Robert T. Rhode

Robert T. Rhode
Robert T. Rhode

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Lucky Breaks: Will County and Dan Warren (Last Installment in This Series)

I wrote about this lucky break in “The Education of a New Engineer,” published in The Iron-Men Album Magazine for May and June of 1998. On July 19, 1997, Dan Warren shouted at me while I was running my Case steam engine at the Will County Steam Threshermen’s Association show in Illinois. At that time, I was still a novice. With help from experienced engineers, I steered my 10 ½ ton steamer along the parade route. The show has changed locations. Back then, towering oaks crested the hill, and the fields of golden wheat in the valley were a sight to remember for a lifetime.

My Photograph of My 65 HP Steam Traction Engine
Serial Number 35654
Built in 1923 by the J. I. Case Threshing Machine Company
Taken at the Will County Steam Threshermen's Association Show in 1999

On Saturday afternoon, a young engineer named Mike and I were guiding my engine down the hill toward the valley with the goal of belting the Case to a machine that shells corn. Later, I described what happened: “Halfway down the hill, I saw a tractor coming. I thought the driver would stop to permit us to pass, but he did not. As he crossed in front, I assumed he might speed up to clear the way, but he did not do that, either. I suddenly realized that he was stopping directly in my path. From my vantage point, the tractor appeared to be about eight to ten feet ahead of my smokebox door, although the distance probably was greater. I threw the reverse lever in the center of the quadrant and closed the throttle to avoid a collision. Either the tractor driver never saw me, or he thought that my steam engine could stop as easily as his tractor.”

It was then that Dan Warren came striding—and yelling—toward me. The breeze pushed up the wide brim of his straw hat as he “cupped his hands like a megaphone and shouted, ‘Never stop an engine on a hill! Move it!’”

Instantaneously, I understood why he said “Move it!” I had memorized turn-of-the-century books for steam traction engineers, and they warned that, when the boiler points downhill, the water rushes forward and exposes the ceiling of the firebox to the intense heat of the fire. When no water covers that ceiling, called the crownsheet, the temperature of the iron rapidly increases. Unless the water soon covers the crownsheet again, the core of a safety bolt called a fusible plug could melt, permitting steam and water to flood into the firebox to prevent an explosion. Should the plug fail to perform as designed, the crownsheet might blow down.

I wrote, “Between five and ten seconds had elapsed from the time the tractor began to cross my path until Dan shouted. I yelled at Mike, ‘Let’s go!’ He cranked the steering wheel hard to the right while I threw the reverse lever into position and opened the throttle wide. We missed the tractor. When the engine was parked on level ground, I jumped off the platform and walked over to talk to Dan. He tried to apologize for yelling, but I said, ‘Yell at me all you want! I came over here to thank you for yelling.’ Dan told me that, in the situation I had faced, I should have kept the wheels revolving, even if that had meant backing uphill. Movement in any direction keeps water sloshing over the crownsheet.”

Dan’s lesson was not the first I had to learn. Running a steam engine requires deep and thorough knowledge—especially for the safety of the public. Many engineers unselfishly instructed me over the years until I became a competent steam engineer myself, and I appreciate all they taught me. I remain particularly grateful to Dan for his intervention. For the next seventeen years, I strictly followed Dan’s advice whenever I exhibited my engine, which I no longer show and which I have offered for sale.     

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Lucky Breaks: Navigating Bristol, England

As a relatively new faculty member at Northern Kentucky University, I took the opportunity to teach a course during a five-week tour of England and Scotland. My students and those of my colleagues from Western Kentucky University met at the airport in Atlanta. As our flight had been delayed, we had only a few minutes to race to British Airways. We literally ran to catch our jet. Panting from the exertion, we sank into our seats. I was immediately impressed with the decorum of the staff, as well as the English accents!

After the longest flight in my life, the aircraft finally landed at Gatwick Airport. Eventually, our group rode a bus (a coach) to Bristol. There, we met the host families that would be housing us and providing many of our meals for the next several days. I was assigned to a gracious couple. He was an insurance agent; she was a nurse. They drove me to their home in the suburbs.

River Avon, Bristol, from Balloon
Courtesy Adrian Pingstone Through Wikimedia
That evening, while my inner clock struggled to catch up, the three of us visited the Llandoger Trow, a public house, or pub. Tradition says that Daniel Defoe met Alexander Selkirk, who inspired Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe. The pub inspired Robert Louis Stevenson when he described the Admiral Benbow Inn in Treasure Island. We sat in settles by a fireplace and talked at length.

I slept like a rock that night but wanted to sleep more when my host awakened me. He dropped me off at the city college, where I was to attend an early morning orientation before the first day of touring. He said, “We will see you at our home this evening.” Drowsy, I said my goodbyes, turned, and entered the college. Almost immediately, I realized that I had no last name, no address, and no telephone number for my host. I flew back to the sidewalk, but my host had driven off. When I found the head of our tour, I was astounded to learn that he had no list of our hosts!

Throughout the day, I tried to pay attention to the sites we visited, but my brain was churning. How was I to find my way to my host’s house that evening?

In the late afternoon, we returned to the college. I stood on the sidewalk and considered my options. I felt I had only one choice: namely, to board one of the buses that lined up every few minutes across the street. I stepped onto the first one, which soon pulled away from the curb. Like a hawk, I watched the buildings that passed by, and they looked familiar from my half-asleep morning trip in my host’s automobile. The bus circled a roundabout, and it looked familiar, too. On and on I rode. After several miles, we approached another roundabout, and I thought I remembered entering the same roundabout from a different direction. At the first stop beyond the circle, I disembarked.

I strode back to the roundabout, and, taking my life in my hands, I ran across the center to find my way down the street that I thought I remembered. I walked a few blocks and believed that I was remembering an intersection. I turned left and walked another block or two.

I stood for a long time while I looked at three houses, one of which I thought might belong to my host. Eventually, I persuaded myself that I recognized the car in front of one of them. Gathering my courage in the evening gloom, I rang the doorbell. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when my host appeared at the door.

“You’re just in time for dinner,” he smiled, welcoming me inside. Immediately, I wrote down his name, address, and phone number. He could hardly believe that I had found my way to his house, and he said he never would have imagined that the head of our tour would not have his contact information.

My first experience in another country was finding my way “home.”   

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Lucky Breaks: Visiting a Kentucky Horse Farm

In 1984, a college friend from New York called to say he would like to fly into Cincinnati, visit me, and tour a horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky, in which he held a few shares. I looked forward to the days ahead, and I telephoned the farm to make arrangements. The manager told me that, on the day that fit best with our schedule, we could begin at 8:00 in the morning but would have to finish promptly at 10:00 because a private tour would be offered shortly after that hour.

My friend and I awoke early and drove to Lexington. The sun was shining brightly, illuminating a farm more glorious than a painting. Words can hardly describe the loveliness of the rolling pastures, the perfection of the board fencing, the beauty of the barns, the grace of the trees, and—best of all—the elegance of the horses descended from long lines of champions. Our guide led us from one barn to the next, describing in memorable detail the life stories of famous horses born and trained on the farm. My friend and I felt honored to be shown such kindness, let alone courtesy.

We were permitted to ask as many questions as we liked, and we never were hurried along or cut short in our conversation. We returned to our car at about 10:20—a little later than our prearranged departure time. I had opened the driver’s door and was standing nearby while my friend paused near the passenger door while we thanked the manager for such a wonderful tour. I noticed another vehicle coming up the long tree-lined drive to the farm; in the back of my mind, I thought that the private party was approaching and that we should be leaving.

The car pulled alongside mine and parked. A man stepped from the passenger door and gently unlatched the back door. While he held it open, a woman in a hat emerged. My friend and I recognized her instantaneously, for she was Her Majesty the Queen, Elizabeth II, Head of State of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealths. A huge smile spread across my friend’s face while I nodded slightly, not knowing what I should do. The Queen and the man who had held the door for her walked toward the manager who had bid us goodbye. Meanwhile, I sat behind the steering wheel until my friend had snapped his safety belt, then we drove away.

Queen Elizabeth II with William Farish III on Oct. 9, 1984
At Farish’s Lane’s End Farm in Woodford County
Courtesy KyPhotoarchive, Lexington HERALD-LEADER

After a stunned minute or two, my friend, still smiling, said, “We saw the Queen of England!” I could hardly believe what had happened! No wonder that we had been asked to conclude our visit at exactly 10:00 a.m.! We were not supposed to cross her path as we had done.

That evening, the news on my television mentioned that the Queen had visited a horse farm in Lexington earlier that day. My friend and I could verify that story!