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Up in Steam

2008 Submission by Katherine Elliott Scott

I stood at my kitchen sink washing dishes when the telephone rang. I dropped my sponge on the crusty old cereal bowl I was attempting to scrub clean and shuffled over to the phone. “Hello?” I said cradling the receiver between my shoulder and chin.

“Bonny darling, I have wonderful news. I’m coming to visit.”

It was Erika. The Bedouin desert queen that had managed to drift in and out of my life for nearly twenty years without any rhyme or reason. “Where are you?” I asked nervously.

“Your driveway,” Erika replied.

“Why didn’t you just ring the doorbell?”

“I didn’t want to come over unannounced. It’s only decent to call first.”

“Great, so I’ll see you next week.” I hung up the phone and went back to washing dishes. Two minutes later the doorbell rang.

I answered the door and saw Erika Freeman beaming back at me. Two decades of life’s complications evaporated, and I was back in my freshman year living with Erika in Jefferson Hall. We were an odd pair. She was dressing in burlap and volunteering for Greenpeace, and I was putting on pearls and rushing Tri Delta. But all these years later I have spent more time keeping track of what corner of the globe Erika is in than I have spent worrying about the christening of my sorority sister’s third child.

We were exactly the same, only grayer. Erika still dressed in dusty jeans and a tattered World Wildlife Federation t-shirt. Her dark brown hair was tied into a ponytail with a piece of string, and I still ran around in pant suits and pearls. That’s who I was, Bonny Belgum, practical and predictable. I kept my brown hair and all its gray highlights tied up in a neat bun, and I viewed the world through librarian glasses. I wasn’t a librarian though, I was an English teacher – it’s much more adventurous.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” I said.

Erika dropped a large canvas duffle bag on my front stoop and crossed the threshold to swallow me in a giant bear hug. “It has been too long,” she said. “But don’t worry. I plan on staying all summer. We’ll have lots of time to catch up.”

“Great,” I said. I attempted to muffle the sarcasm in my voice, but I’ve never been capable of getting anything past Erika. “So where’s Sean?” I asked as Erika followed me inside.

“I lost him somewhere in Thailand?” Erika replied. “He was getting predictable.”

“How ghastly.”

“I know,” Erika sighed. “I told him, if I’m going to spend the rest of my life with a boring old schoolmarm I might as well just go live with Bonny, ‘cause you actually are a boring old schoolmarm.”

“I happen to enjoy my boring and predictable life, which is why you can’t stay here all summer.”

“Bonny, you’re no fun at all. I mean what’s the point of being a teacher if you don’t even take advantage of summer vacation. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than hanging out with me. Now that Sean is out of the picture, and you are determined to live the life of a spinster, it will be nothing but all girl summer fun.”

“Fine you can stay for a week,” I agreed. I would never admit it to her, but I did enjoy Erika’s spontaneity. I liked the simplicity of my life, but every once in a while I needed more of an adventure than I could find from reading a good book. The memories from the old days that I used to cherish with Erika were beginning to creep up again. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Fantastic,” Erika beamed. “Oh, and you might want to pack, cause we’re headed down to Oregon next weekend.”

“So you aren’t staying here, you’re just kidnapping me. What exactly are we doing in Oregon?”

“I have to take some pictures of The Great Oregon Steam-Up for ‘Antiques Magazine’. And since you’re here, I’ll let you schlep my camera for me.”

Erika had found herself a niche in the world of freelance photo journalism. She traveled all over the world documenting the truly bazaar. “So what exactly is the Great Oregon Steam-Up?” I asked.

“I’m not totally sure, but it is held at a place called Antique Powerland, so it has to be interesting.” I immediately envisioned a bunch of crotchety old men bent over piles of rusty metal kibitzing about the good old days and wondered how Erika defined interesting.

Somehow when Erika’s van pulled into a field full of oversized American cars three days later, I was in it. I tried to remain optimistic. We were at a living history museum. Sure it was a museum about power tools, but still it was possible that I could learn something interesting. If I was lucky, maybe I could learn how to get out of ever visiting a power tool museum again.

Erika jumped out of the van and began to strut toward the main entrance. I pulled her camera bag out of the back and trotted after her. I wondered how I had transformed from a high school English teacher into a Sherpa on a tractor expedition. Erika fished some paperwork out of her purse and handed it to the man working the ticket booth. “Well, now,” the man said. “The press has arrived. I’m free for my interview anytime.”

Erika smiled at the man and reached for her camera. “How about a picture?” she suggested. The man ran his fingers through his thinning white hair and brushed the dust off his grease stained coveralls. Erika snapped a few pictures before walking though the gate.  Oscar, the soon to be star model, handed me a map and schedule.

The fairgrounds weren’t only large. They were also crowded. I had no idea so many people were interested in antique machinery. I glanced at the schedule Oscar had handed me. “There’s a steam powered sawmill demonstration starting in five minutes,” I read.

“Cool,” Erika replied. I glanced at the map and took off towards the sawmill.

As we climbed into the wooden bleachers, a loud whistle blew and the giant machine chugged to life. A teenager who had clearly spent his entire life doing farm labor rolled a giant log into place. A man in his late thirties wearing a dusty pair of jeans and a tattered polo shirt ratcheted spikes into the log. He stepped onto a platform behind the giant spinning blade. The man pressed a lever and sent the log sailing past the blade. The trolley slid back into place and the man pulled a handle shifting the log two inches closer to the blade. The log rolled forward again cutting another plank of lumber.

Erika snapped pictures as I watched in amazement. Where was OSHA? That guy was going to cut his arm off. The sawyer continued to send logs past the giant spinning blade as more and more trees were converted into lumber. When the demonstration finally came to an end, I was happy to see that all the volunteers were still in possession of all their limbs. Erika changed lenses on her camera as the sawyer walked up to us.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you ladies around here before,” he said. “Where are you from?”

“Earth,” Erika responded. Erika took foolish pride in her lack of a permanent address.

“I’m from Seattle,” I answered. “And Erika doesn’t like to stay put very long.”

“Well welcome to Antique Powerland,” the man said with a smile. “I’m Craig by the way.”

“I’m Bonny,” I said.

“So Craig, how does this thing work?” Erika asked.

Craig lifted the rope meant to keep uneducated tourists away from big scary machines. “Climb on up,” he beckoned. “I’ll show you.”

Craig pointed out all the different levers and handles on the trolley and explained how each one worked. Then he led us over to a cross-section of a boiler and explained how the firebox heats the water into steam. He attempted to walk us through the process involved in the pressurized steam driving the pistons that turn the flywheel.  Craig waved his arms in excitement as he explained the machinery. He wasn’t anything like Oscar and the other crotchety old men that seemed to be running the place.

“I’ve got to ask,” I interrupted. “What do you do when you’re not operating a sawmill?”

“I’m a mechanical engineer,” Craig replied. “I love engines. It’s so much fun getting to come down here and see the way things used to be made. In the last century so much of the design world has been caught up in internal combustion engines, but a return to an external combustion engine like this could open so many possibilities for alternative fuel sources.”

I had no idea what Craig was talking about, but I didn’t care. His passion was intoxicating. I suddenly found antique machinery mesmerizing and was eager to learn more. Craig was conscious of the fact that Erika was there for business, not pleasure, and suggested she check out the tractor pull for some more photo ops. While Erika set up her camera, Craig found me a job in the competition.

In modern tractor pulls, there is a weight pulled up an incline that applies increasing resistance to the tractor as it travels. Antique tractor pulls aren’t quite as technical. Instead the tractors pull a giant sled and more and more people step on as the sled moves by. I was assigned to the seventh chair on the track. Jumping on and off the sled as it was hooked to various pieces of antique machinery was a nice change of pace from my normal humdrum life. Craig rode in the center of the sled. It was his job to attach the giant chains to the back of each tractor as it pulled. I enjoyed watching Craig work. He enjoyed watching the 1917 steam powered tractors work. So we were both happy.

It was late by the time Erika had taken all the pictures she needed, and we had a four-hour drive back up to Seattle. Craig informed us that all the diehards camp out all weekend and insisted we stay for the night. We could drive back in the morning. So we pulled the van through the grounds and found a parking spot between a Winnebago and an Airstream. Our friendly gate keeper, Oscar, invited us to join him for a chili dinner. Oscar had retired from farming and moved on to tinkering. He sold his two-hundred acre farm in the Willamette Valley for a twenty acre parcel in the foothills of the Cascades, where the only crop he grew was rusty metal.

Oscar and the rest of the crotchety old men settled into telling tall tales. Oscar swore that a black bear once climbed into the trunk of his car and started eating the groceries when he was unloading after a trip to the market. Craig had clearly heard Oscar’s story before and asked, “And what happened once the bear finished all the food you had in the car?”

“Then the bear tore through the screen door into the kitchen.”

“Whatever did you do?”

“He whooped and hollered like a scared little girl. That’s what he did,” Oscar’s wife answered.

“Can you give us a demonstration?” one of the other men asked.

Oscar declined, but Craig jumped out of his chair and started shrieking as he waved his arms in the air. “Yeah, that would definitely scare away a bear,” the men agreed.

“I’m afraid it’s going to scare away a couple of ladies too,” I replied with a yawn. Erika and I bid the men goodnight and headed off to bed. We climbed into the back of Erika’s van and curled up for a good night’s sleep. Erika was driving this stupid van back in college too. We had shared several exciting adventures in it together. “This kind of reminds me of that trip we took to Vancouver back when we were 19.”

“Oh yeah, that trip was a blast,” Erika recalled.

“It’s funny to think that Canada having a legal drinking age of 19 was once a cause for excitement.”

“Life in general is cause for excitement,” Erika insisted. “When are you ever going to get that into your head?”

“How did we ever end up swimming in the ocean off of Kits Beach in March?” I asked.

Erika laughed in recollection, “It all started with a cheap bottle of merlot, which we took to calling ‘Mare-lot’. Once there was enough alcohol warming our veins, we figured swimming was a required spring break beach activity.”

“It’s too bad we went to Canada instead of Cancun. I didn’t stop shivering for a week.”

“You loved it. You always have fun with me, with our without the mare-lot.”

Erika was right. I did always have fun with her. There was a reason why I was thirty-eight years old and still sleeping in vans. As much as I tried to keep my life in order, I enjoyed the messiness of a good sojourn into Erika’s world. We spent the rest of the evening chuckling randomly and staring at the moon out the back window of the van.

When we woke up the next morning, the cloths I wore the day before were lying in a black, twisted heap at the foot of the bed, like some burned-out wreck. I pulled them back on as Erika searched for her car keys. “Our first stop had better be a Starbucks,” I announced. “No offense, Sweetheart, but sleeping next to you I felt like I was reliving the threshing demonstration.”

“Starbucks it is,” Erika agreed. “You ready to go?”

“Yeah,” I said as I pulled on my shoes. “But do you think we should say goodbye to people first.”

“I thought I saw some chemistry between you and Oscar yesterday, it’s too bad he’s married.”

“And forty years older than me.”

“Age can’t stand in the way of true love,” Erika laughed. She climbed into the driver’s seat and willed me into the passenger seat with her eyes. I pulled open the side door and wandered out in search of Craig.

Craig strutted across the field carrying a thermos and three paper cups. “If there’s coffee in there, I might have to kiss you,” I said as he approached.

“Well then this is my lucky day.” He poured me a cup then passed a second cup through the driver’s window to Erika. Sipping from the third cup he asked, “So where’s my kiss.”

I nervously leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. I was almost forty years old. There was no reason for me to be embarrassed, but around Craig I felt like a naive school girl. I decided to blame that on Erika. She was a perpetual adolescent. Clearly her immaturity was rubbing off on me.

Erika started the car and backed out of the parking space. “Well thanks for all the hospitality,” I said. “I think Erika got some great pictures.” I felt like an idiot. I was an idiot.

“You’ll have to come back next year,” Craig said. “You’ve still never driven a tractor.”

Erika laid into the horn. She was never a subtle person, and it was clearly time for me to go. I walked over and slid into the passenger seat. I had enjoyed my trip to Powerland, but I knew that I lived in a very different world – filled with electric motors and clean clothing. Like all the adventures Erika had taken me on, this one was fun. But it was also over.

As we drove through the fairgrounds back towards the main gate we got stuck behind a parade of tractors. The van crawled down the dusty road at a snail’s pace. Finally the tractors turned right to pass the grandstands, and Erika veered to the left. We pulled up to the main gate and Oscar shuffled to the side to let us through. Just as we pulled into the main parking lot, steam began to billow out from under the hood.

Oscar shuffled over to us. “Erika, pop your hood,” he commanded.

Erika did as she was told. Oscar stuck his head into the billowing steam. Erika turned off her engine and climbed out of the vehicle. “Can you tell what’s wrong?” she asked Oscar.

“You’re radiator’s shot,” Oscar replied.

“I’ve got AAA,” I chimed attempting to appear helpful. “Should we call a tow truck?”

Oscar shook his head in disgust. “What’s the fun in that?” Oscar pulled a walky-talky off his belt and said, “Hey, Craig, can you bring a cat around to the parking lot. We get to rebuild a radiator this morning.”

Craig arrived a few minutes later driving a giant tractor. “I knew you weren’t ready to leave yet,” he said with a toothy smile.

Craig pulled in front of Erika’s van, and Oscar attached a set of chains to the front of her vehicle. He pulled the van back into the fairgrounds. By the time he stopped, a crew of half a dozen old men wielding hand tools had assembled. Oscar lifted the hood of the van, and the men slid onto their backs and scooted under. “Are they going to be able to fix it?” Erika asked.

“Of course, Oscar never goes anywhere without a few extra radiators. These guys are just thrilled to feel useful. They’re like the old machines they drive. Every once and a while you have to take um out for a ride. Your car trouble is the best thing that happened to Oscar all week.”

“How long is it going to take for them to fix it?” I asked.

“Just long enough for me to teach you ladies how to drive a tractor,” Craig chimed. We dutifully climbed on board.

Craig explained the hand shift to Erika as she slid behind the wheel. She drove us once around the grounds then announced, “I’m going to go check on the car.”

“Looks like it’s your turn to drive then,” Craig said as Erika leapt off the back of the tractor. I perched on the edge of the driver’s seat and put my hand on the ignition lever. Craig placed his hand on top of mine and eased the lever forward. The tractor lurched, and I slid off the seat. Craig’s arm wrapped around me and held me in place. “You’re a natural,” he commented as we began our second pass.

“I have a great teacher,” I replied.

“You said you were from Seattle right?”

“Yeah, why?”

“It’s a bit of a trek for you, but the Central Washington Antique Farm Exposition is taking place in Union Gap in three weeks. If you start to miss us too much, you can always find us there.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

We began our third trip around the grounds when Erika pulled up behind us and honked her horn. Craig steered the tractor off to the shoulder, and we climbed down to greet Erika. “Oscar is a miracle worker,” Erika said as she walked towards us.

“I guess it really is time to go now,” I said to Craig.

“You know you can come back any time. You don’t have to feign car trouble to play with old farm equipment.”

“We’ll see,” I said and turned away.

I climbed into the passenger seat next to Erika. When we pulled back onto I-5 Erika asked me, “So did you get his phone number?”

“No,” I replied. “But he told me he’d be at a tractor show near Yakima in August.”

“It’s a good thing I’m here all summer.”

© 2008 Katherine Elliott Scott


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