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Back in 1977, when I was still young, my father-in-law acquired a beast of a machine — a big seven-horse, Troy Bilt, rear-tine tiller that was the envy of this part of Belcher Mountain Road.

Well, okay, there weren't any close neighbors then and few neighbors now, but it was a marvel. It would tear up patches of ground on this old farm pretty fast and turn them into nicely tilled gardens for more than three decades of garden bounty. There's not a long growing season up here at about 3,000 feet, but it's a mighty productive short season, when there's just enough rain and not too much wind.

Thing is, a 38-year-old tiller can be a lot of work just to get ready to have it do all the work. I sent this old boy to the shop last fall for a good worming-out, new plug and new fuel line. Even when it gets good care, it's a chore just to crank, as I relearn each spring. The pull cord is a good four feet long and requires throwing some body weight with it. When 10 pulls don't do the trick, it's back to the basics. Fuel cock opened? Choke on "on?" Fuel valve opened up just right? Tiller controls on neutral?

Sigh. Sometimes when nothing else works right, you just have to pull the plug, squirt in some WD-40 or some such, and crank it into life, hoping the thing won't blow itself to pieces. Then it's a matter of wrestling the thing down to the garden, through the gate and into position to till a straight line for the potatoes. And this point, I was pretty worn out pulling on the cord but happy to finally be ready to till.

I was five feet away when the wheel came off. I hope no one could hear me over the roar of the old engine because the air momentarily turned blue  what the great editor and professor Jim Shumaker would have described as a flow of molten profanity. Somehow the beast had dropped a bolt on the port side of the tiller, and the wheel had simply done what it was bound to do  spun itself off the axle.

This resulted in half a morning looking in the grass for the missing bolt (futilely), running back to the barn to find a replacement (four candidates with nuts, just to make sure I got the right size), back down to the garden to see which of them would fit (one of them), and then another 20 minutes while I figured out how to tighten down a two-inch bolt in a space where there is insufficient room to insert two fingers, let alone a socket wrench and a crescent wrench (more molten incantations).

At last I got it all together, fired back up and heaved into position to begin tilling. Cranked up the fuel feed, threw it into forward and slow, and held on as it bucked and jumped and bounced side to side whenever it hit a rock of any size. The first pass approximated what artists call an S-curve, but I figured out how to straighten it out by throwing myself on top of the tiller, hoping that 180 pounds of old man would help stabilize a beast with still plenty of go and not much whoa.

When I finished, it looked pretty good, but I felt like I had just gone 10 rounds with Strangler Lewis. I retired to the house, found a shady spot on the deck and read the latest Rick Bragg book for a couple of hours in quiet bliss. Those taters could wait for another day.

Jack Betts

Jack Betts is retired associate editor of The Charlotte Observer.

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