The sun had gone down with the temperature and it was a full moon that illuminated the three of us and the bulldozer – giving us some of that special energy, too, as we worked silently to finish the this thing that had taken all day. The anti-freeze was in, the fresh oil, a few squirts of ether past the air filter, and the 6 litre engine spluttered to life belching out clouds of smoke that brought the others outside to witness the resurrection of a friendly monster feared dead.
This monster is an International Harvester TD-9 – a caterpillar tracked bulldozer born the same year as me, 1972. A few days previously, just when Bruce was giving Radka some lessons on how to drive it, the head gasket had blown. For a minute, there had been confusion as Bruce listened to the dying engine, thinking how different its sound was when standing beside it rather than controlling it, sitting high up where Radka was looking worried, surrounded by a bunch of levers and hydraulic hoses. Then, as realization dawned that something was fatally wrong with this forty year old beast, Bruce brought it back down to its shed and, before shutting it off, we listened to the boiling water and the hissing exhaust fumes that told us what the problem was, standing back finally to ponder the practicalities and implications of stripping the head and fixing the thing. Fixing up old vehicles is always an interesting kind of activity. There is something fundamental about it – bringing back to life a collection of parts that is only a few decisions away from being consigned to the scrap heap – its identity hovers between intentional function and rude, raw substance. For me, the whole ceremony consists of three basic rites, which I will simply call Stages 1,2 and 3.
Stage 1 (staring at the machine and thinking what to do) had passed quick enough – the falling snow, icy roads and occasional vehicle that had to be rescued meant that we couldn’t spend too long feeling sorry for ourselves – the bulldozer was an integral part of how Owlhead Creek BnB operates. First of all, Bruce had to confirm his intention to continue. This is perhaps the most important thing; to decide if the TD-9 was worth saving or whether he should cut his losses and buy a newer, working machine. It is an affirmation of intention – a confirmation, too, of affection for the object in question – that drives anyone to do anything that might seem, at first glance, to be beyond them. But as soon as this point has passed and a feeling of ‘yes, let’s do it!’ settles upon the mind then a flood of thoughts are released that focus on the task at hand: We have to get a new gasket, not just the head gasket but a whole gasket set; we have to find out the torque settings for the head-bolts and determine the order of their tightening; we will need to re-clear the valves; oil change and new oil filter; we’ll have to winch that heavy head off and get it checked. And we have to proceed quickly and efficiently, we told ourselves as the snow fell lightly but persistently.
Stage 2 (taking the machine apart). It took us most of the next day to to accomplish the removal of the air intake assembly, exhaust manifold, push rods and rocker cover, allowing us to winch the 200 lb head up and clear. This big machine with its simple construction allowed an easy disassembly; the engine is open and set out like a giant Meccano model – we didn’t have to waste too much time fiddling around with inaccessible bolts or endure squeezing our frozen fingers between chunks of cold, cold metal, prizing them free from their housing and the only real difficulty about working on a caterpillar tracked vehicle is that it’s very difficult to retrieve a dropped spanner as there’s no little space to get underneath.
Stage 3 (calling in the mechanic): We took the head to a machinist in nearby Salmon Arm to check for any warping and to get it skimmed flat and from there we drove to Brown International – the regional centre for anyone wanting to repair a dozer or buy spare parts.
Both places advised us on what to check and look out for prior to putting the head back on and, given the importance of doing this perfectly, Bruce decided to hire one of Brown’s mechanics to come and finish the job. Thus, on a cold morning, Bruce and I were joined by Russell, who arrived in a workshop-on-wheels kind of truck; the sort of truck, and type of mechanic, in fact, that you would want to follow you around the world if you were ever foolish enough to undertake the ultimate challenge. During the course of this third day, a few issues presented themselves: a headbolt bore hole needed rethreading twice after the first attempt saw the new thread snap and get stuck inside (the guilty tool unfortunately didn’t break across the ‘Made in England’ stamp along its side, I saw, wondering if tools made in England should ever be specified for use in the Canadian winter); the stays on the rocker arm assembly had disintegrated, requiring replacements fabricated from copper pipe; and the setting of the twelve valves according to the position of the six pistons is always confusing – starting at Top Dead Centre, the procedure quickly descends into pure magic as far as I, the observer, can make out.