Masters of Modification
“The smart-alec engineers didn’t think of this, that’s for sure!” my friend stated proudly. He’s right there, I thought. The only way an engineer could conjure up what I was gaping at would be during a “burrito nightmare”.
I stared at the object in question, belatedly shutting a mouth that had dropped in horror at the sight of the metallic apparatus that now clung to the side of the expensive combine like a mechanical wart. I couldn’t stall much longer and frantically tried to come up with an appropriate response.
“Well, the paint nearly matches”, I said with all the spin-doctoring I could muster. “Yeah”, he said excitedly, “The last can was a few years old, but we just kept spraying more on.” That would explain the numerous discreet drip trails in the corners and on vertical surfaces, I thought.
Still, it was hard not to appreciate the blazing audacity of a man who would plunk down hundreds of thousands of his bank’s hard-earned money for the acme of industrial technology, and then blithely proceed to adulterate it with leftover angle-iron and too many welding rods.
Perhaps this behavior is a type of ownership evidence - machine-branding, so to speak. I mean, we ear-notch livestock, don’t we? It’s effective, too, as my eyes always locked on the farmer alteration when I saw this combine. And we all could identify it later on the used machinery lot. Where, incidentally, it sat for some time.
But whence springs this urge to change, to smash-to-shape and bend-to-fit? Oh sure, there are many from the school of thought that perfection comes from the factory, and any fooling around is hardware heresy. But then, these are the same guys who have mint-condition farm toys still in the box now, while mine have been totally worn out, taped together, and destroyed again.
Maybe this could be a form of ritual scarring. Just like those tribes that fill the pages of National Geographic, we are mortifying the mechanical flesh, as it were, to establish our identity. For instance, one of my trademarks is to rewire the radio bypassing the key switch, so as to allow playing it without fans or beepers or gauges coming on. This adaptation makes waiting for the truck to get back from the elevator a much more pleasant experience. This is typical of the serious efficiency gains that can be achieved by businesslike tinkering.
Many farmers have similar “signature” transfigurations. Some use the same kind of boards around the grain tanks of combine after combine. Some weld hitches at seemingly random locations about tractor frames. Many mount can-holders at strategic locations to prevent accidental death by thirst. All of these tendencies become expected features others look for on our tools.
My second theory for this behavior is man-machine bonding. Welding an angle iron apparatus on the side of an implement is the agricultural equivalent of a “blood-brother” ceremony of our childhood days. This machine becomes a part of us, a relationship of depth and intimacy that our wives envy. Our machine-brothers give us a “team” outlook, even when we farm alone - a comforting, albeit pathetic, substitute for actual friends.
The true sadness of the whole business though, is our lack of aesthetics. Let’s face it, most of us weren’t taking art or design classes at school. If we did, it was to meet girls. I’ve witnessed the alarmed countenance of a factory tech rep visiting my farm when he sees the sacred Company Product gashed and patched with ruthless farmer savagery. It’s like a New York art critic seeing a black velvet Mona Lisa.
Much of the problem comes from the traditional rule of never using any new material. Any alteration must be manufactured from materials on hand or within cannibalization distance. Suitable parent material can include but is not limited to: unused parts from other machines, household appliances, Tonka® toys, neighbors’ tools, Erector set leftovers, and lunch remnants. This juxtaposition of elements from who-know-where tends to give a Frankenstein appearance to our ingenious innovations. But I find some near-spiritual meaning in seeing reincarnated bits of old mechanical friends bolted to sides of more recent acquaintances.
But above all, such improvements are a bold statement to vendors that anything they can manufacture, we can mutilate. And as our farms, like our personalities, become even more unique, I think the ag world can look forward to astonishing displays of farmer “post-industrial craftsmanship”. There is evidence on most every farm machine.
But not enough to convict.