The Old Shell Game (for lack of a better title) | Cultivate

Please support me. After thinking of a clever headline for the March/April Tech Tips column in Antique Power, I’m all ‘headlined’. The above was one of the first to be rejected. The article is about the use of spent shotgun shells to plug dirt-sensitive lines and fittings while a tractor being repaired awaits the inevitable parts acquisition period.

The title I found is “Fired – But Still on the Job”. Pretty smart, huh? Well, maybe. The title was inspired by a New Jersey mechanic, “Beet” (probably shortened from something Polish) who was struggling to find his way back to work after lunch at a local tavern. It wasn’t unusual – the tavern part, I mean. This area is very close to Manhattan, the home of the 3 martini executive lunch. So having lunch in the bars and drinking lightly was acceptable. Not going back to work wasn’t (unless you were the boss ‘making a deal’ which meant the first beer hit you like a freight train and you were on a roll ).

Beet would show up the next day and be well engaged before the boss arrived to fire him. So the boss had to wait for Beet to finish the job, the parts of which were nowhere to be found until he installed them. But the boss eventually fired him, and Beet kept coming back the next day. I guess the boss thought Beet just didn’t remember. Beet was successful 5 times before finally kicking him out of the store and promoting him to part-time sales to fit his schedule.

So what happens in an Antique Power tech article? Well, first you have to have the idea. In the strictest sense, this could be a normal repair procedure, but Intertech Publishing, Jensales, and the manufacturer’s repair manuals have it pretty well covered. The key word here is “tips” – clever shortcuts and forgotten old innovations revisited. (I welcome readers’ ideas. I’ll credit you by name in the magazine and make sure you get a copy if your suggestion gets published.)

First step: write captions for the article and photos; then send them to the editor for approval. Make an extra copy of the photo captions for the photographer. I had a rare exceptional shine attack during a photoshoot at Avonlea Farm in White Post, Va. a few months ago for an article that just came out today. Our little entourage moved to Longwood Farm, near Millwood, where I had the farm’s International 684 tractor scrapped to replace the water pump. The tractor’s power steering cylinder lines had to be disconnected and tied out of the way.

The cylinder pipe fittings were plugged with black 16 gauge shotgun shells. The photographer, Ellie Kenney of Fort Ashby, suggested I change the hull color for better contrast. I replaced them with red 12 gauge.

Next comes the task of getting more seashells for a picture showing the different sizes. Out the back door and across the backyard with a double armful of shotguns – 12, 16 and .410 gauge. I’ve almost finished half the job.

I didn’t anticipate any trouble finding .28 caliber shells – here’s why. About a year ago I arrived at the private farm museum near Middleburg to find Ray McHenry and a friend shooting targets with .28 caliber shotguns. I pulled out any old blunderbuss from 12 gauge that I had at the time and joined them for a fun afternoon. Ray told me that 28 caliber pistols are enjoying increasing popularity. I was thus assured that there would be many empty casings around. Nope. It turned out that loaded 28 caliber shells were quite common, but I needed a spent shell.

Antique Power is moving rather cautiously in this age of litigation. It’s for good reason – tinkering on tractors can hurt you. Old tractors are not very happy with disputes, but there is always the possibility of an exception. I can’t photograph a live shell in the unlikely event that someone somewhere might interpret that to mean they should use a live shell to plug a hole and maybe hammer it if it fits properly.

With the deadline looming, I called Ray McHenry and arranged to stop by his house in Philomont, Virginia and pick up some used shells. In the ensuing conversation, Ray mentioned that while the gauge was growing in popularity, 28 gauge enthusiasts tended to be a close-knit bunch. Apparently yes.

Eldred Kidwell from Levels had agreed to help me with my 20 gauge requirements. On my way home from Philomont, my wife Stephanie called to tell me that Eldred’s wife, Wanda (formerly famous for Whitetails Only), gave him two 20 caliber shells. Now we cook with gas. At home I found that the signals had crossed somehow and that the 2 shells were still live. I don’t have the gun to shoot them, but luckily the photographer’s family does. Let’s move on to the dilemma of the 10 gauge.

A writer uses his connections. I have 2 possible 10 gauge shooters on the list, who I haven’t spoken to in years. This might make the situation a bit tricky. Also, I was quickly depleting my “expense account”. Antique Power sends 4 copies of the magazine plus my subscription copy with my check. I am distributing these copies among the people who have helped me with the articles.

So far we go to Cary Embury of Longwood Farm; another to Cliff Sofia of CS Arms, Upperville, Virginia; a 3rd to Ray McHenry; and a 4th to Eldred and Wanda Kidwell. That leaves only my personal subscription copy, which I will distribute, if necessary, in a pinch.

I happened to have a partial box of 10-gauge live ammunition. Separating one of those huge live shells to make it look fired, I began to consider the explosive potential of a 10-gauge shell. What if the pneumatic drill or large sheet metal screw I used to separate the hull somehow ignited the abundant powder charge. I started to feel like I was defusing a bomb – probably because I was.

A box containing the seashells and a few other paraphernalia went to Ellie’s, and she will take it away after emptying the

In Ohio, for example, an editor is fine-tuning text while the graphics department organizes space for photos that will soon arrive by email. In West Virginia, an old mechanic and a little photographer fire shotguns in their respective backyards. Two middle-aged ladies pass ammunition. In Northern Virginia, an old tractor spent shells protecting the power steering cylinders while the mechanic sues in Loudoun County for 2 more odd-sized shells. A bomb is defused. “Just another day in Mudville.” – From “Casey at the Bat” by EL Thayer, San Francisco Examiner, June 3, 1888

First published January 7, 2015

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