Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Hammer and cycle…

So you know that I finally broke down and bought the weed whacker. For those of you who have not been following, I have been dreaming about this singularly unique gardening appliance for almost two years. The reason for not having bought one so far is very simple: Weed whackers cost money and this has been, universally for me here, something I haven't got. This is not to say that my overall situation has changed because it hasn't. We have managed to save a little money but what really happened is that a combination of things allowed me to go ahead and pull the trigger and I did.

The first of these events was actually something that actually failed to happen. I am speaking of some advertising dollars that I thought was going to come in. I was told that they were going to come in, I had been waiting for the dollars to come in, but they didn't. However, I was under the impression that we were a go when the imminent moment of decision making was upon me. I do very much understand that one should never count one's chickens before they are hatched but feeling confident, I decided I could trust in this as an inevitable thing. Oh well.

The second event was when I accidentally broke my scythe. Now breaking a scythe is not all that big of a deal. It's just a piece of wood which means you can make another in about an hour if you want to. Or, if you don't care for whittling, you can simply buy one at the market for about six to eight dollars. But snapping the stick after I ran the tip of the blade into an unseen mole hill sort of set me off that this was indeed the time to bite the bullet and get over to the market to buy a gas powered roto-hacker.

And it was a profound moment too. For two years I had in my mind seen myself effortlessly gliding over my field, carving, sculpting, eliminating every unwanted bit if green in my path and behind me, nothing but a fresh cut meadow of soft green; sort of the picture you get as a desk-top when you upload Windows XP.

Of course I knew that a gas powered cycle also has its problems. Firstly, of course you need gasoline which to me means having to bicycle to the other side of town with a two-litre cola bottle on my back. Then there is the normal maintenance which comes along with all motor-powered things. I was not planning on this amounting to too much but then again it is not like I have a stockpile of weed whacker parts already at my disposal.

But then there were the philosophical complaints: Why am I going to a motor when my whole life is about keeping things clean? By moving from my trusty pole and blade (no matter how much I despise the thing) I would be contributing to the greed of the oil people and inevitably, to the pollution of our world. Yes, the lawn would be smoother and it would not ruin me for having done it with a power tool. But on the other hand, I would be directly contributing to the hole in the ozone, global warming, greenhouse gasses and the melting over of the polar ice caps. Yes I know that the machine only pumps out about a horsepower and a half but you never know exactly which straw is going to cripple that camel.

But as I said, I did go and buy it and not that it matters, but this was the thing I had gone to get at Solnichkaya renok the day I met Kosti and Michael. Just so you know.

It was actually a great moment buying that thing. The lady in the store had probably long ago had her fill of my moony visits, lecherously eyeing the various models, only looking, never buying. Of course I can't blame her; how many times did she have to answer the same stupid questions over and over? Which is the better motor? Why is this one more than that one? Which has the best ratio of performance to value- in your opinion that is?

But this time was different. This time, I brought the money.

Walking confidently into the store, I expertly checked which models the store had in stock. I picked out one which seemed to have the features I wanted on it. I had been prepared to spend a certain amount and asked the price. The price she quoted me just happened to be about 30% less than I thought it would be. .

I'll take it.

She actually stared at me for a moment in stunned disbelief: Was the American actually going to buy something? To her credit though she took it in stride. "OK," she said, "Please go over to the tech and he will explain how the machine works…"

I must admit I was pretty psyched riding home on the bus with my new toy. I could feel the jealousy simply radiating off my fellow passengers. If only they knew of the power and the potential of a genuine weed whacker. The ticket taker was staring straight at me. Obviously she was admiring my dedication to staying near the earth and my ability to know a good bargain when I found it.

"Your instrument is leaking gasoline all over the bus and stinks to high hell." said the ticket taker. Yes, there was a small puddle leaking from the plastic bag, but still, I knew she was really only masking her true feelings.

The weed whacker sat in the corridor all day Friday (adding a hint of gasoline to everything within five meters of it) and Saturday. Sunday morning bright and early though we were all up, the whole crew ready to take on the dacha. Of course this was not really the plan and everyone knew it. The real deal was cleaning up and creating order with our new tool of complete domination: This is what I had been hungering for, for two, long years. This was finally my chance to really make our place look nice, to create order where before there was only chaos and, frankly, to be the envy of our neighbors.

You need to understand that there is real pressure to prove you know what you are doing in Belarus.

Knowing the family (and the neighbors) were watching, and acting as cool as a custard pie, I set about preparing the machine. I mixed the gas and the oil correctly. Pumped the primer several times, set the choke to the right position and gave the cord a pull. Nothing. Again nothing. The tech had said that it could be a little problematic at first. I gave it a couple of pulls and suddenly there was that sweet sound of a clean, new motor sputtering to life. This sound was accompanied by the swishy whine of the fishing line slashing through the air. I lowered the head down to the turf and immediately a small, round area appeared. As I moved the machine around, the clean space expanded as shards of grass exploded from its roots. The taller weeds simply toppled over, the ones flat to the ground simply disappeared. The whole area near the house became like a rug.

I felt my heart pounding; my nerves were taught, my face full of a workman's concentration: Today was the day when I finally rose to the pinnacle, to the pantheon: Today was the day when I really could be called Haizain!

And then the sound changed. The motor was still running but the swish was gone and the grass wasn't moving at all. I stopped the motor and took a look. Why was there no fishing line? I looked around and saw a piece of steel which had become exposed when the weeds were cleared. Aha! Ok, this thing must have knocked the wire away. OK, not problem, let's just set it up again. I opened the lock on the bottom of the unit and the spools popped out. I found the two ends and restrung the head and turned the lock back in place. No problem, we were back in business.

Well, we were back in business for about two minutes until the wire snapped off again. No problem, just open the cassette and restring the line. Reset the choke, turn the machine back on, pull the chord, reset the choke and start whacking. What again? Back to the bench. Open the lock, restring the cassette, reset the choke, turn the machine back on, pull the chord, reset the choke and start whacking. After two more minutes, it happened again.

"Is everything alright?" asked Tatyana. She was busy picking strawberries.

"No problem. Everything is ok."

"Why do you keep stopping?"

"The machine needs to rest a bit."

"I thought you said that you needed to rest after fifteen minutes."

"I am being safe…"

Open the cassette and restring the line. Reset the choke, turn the machine back on, pull the chord, reset the choke and start whacking. What again?

I had the bright idea that what was needed was even more power so I clipped off a couple of pieces of steel wire and threaded them through the holes where the fishing wire came through. Wow! Even the toughest, thickest weeds were no match for 100kph of slicing steel. I burned through the right side of the lawn, the wire making slash marks on the wood fence. Turing the corner I stripped the area next to the garden clean, even wading into the high weeds which fell like redwoods under my thunderous assault…

"Ow, shit!"

"Are you ok?"

"Yes, I'm fine." One of the wires had broken off and was now sticking out of my right shin.

"Is it time to rest the machine again?"

"Yes, I think it is." I pulled the wire out of my leg, smeared the blood away with my shirt and limped back to the bench. Open the cassette and restring the line. Reset the choke, turn the machine back on, pull the chord, reset the choke and start whacking. What again?

I managed eventually to get through almost all of the lawn around the house but really, though it looked as beautiful as it did the day we first saw it, it was taking a hell of a lot of time. But as I said, the machine, if a bit temperamental, did do the job.

But then the catastrophe hit.

There were a few meters of wire lying near the garage and I accidentally picked it up, the wire winding itself around the head and bringing the machine to a stop. Getting the wire off was not really a problem but when I tried to open the cartridge, I found that the plastic covering around the screw which locks the head to the cartridge had become stripped.

"What the…".

I tried for over an hour to find a way to get the thing open, wandering around looking for a four-cornered piece of steel that might serve as an opener. I tried hammering on a piece of aluminum but could never get the get the shape right. I finally found that jamming the end of our hinged door-bolt opener diagonally into the hole got the bolt to move but unfortunately, there was no difference as the screw housing was still stripped. It was hopeless.

I lay down on the bed and stared at the wall. I knew that all this really meant was a trip back to the market and the thing would be fixed because for sure it was only a matter of having the right tool. But not having that tool meant that my dream of walking a way a winner was melting into a nightmare of incompetence and broken bravado.

Perhaps in America where the purchase of a weed whacker could be done on a whim, grabbed as an auxiliary impulse buy without a thought to any such dire consequence, getting stalled by a stripped bolt would not have brought on such a wave of depression. But after two years of waiting for the chance to do something, having a technical failure before the job was finished simply hurt too much. I don't know that I actually cried, but if you were there in the room with us, you probably would have thought that I did.

After a while I decided that being practical was still the only answer despite everything. Being a little unnecessarily dramatic, I had simply stuck my broken scythe in the ground and walked away from it the previous time. So much for disdain, I thought as I walked out to where I had left it. The tool had fallen over, the point of the blade having dug straight into the ground where it fell. I picked it up and brought it back to the house. I pulled the nails out of a long rake and pulled the head off the pole. I then took an axe and whittled the end down to about the diameter of the ring that holds the blade and the pole together. I also thinned out the place where the v-shaped handle would go so it would fit. I then notched a little groove when there anchor sits, placed the blade and the ring in place and hammered in the shim that holds it all together. I then used a little wire to pull the two ends of the v-handle tight and walked out onto the lawn.

There were only two small patches that had not yet been weed whacked. Everything else looked great but I could not leave with those two rough spots still being visible. I walked out to where the grass was still high and, swallowing my pride, twisted to my right and dragged the cycle back across the grass, taking down about a foot of grass with the cut. I drew the blade back and cut again and then again. After about five minutes the lawn was pretty smooth. I then went out onto the field and cleared the place where the strawberries are going to be moved to in a few weeks. The new pole worked fine and even the toughest, tallest, nastiest of weeds fell with each swish of the blade. Just as I finished, Tanya called to say that we needed to get going if we wanted to make the bus for home.

That weed whacker was of course leaking gas all over the floor of the bus as we rolled home. I no longer felt that there was any jealousy, just disgust from my fellow datchniks from having to breathe the fumes. My leg still hurt from where I got stabbed and in general both legs itched like crazy from the covering of grass pulp which of course included several varieties of poison ivy. I am pragmatic and I do understand that this was simply a learning experience. That weed whacker is a good tool and does a good job. You just have to know how to use it right. But still, that ride home really sucked.

Today I went back to the market (they are closed on Mondays) and the tech managed to pull off the cartridge and replace the gas cap with one which works properly. They also sold me some stronger fishing line; apparently they like to let people make fools of themselves before advising for the improvement. Next Sunday I will go out and smooth things out again. I figure that the answer is to use both the old and the new; first use the scythe to knock the big things down and then go to the machine to make things look nice. And believe me; it does make all the difference in the world to have things look nice. After all, the neighbors are gonna talk, right?

More soon…