Sunday, July 31, 2011

How the other half lives

Regular readers will remember multiple years of whinging from me about our lack of a suitable livestock trailer and descriptions of various flimsy lash-ups, as well as outbreaks of outright bodgery to make up for lack of the same. To say this problem has driven me to distraction in previous years would be an understatement.

(Here's a selection of totally classic posts in this vein:
1, 2, & 3)

There's even a very fine wood craving made by father-in-law Dick Phillippi of one such incident.

Memorialized in artwork, no less.

But obviously, this annual tradition had to end somehow.
Something Needed to be Done this year, if the pigs were to be safely transported to the slaughterhouse, and if I were to keep my sanity.

After weeks of perusing Uncle Henry's and Maine Craigslist for a suitable trailer, I finally realized I wasn't going to have the money to get one that was ready made and perfect.

Therefore I would have to make one.

I've made a small livestock trailer before using plastic sheeting and two-by-fours, and it worked alright until I backed the flimsy trailer frame into the barn's concrete slab with the four-wheel-drive pick-em-up truck, in four wheel, low range, and, unhappily, made the previously rectangular frame more of a rhomboid.

After that, my fine trailer wore out a new set of eight-inch tires every twenty miles. Obviously the trailer couldn't be used on the road anymore, although I still use it regularly for hauling firewood out of our woods.

I removed the plastic cap and made that into a stand-alone livestock crate, which we still have and which works fine for sheep, but is too flimsy for big pigs.

I finally set aside $300 after paying bills one Friday and set out to shop for a trailer. I found one in Carmel, just up the road on the way to Bangor, advertised for just that price.

I was a bit suspicious of it at first, because the axle had clearly been struck and was bowed about an inch, but the tires weren't worn and the owner swore he has been using it on the road. The rest of the trailer was fine, and I figured I could get a replacement axle for it, if need be.

But I haggled harder than I normally would have, because of the bent axle. He and I settled on $230, but he threw in a new trailer hitch, and a secondhand 1 and 7/8 inch ball.

The seller had tarted it up a bit, probably with some black Rustoleum in a spray can. He hadn't bothered to remove the decking to get at the rust on the frame underneath, which I resolved to do as soon as I could.

I let it sit outside in the yard until I got to a good point in some of my other projects, and so today after finishing the second full side of metal roofing on our barn, I wrecked out the floorboard decking and chopped them up for winter kindling, removed the remainder of the floor screws, ground off the rust with the wire brush attachment on the angle grinder, washed away the dust and dirt (which is right about the stage I took this picture), and then finally sprayed the whole chassis with half a quart of black Rustoleum in the pneumatic sprayer.

I have new decking sorted already, the same treated wood we've used on the truck bed.

The trailer came with decent, solid hardware for crate sides, supposed to fit into 2 by 4 sockets built into the frame, which will do just fine for most loads, and so I'll make new crate sides with the same hardware.

However, we'll need metal sides and a metal roof for pigs, so I can foresee a trip to the metal yard in Bangor in my future.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the pigs eat and sleep and drink like happy pigs. They're on their last half-ton of feed, though.

Do you think that if they knew that when this lot was finished, they'd be off to the butchers, they'd eat a little more slowly?


To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough

Robert Burns

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
Wi bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murdering pattle.

I'm truly sorry man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth born companion
An' fellow mortal!

I doubt na, whyles, but thou may thieve;
What then? poor beastie, thou maun live!
A daimen icker in a thrave
'S a sma' request;
I'll get a blessin wi' the lave,
An' never miss't.

Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin!
It's silly wa's the win's are strewin!
An' naething, now, to big a new ane,
O' foggage green!
An' bleak December's win's ensuin,
Baith snell an' keen!

Thou saw the fields laid bare an' waste,
An' weary winter comin fast,
An' cozie here, beneath the blast,
Thou thought to dwell,
Till crash! the cruel coulter past
Out thro' thy cell.

That wee bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turned out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald,
To thole the winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still thou are blest, compared wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Old school

I went over to our old house,, the "Bale House," to do a solar power system repair for the occupant.

While I was there I found my old box of photos and letters in the shed.

I needed to retrieve it, and conserve it from the mice and the damp.

There wasn't very much damage.

Here's one such old photo, of an RAF Mountain Rescue LWB Land Rover Ambulance parked outside one of my old billets in Skelton, Yorkshire.

The very skinny guy on the right is me, about 80 pounds lighter, nearly 30 years ago.


A bird in the hand

Our very predatory cat, Shenzhi, is always bringing live and dead small animals into the house. We tolerate this because if we didn't allow her to hunt freely, we'd have rodents in the house and in the barn, spreading disease.

If we're going to have a cat, we need to get the use of a cat. Otherwise why have a cat?

But I was a little peeved yesterday to have to set this small bird free with an open wound Shenzhi had given it. She'd bought the bird into the house, but then lost hold of it. When I caught it, I saw the wound.

Poor wee bugger. And nasty, murderous bl**dy cat.

In other news, the truck is all back together with new leaf springs, brake drums, and muffler, and fresh anti-rust paint all over the rear end. It isn't finished yet, though. We're still waiting for a new flex hose, and there's a tiny bit of muffler pipe on the top of the join that I can't quite reach with the stick welder, so I need to make up or buy a new welding cable extension.

I need to get the truck out on the flatter hard standing where I can jack up all four wheels safely, then I should be able to reach it. That will take either another twenty feet of direct current welding cable, or twenty feet of 220-240 volt power extension cord.

I made myself moderately miserable trying to get at this small weld yesterday, on my back in my hot woolen welding jacket, in 90 degree heat, with the frame of the truck pressing down on my chest, the welding cable wrapped around my chest, and the welding helmet sitting skewed on my head because of the tiny amount of space between the truck and the ground.

Actually, what I really need is a lift. I need a lift in my nice clean, epoxy-floored, custom designed, three-bay, general-purpose mechanical workshop, but the lift alone (never mind the workshop!) would cost about $2,000 more than the extension cord.

Which might be more than the truck is worth right now.

The last bit of news is that he spell of hot humid weather finally broke yesterday afternoon and the nasty muggy mid-western air cleared right out, to be replaced with some nice cool Canadian air.

We could use some rain too, but for now we'll settle for finally being cool.

Haggis is happy about this. he's been in minor respiratory distress for days now, unable to stop panting even in his sleep.

We call this panting Haggis "huffing" and it can be pretty annoying, since it's louder than the radio, than TV, or than our own conversation, so Haggis generally gets banished to another room or the porch.

Being a sensitive kind of dog, actually a bit of a mummy's boy, he doesn't like being banished very much at all.

But he "huffs" at about 80 decibels.

Noisy dog! Go to the porch!

Thursday, July 21, 2011


Here's our outdoor thermometer reading well over 90 F in the sun today. The humidity is also way up -- dew point of 72 F, which means this is a very uncomfortable kind of air that Maine doesn't often get.

Too hot to work outdoors, that's for sure.

I worked on the truck this morning, while it was a little cooler. I scraped and wire-brushed the rust with the air-hammer and angle grinder, and painted the underside with the pneumatic sprayer, and fitted the new drums.

I need a bit more paint to get a little better coverage.

And I need my new leaf springs to be delivered.

Come on, Fedex. I'm sure your vans are air-conditioned, right?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A very silly dog -- enlarged

Pipes and drums

Anyone who knows me at all, looking at the truck rear-end and muffler-pipe repair job I started a few days ago, would know that if Aimee and I had any extra money to pay for new parts, there would be a lot more to do.

And there was. I found out that both leaf springs were broken, and I also decided to put new brake drums on.

As usual around here in the summer, time is relatively abundant, but money for parts and materials less so.

All the same we were able to splurge a little on some additional repairs. Not that they didn't need doing. Just that we could have used the truck again this winter without doing them.

We could have squeaked by, in other words, on our old brake drums and springs.


The old springs had survived a good deal of abuse, including hauling much of the lumber to build the Bale House, as well as hauling very large amounts of hay for the farm. There was no surprise that they were broken.

The old drums were rusty, and I had known this since two winters ago, when I had repaired the emergency brake mechanism

Brake drums are always rusty. What required these to be replaced was the really bad rust that was eating away at the rim, making it harder and harder to pry the drums off using the normal kind of drum-prying technique.

The new drums have come in already, and Fedex says that the new springs will be here shortly, tomorrow or Friday.

Tomorrow's job, while we wait for the springs, will be to fit the new drums and do some rust removal and spraying of Rustoleum and undercoating.

This truck will be spanking when we get done, and good for another few winters, touch wood.

It's that old high-miler engine that will be the death of this beast.

Monday, July 18, 2011


Three sheep left the farm today to go on to another farm. Poppy, Penny, and Quira.

The farm is over in Skowhegan.

We were glad to see them go, because the grazing pressure needed to be reduced a little.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Here's a fine pail of weeds, one of about twenty such bucket-loads I pulled today.

And the next photo shows the secret of raising tasty pork and effective weed-recycling.


Pigs love to eat weeds.

In our garden what we mostly get is quack grass, known as couch grass in Britain, as well as -- what else? -- pig weed!

Lots of pig weed. It grows well in the potato patch, where it is able to shoot up rapidly enough to clear the height of the potato plants.

I've learned that pulling weeds by hand and feeding them to the pigs is more successful and more rewarding than hoeing. I expect in times gone by, my various Celtic and Anglo-Norse ancestors people also fed weeds to their pigs, rather than hoeing them under. It just makes sense, and isn't so very difficult, or very much more work, really, once you get used to it.

As for the sheep, they make pretty good lawn mowers, as well as trimmers and edgers.

Definition of a "haggis"

The American Heritage Dictionary (not quite):


1) (Cookery) a Scottish dish made from sheep's or calf's offal, oatmeal, suet, and seasonings boiled in a skin made from the animal's stomach
[perhaps from haggen to hack1]

2) A type of dog, slightly mental, supposed to be a sheepdog, but would rather herd chickens. Needs a job, but doesn't really have one (because he won't herd sheep properly), follows master around slavishly, never takes his eyes off you, definitely a hack....

Haggis's particular claim to fame today: almost being trampled by his own herd of sheep.

He was wandering around in the driveway dozily around 5.15 am this morning (sheep feeding and sheep moving time), picking up those little black sheep kibbles he loves so much (don't think too hard about this or you may feel sick), when I turned the corner with all sixteen sheep at my heels.

Haggis was told to move out of the way because the sheep won't walk by a dog, but only moved maybe ten feet. The sheep began to balk and split up, so he was told again, only louder and meaner. He moved another ten feet, but at least finished up beyond the entrance to the pen I wanted to put them in. And went back to eating.

All the sheep but one went in. That one balked. Haggis was told to move again. He didn't.

This time he got the feed bucket thrown at him.

It didn't hit him, but at least he moved.

Too late though. Timing is everything in herding sheep, and they were quickly all out through the open gate and heading down the neighbors driveway on the way to the endless woods of Jackson, Maine.


Yes, but bobcats, coyotes and bears too.

Oh my.

Haggis at least came with me to get the sheep back, to undo the damage he'd caused. And the sheep, halfway down the track, decided they really didn't want to go hiking in the woods anyway, and turned around and came back and for one of those reasons known only to sheep, went right back into their proper pen.

Haggis is about eight or nine years old now. Mary perhaps a little bit older.

One of them will die soon.

And then I want a proper sheepdog, durn it!

One that herds sheep.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Just fixing

I probably shouldn't be given pocket money and allowed to go to yard sales. I never saw a mechanical device at a yard sale that I didn't want to think about taking home. I am somewhat circumspect. I will avoid the worst, most of the time, the drippy oil pans, the seized blocks, the ancient rust.

But even then, if the price is right...

It's high summer in Maine, with rolling thunderstorms sweeping through from Manitoba on a regular basis, hot humid days before the storm, dry breezy ones after the storm. The wind research crew just got done with the second-last anemometer tower of the field season, and we have a three-day weekend before completing the last tower, which is in any case only a little one, a baby 30/40 footer for student edification and experimental purposes on campus.

The pressure is off.

Accordingly I'm feeling relaxed and expansive, and I just re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the fortieth or fiftieth time, which always adds greatly to my serenity.

High summer is, however, the worst of times or the best of times, for yard sales where mechanical equipment is being sold.

Don't stop me now...

In the last two weekends I have purchased the following broken or run-down motorized equipment:

1) A small Poulan weedwhacker, starts hard but runs, needs some carb TLC, five bucks

2) A small and very ancient post-hole digger, motor completely shot, but will take a new (secondhand) motor someday, fifteen bucks

3) A much larger Cub Cadet four-stroke weedwhacker, pictured, already repaired and running well, ten bucks

4) A Craftsman five-horse mower, pictured, fires but won't run, needs carb rebuild, ten bucks

5) A 2-inch pneumatic brad nailer, works well, ten bucks

In addition to these items requiring mechanical attention, I also stripped most of the bed off the farm truck, the better to get at a combined muffler and rear brake line replacement job.

You can see the new muffler kit behind the weedwhacker.

The short, very rusty pipe in the last picture (of the truck's rear area) is the one that needs to be replaced right now. But to be on the safe side, I'm replacing all the brake lines that are in the road salt zone.

Even after nearly 210,000 miles the engine bay of this truck is still rust-free, and the cab itself is nearly rust free, but the rear end is another matter. last year I chipped away at much of the rust with an air chisel, then cleaned up much of the rest with the wire brush on the angle grinder. Finally, I gave the whole rear end two coats of red oxide primer.

Even so, there's still rust, new rust and old rust, and I may do some more air-chisel/angle-grinder/undercoating work before I put this baby back on the road.

To say I enjoy mechanical work is an understatement. It really doesn't matter to me how beat up or run-down a piece of equipment is. I can always get some pleasure out of trying to fix it.

What I like best, I think, is the trial-and-error logic process. I also enjoy the unhurried feeling I have when confronting a mechanical issue, especially on the farm in summer. There's just me and the piece of equipment, and I can study the problem for as long as I want, stripping it down as I go until I get to the faulty parts, and then just go find or make whatever replacement parts I need. The Internet is a real boon to the farmyard or dooryard mechanic, if he or she is computer savvy. Most manuals and parts lists are now available online, and spare and replacement parts can be found speedily from online parts houses and even Google shopping.

But I also have welding gear and other fabrication tools and a huge pile of saved parts from all kinds of equipment, but of which I can use to make or adapt my own parts.

Mechanical repair work is a very meditative process. I've been properly taught to meditate, by both Buddhists and Quakers, and although these days I never attempt a proper sitting meditation, I certainly do lots of mechanical meditation.

Pirsig was right. There is definitely a kind of Zen to it all.

The important thing is not to fix the equipment, but yourself. What is most important is the control you achieve over your own mind during the process of fixing the equipment, and the balance and serenity that results.

Zen masters talk about "just sitting." I could talk about "just fixing." It's the same thing.

By just sitting or just fixing, you can begin to subtract your ego and the problems your ego causes in both your own self and in the machine.

Most mechanical problems are in fact personal problems. To paraphrase Pirsig, the real machine you're working on is a machine called yourself.

By working properly on both at once, you build balance and serenity in yourself, which then allows a more perfect use of reason.

You can also then take that balance and serenity, and more perfect use of reason, to other areas of life's endeavor. You can even put it to use for society.

Most societal problems are personal problems writ large and magnified by the unintended consequences of all our collective personality problems working together. If even one person can build balance and serenity and employ reason more perfectly, than that person can create an oasis within society where things work, for once, because personal problems are not allowed to ruin the machine.

You could become a wind researcher, for instance, learning where the wind power is and what problems there are that will be caused for people by using the wind power.

That's definitely a job that needs the use of a more perfect reason. There's an awful lot of unreason in the wind power business in Maine, from both activists and corporations, and in the energy business in general in the United States.

Or you could be a better teacher. That is definitely a job where a more perfect use of reason would come in handy.

For me, the phrase "day job" means teaching, which is much harder than fixing or even wind research. Teaching is a real challenge because it doesn't build serenity for me the way that mechanical work does.

There's not much Zen in teaching, it seems.

Actually, that's not quite true. If, and it's a big if, you have all the time in the world to work with the student and all his or her hang-ups, and your own hang-ups about the student, one step at a time, one student at a time, then teaching is all about Zen.

But this kind of concentration of time and effort and serenity rarely happens. Instead of working properly on every student, and every student's personality, and every instructor and every instructors personality, one step at a time, building balance and serenity as we go, and developing a more perfect use of reason in student and instructor, most teachers are in fact doubly employed.

We're hired as teachers for students who do want to learn, but society also wants us to be, at the same time, baby-sitters for students who don't want to learn. And this second role subtracts greatly from the first.

I'm not a baby-sitter. I'm a fixer, an applied scientist who, given time and funds and equipment, can figure out the answers to all kinds of difficult problems using reason.

Don't send me your kids who don't want to learn. Find them a baby sitter.

Send me the ones who do.

The world is full of problems for them to fix, if they can just learn the art of just fixing.

Thursday, July 7, 2011


There hadn't been enough rain. The garden was dry and dusty. A storm over the weekend dropped enough moisture to create a temporary smear in the sheep's grain dishes, but not enough to wet the soil.

The same storm produced golf-ball sized hail a few miles to the north. But barely any moisture, frozen or otherwise, on this spot.

I almost broke out the sprinklers, which we rarely need here in Maine, but another storm was forecast for Wednesday night. I watched it come on the weather map, just to make sure the "widely scattered" storm cells weren't going to dodge around the farm, but it hit us pretty good, with three-quarters of an inch of rain.

The storm came out of the western mountains like most of our Maine thunderstorms do, and so once it passed, we had a very strange sunset, with interesting pink-orange light all around the farmyard.

This morning the rain was still heavy on the grass, and it looked as though weeds had sprung up overnight in the garden. A few potatoes and tomatoes had been struck down by the downpour. The potato plants will recover, but we'll have to tend to the tomatoes. I was fixing tomato cages over the weekend and ran out, needing about twenty more. Without cages some of our plants fell over. I'll have to see if I can't find some cages at the hardware store today so I can pick the plants back up.

Even so, we needed the rain and I was glad to see it.

Monday, July 4, 2011

At the parade

Haggis and I went to watch the July 4th parade in the nearby town of Brooks, Maine.

I like to take Haggis with me when I go somewhere like this. He's so very well behaved around other people that he's a real pleasure to be with. He just hangs out and accepts everyone's admiration and petting like it's his natural due and nothing could be more routine.

A prince among dogs is Mr. Haggis.

Despite the fact that he's named after a generally suspicious Scottish sausage.

American parades are always fun for an ex-pat Brit. I've been in rather too many British military parades, but the American variety are way more fun. They are noisy with horn-honking, sirens and music, exuberant, and feature the internal combustion engine and all its derivative transportation forms in large measure.

Here's Paul, formerly the owner of the best hardware store in Maine (now sadly a shadow of its former self thanks to the numpties that took it over), on his retiree's muscle bike, in his American Legion uniform.

Paul is a US Navy vet.

The sign on the Brooks Fire Department engine says "Thank God for Volunteers."

Amen to that.

There were motorcycles, vintage cars, horses, and even quite a few goats.

Why goats? I have no idea. Maybe Aimee and I should enter with our sheep next year.

Aimee could go as Bo-Peep.

The best float I saw was the bluegrass band. They were playing as they went by.

Paraders threw candy, particularly Tootsie Rolls. I scooped up a few for Aimee because she likes Tootsie Rolls.

Friday, July 1, 2011

New camera for the 4th!

Aimee and I took a rare together-shopping trip to Bangor today. This happens rarely because Aimee hates the way I shop -- I either dawdle too much or I make my mind up too fast. But we had to go to a funeral together first, and so we thus had to shop together.

Yes, that's right. Someone had to die before my wife would take me shopping.

Which meant I got a new camera. I'd been bidding on cameras like the one Aimee has on eBay, but had lost all my auctions. Then Aimee came up with a discount coupon for Best Buy, and so we decided to get me a new camera while we were in town.

After all these years of breaking second-hand digital cameras, I couldn't make myself get even a moderately-priced one. We got the cheapest regular-sized digital camera in the store, but it takes video and has a decent size memory.

Couldn't find any steel-toed work boots, though. My old ones have blown out, but there were none in my size that I liked.

Here are pictures of her Royal Aimee-ness with her subject chickens, ruling the roost, the herb and rose garden out front which is just lush and fragrant and colorful right now, and the sheep going gangbusters on their holiday gift -- a protein block with molasses, which will give them the selenium missing from Maine soil and plants.

Failed the test!

I should know better than to invite wifely ridicule by posting this story, but I would hate to deprive a few readers I know of a smile or a laugh, so here goes.

I wanted to get my motorcycle license endorsement. This was very silly of me, according to Aimee, who has no place in her cosmos for the humble motorized bicycle, but nevertheless I wanted to get it, against all wifely wisdom and economic common sense.

I had previously owned a motorcycle license, and even a couple of different motorcycles, when I lived in Montana, but I was literally so broke when I came to Maine to work at the college all those years ago, still struggling to finish up that expensive education, that I couldn't afford the extra twenty bucks to transfer the license over.

At the time I told myself I was done with motorcycles anyway, that from here on out such frivolity would be disallowed, that instead I would work hard and marry and raise a farm and maybe a family, and so it wouldn't matter that I didn't have the twenty bucks for the permit transfer.

That was before the price of gas went up. And I had forgotten how pleasurable it could be to ride a motorcycle, especially one you've repaired yourself.

The fact of that matter is, I just like fixing things that go. I always have, since I got my first motorcycle at age 15. A very silly Italian 50 cc two-stroke trail bike, it had a major problem, a broken crankshaft, and so I only paid fifty pounds for it, but I replaced the crank and, miracle of miracles, made it go, and thus began a major career of repairing everything from excavators to fighter jets.

I'd actually rather repair airplanes than cycles, and there are even a couple of flying clubs around that I could join, but cycles are cheaper. I enjoy classic cars, but they take up a lot of room, and you pretty much need to keep them in a building here in Maine in the winter. I like old tractors, but only really need one tractor on this farm, and I have that already. I'm definitely going to get an old Land Rover to replace the Nissan farm truck when it dies, but that Nissan seems to want to live on forever, no surprise given the love and care it gets, and so the Land Rover will have to wait.

A man only ever needs to buy one Land Rover in his life, anyway.

A major Nissan brake overhaul is going to be required this fall, as soon as I have the money for parts, which job I'm already looking forward to, but we're not ready to do that job yet, because when we do the truck will be off the road for a few weeks, and we still have some summer farm chores to do and the brakes still work.

So, motorcycles are the best alternative, and getting my license just a step on the project road.

I suppose I could fix lawn mowers, but that seems a little low, don't you think. Another of these crusty old Maine guys that tinkers with lawn mowers and has a shed full of them, always for sale.

I'd have to smoke a pipe too, if I were to do that. Those fellas always smoke pipes. And Aimee wouldn't like that.

Anyway, a guy can dream, can't he? I'd really like to have some old British bikes. One of these days I'm going to build a really superb workshop here on this farm, a bright, clean, heated, fully electrifried, epoxy-floored palace, a veritable Taj Mahal of maintenance technology, and when I do, I'll have a BSA or even a Matchless to love and feed and water in that workshop.

Just because.

Aimee of course sees all such occupations as a total waste of money and a complete and utter diversion from what husbands should be doing, which is all the heavy work around the farm, and the endless honey-do list.

But a guy can dream, can't he?

Accordingly, a couple of years ago, and against wifely advice and instruction, I took the Motorcycle Safety Class and got a two-year learner's permit, which in Maine makes you legal to drive any motorcycle without a passenger within the hours of daylight. But at the end of two years, or before, you have to take the road test, or at least take another written test and get another two year permit

My two years were almost up, and so I scheduled a road test. It seemed best, a better investment than another two-year jobbie. I didn't have a bike, but thought to borrow or rent one. I found a buddy at work with a scooter, and was able to get the loan of it to take the test.

The great day arrived.

And rapidly went haywire.

The first blow to my plans was that the Internet (bloody FairPoint again!) was down at our place and so I couldn't look up directions to Belfast Methodist Church, which apparently doubles as a Maine DMV road test center during the week.

Still, I thought, I have time. Lots of time.

I didn't want to have to drive such a tiny scooter all the way from its home in Thorndike to Belfast, where the test was scheduled to be held, and so I went looking for the motorcycle ramp I had made a couple years ago, when I was tinkering with an old Yamaha Virago. Then I drove the farm truck over to my buddy's house and we loaded the scooter, a 125 cc Yamaha with Vespa-like styling. He showed me how to get into the storage compartment under the seat where the inspection sticker and registration were stowed. I drove away with plenty of time to get to the test site and unload and drive around a bit to get used to scooter. Organized, on time, thought-through. Going well.

So I thought.

It was as I was driving away that I realized I'd left both my Instruction Permit and my Motorcycle Safety Class certificate in my den at home. These silly slips of paper were on the list of official documents I needed to take the road test.

Looking back, forgetting these slips was the actual moment I failed the test. Everything else that went wrong was just a cascading chain of events from this moment. I just didn't know it yet.

I could have stopped right here and saved myself all kinds of trouble.

So, watching the time now, I drove back home first to get the stupid slips. This was about an extra fifteen miles of driving on a bad Maine road, and I began to feel the cortisol flooding my system as I bounced down the stupid rutted back road short cut, hoping I'd strapped the bike on well enough, watching it in my rear view mirror.

I hadn't, of course, and so another five minutes were wasted with ratchet straps. I don't know how you feel about ratchet straps, but I like them fine, until I start to get stressed, and then they don't work so well. I was all fingers and thumbs.

Things were not looking so good.

Then there were the durn roadworks.

Maine has two seasons, it is often said, winter and road-mending. Our harsh winters do for our roads and so they must be fixed every year, more or less. Added to this imperative, the famous or infamous stimulus package came with a lot of bridge money, and so pretty much the whole road system of the great State o' Maine is under bridge repair right about now.

Tourists be damned, The tourists come anyway. They must like sitting in two-mile long lines of traffic on Highway One. I suppose it's a much more scenic traffic jam than they can find in Jersey or inside Boston's I-495 or, increasing, from within the M-25 London beltway.

(What was it Bette Midler said in "Big Business"? Eurotrash!)

Two sets of bridge works on Route 7 ate up my last ten minutes. It was just 10 am when I pulled into Belfast, and I still didn't know where to go! More stress hormone. I knew that the best place to get directions to a road test would be the downtown parts store, and I was right, but it took ten minutes, and the silly church wasn't even really in Belfast, but across the bridge almost in Searsport, and so by the time I pulled into the church parking lot, my hands were shaking, and I hadn't even unloaded the cycle yet.

The official ladies behind the desk in the church's community room were polite but firm. I was late. I'd better go get my sticker and registration pronto or my test would be cancelled. I tried to explain that I needed a moment to clam down, but they didn't seem to get that at all.

Back out on the bed of the truck, straps all askew, I tried my hardest to get the durn luggage compartment open, hands shaking, mind a blur. There was a trick to this that my buddy had showed me. You had to turn the key back to a special position, push, click, and that was how it was supposed to happen. Pops right up. Right under the seat.

Neato. Or so it seemed in my buddy's driveway.

But it wasn't happening for me. I prayed. I twisted. I turned. I tried every combination. I finally realized if I just forced the seat up, I could slip my hand in and grab the plastic bag with the sticker. I ran into the building with my papers.

But the testing lady wasn't having any of this. Too late. Couldn't do it. Very sorry, but you were supposed to be here, ready to go, thirty-five minutes ago.

More to explain to myself what the heck it was that I was going to do now, I said despondently if that was the case, then I probably wasn't going to take the silly test, ever. It was just too much trouble I said, to take the stupid safety class, and find a borrowed bike, and get over here to this stupid out-of-the-way site, to take the silly test. And of course, in the back of my mind was what Aimee would think of all this. And I suppose I must have seemed pretty downhearted.

Miracle of miracles, the test ladies relented.

If I could get the bike off the truck in the next two minutes, I could take the test.

Now, if you can at all imagine, a 250 pound guy who spends his summers splitting wood and wrangling 80-pound anemometer tower parts can always find a way to get a little tiny bike like that off a truck in two minutes, but that probably isn't quite the way you want to watch him get a bike off a truck.

And it certainly didn't do anything for my nervousness. Neither did the two-way helmet radio they gave me, with the somewhat shrill test lady instructions ringing in my ears. Now I know what it's like to hear voices in your head telling you what to do!

Voices other than Aimee's, that is. I hear her voice in my head all the time.

Never mind the fact that I'd never ridden this bike before. My pulse rate must have been a hundred and five as I fired up the bike and ran through the light checks.

None of it mattered in the end. It wasn't my road handling of the unfamiliar bike that killed me. It was forgetting to look over my left shoulder when moving from a right hand to a left hand lane in a one-way system.

Do you know how many one-way systems there actually are in the great State o' Maine?

Not many, that's for sure. So, of course I forget to look over my shoulder. I checked both mirrors. I used my flasher. I kept the proper lane position in both lanes. I remembered to cancel the flasher when I got done with the lane change.

But I didn't look over my stupid shoulder.

Actually, I though I did pretty well myself, especially on the so called "hill start". This is where you need to be pointing diagonally uphill, with your back wheel against a curb as if parked, and then move out into the road. The test designers probably don't know about automatic clutch scooters that have to be turned off and rolled if you want to go downhill backwards, and neither did I as I tried to follow the instructions, but I figured it out totally on the fly.

I was strangely calm as I received my test results. The test lady was unfailingly polite. I was polite in return. Very British. Stiff upper wotsit. Manners are everything in moments of stress. The Queen would be proud. I told myself another two years of a learner's permit wouldn't kill my motorcycle fixer-upper plans, if ever I could find a few hundred extra wife-free dollars to buy some kind of fixer-upper project anyway.

I began the project of righting my keel, metaphorically speaking. I did it very deliberately, the stress hormone antidote. I loaded my scooter much more carefully than I unloaded it. I strapped it down extremely carefully, making sure to appreciate the ratchet straps fully. I very slowly did a couple of other Belfast chores. I even got myself a cup of coffee and a slice of pie at the food coop, ignoring the flipping tourists dawdling around in the aisles.

(Why do they have to stroll so slowly, and annoyingly, through our food store? One somnambulant tourist family in your supermarket would be enough, but we get ten or fifteen of them at once, and it's a very small store. One of these days I'm going to go to their store, wherever that is, and leave fifty untended shopping carts with broken wheels in their aisles, at 6.30 on a Friday evening, when they're desperate to get home with dinner. We'll see how they like it! Is this madness? Do I need to see a doctor?)

Then I drove to my buddy's house. Luckily he was out, so I didn't have to tell anyone how badly I'd done. I unloaded the scooter yet more slowly and carefully. I drove home very slowly indeed. I fed the dogs and tended to the sheep and pigs and chickens. I stashed my motorcycle test papers away nicely. I even read through the form to apply for another two year permit.

And I took a very long nap and slept it off.

And then, and only then, I told my wife.