Monday, November 21, 2011

Breath and Engineering

November Sunday. Two words that, together, do not ordinarily conjure up images of bare feet and air-kiss breezes. And, yet, on this November Sabbath, the sun which is growing more visibly distant each day seems to have slipped back into the parlor with a wink and a flirtatious smile for one final curtsey to summer.

I am driving Daddy over to the Waters Place to move a tractor – not an ox-in-the-ditch kind of thing. More a good-reason-to-be-out-in-the-sunshine kind of thing. Cotton fields rimmed by maple trees in the height of fall flame remind me of candy canes, the Canadian flag, Santa’s suit. There should be a better word than vivid.

I am tempted to roll down the windows, but, temperature notwithstanding, it is still fall, there is still pollen, and Singulair ain’t cheap.

When we get to the field, Daddy asks me to wait until he gets the tractor cranked. Apparently there is some reason to believe it might not start. He hops into the cab, grabs an unusually long screwdriver and hops back down. The engine cover on the tractor opens like a coffin. The inside is a dark and oily conglomeration of cylinders and coils.

He thrusts the screwdriver into the belly of the beast like a dagger. The target appears to have been a cylinder wrapped in a coil.

"What are you doing?" I ask.

"Bleeding out the air. There’s a teeny little leak somewhere in the line. Haven’t had the time to fix it, so just have to bleed it out to crank it."

The absence of a subjective pronoun doesn’t bother me so much as the idea of bleeding air. It doesn’t sound right. Bleeding involves blood, not air. And bleeding is, as a general rule, involuntary. And not something one does deliberately.

The diesel engine coughs, catches, settles into the syncopated rhythm that is as soothing to me as a lullaby. The engine cover falls with a tinny clank and Daddy lifts his hand to release me from my post. He is back in the cab with one springing step and, by the time I reach the field gate, he’s right behind me headed home.

I watch him in my rear-view mirror for a couple hundred yards then turn onto the paved road, headed toward the recycling center where I will empty the back of the Escape of bins of magazines and newspapers and plastic bottles and aluminum cans in my small attempt at some kind of penance for my consumption. Even when he is out of view I am still thinking about bleeding air.

In the context of mechanical engineering it is, obviously, a positive thing, a remedy for an ill, but I can’t shake the feeling that in the context of living it is anything but.

In the Genesis story of creation it is the breath of God that introduces Adam’s soul into the clay sculpture that is his body and most other cultures and religions also invoke the breath as that which carries life. We acknowledge the power of an experience or the beauty of an object by saying that it takes our breath away. It is with breath, with air that we speak, that we sing, that we kiss. It is how each of us demonstrates our unique humanity. Surely there is no legitimate reason for its being deliberately bled away.

Except, of course, I realize with a suddenness that causes my eyes to widen, when you’ve been holding your breath. When you’ve been living in limbo. When you’ve been sitting on a fence so long that you’ve worn the wood smooth and can’t feel the splinters anymore. Because when that is where you are, it just may take a screwdriver jabbed into the coils of your chest to force out the stale air so the fresh can get in.

And at that point, the best you can do is pray that the farmer with the screwdriver is someone you can trust.
Copyright 2011

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