ten, maybe a dozen years, they’ll be making product that’s as highly engineered as a Lexus,” he says, noting that it wasn’t long ago that Japanese cars had the reputation for shoddy quality.

I ask if he regrets the fact that products are becoming more high tech.

“Oh no,” says Mike, “I’m not anti-technology. I love my computer. It makes it very easy for me to contact my state legislators and tell them what I think.” This is vintage Yankee humor, subtle and understated, delivered without a punch line, and telegraphed by only the quickest twinkle of an eye. Most recently he expressed himself about the proposed SUV tax that would affect the pick-up truck he needs for his business.

1946 International Farmall M tractor in Parker, KS | Item A2305 sold |  Purple Wave

“The sticker in the showroom might say that a truck gets 20 miles a gallon, but that must be in Arizona with a tailwind. There’s no way that vehicle gets that under real world conditions.” In a world where the increasing pace of change has characterized many industries, he notes that the American car manufacturers have managed only token improvements in fuel economy. That’s where the legislative pressure, in his opinion, should be applied, not on the end-user.

“You’d think the manufacturers could do a little better,” he says. (More understated Yankee humor. I’m starting to catch on.)

Mike finishes up on the chipper. He doesn’t guarantee it won’t have starting problems again, but he shows me how to jump start it in case. It has taken an hour of his morning, for which he charges nothing other than four dollars for the new gas line filter. Meanwhile, I’ve learned about the internal combustion engine, reconnected with the local community, chuckled a few times, and received quick lessons on the state of the global economy and the operations of state politics.

It was four bucks for the part, but the tuition was free.

This article has appeared in Livin’: The Vermont Way, Green Living Journal, and The White River Valley Herald.

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