“Yah, sounds like you’re doin’ that about
right,” he said, and inside I glowed a little.
There are certain skills every man ought to
have, and knowing how to put an edge on a
blade is prime among them; to have Tom’s
approval is doubly meaningful. I described to
him how I swing the scythe, hoping he might
give me some advice on how to better handle
the thing, but he just said, “Yah, that’s pretty
much how you do it.”
I was feeling expansive, not just because of
his approval but also because I imagined that
it must be heartening for him, the old-timer,
to know that some of us in the trailing genera-
tions are taking up the old ways again and
doing our best to preserve fundamental tradi-
tions. The scythe is a cultural baton, and I am
passing it into the future.
“Y’know what really works good?” asked Tom.
I gave him my full attention, determined
to keep my scatterbrain in focus so that whatever secret he was about to share I would be
able to carry it forward, hand it to my own children, be a living link.
“One a’ them gas-powered weed whackers!”
but farmers still come around to have him
turn out parts for their quarter-million-dollar
computerized machines. “The lathe is the king
of tools,” says Tom, “because if you need some-
thing, you can make it.”
No one taught Tom any of this. “You get
good books and read ’em,” he says. On the shelf
behind his chair in the kitchen you’ll see cop-
ies of The Complete Modern Blacksmith and
Tricks & Secrets of Old-Time Machinists. “But
eventually you just have to dive in,” he says.
“You can read all the books you want about
how to ride a bicycle . . .”
Tom’s barn with six tractors of the same make—in case one breaks.
on two wheels, Tom tried four. He got himself
a white ’ 49 Chevy convertible and a red shirt.
Arlene was at work in her second-story office
when she saw him coming this time, rolling
downtown with the top down, that scarlet
shirt playing off the white car. When she tells
the story now, her eyes glint as if she’s seeing
him coming up the street for the first time.
They’ve been married 59 years now.
“I say love is a disease everybody gets,” says
Tom. “Some people catch it quite often!”
“Thomas!” says Arlene. Then she says she has
her heart set on making that 60th anniversary.
TOM MAKES HIS OWN CANNONS AND SHOOTS
them. He owns a 19-pound cat named Mister
Bigshot and a three-legged dog named Cassidy
(Hopalong—get it?), and back in the day he was
famous for riding in local parades behind his
matched oxen, Chester and Lester. He keeps
bees, brews his own hooch but doesn’t drink it,
has a homemade snowblower that spews snow
in a 50-foot arc, and says that by the time he
finished building a sawmill out back, he’d used
over 100 pounds of welding rods. He has slept
beneath the same farmhouse roof for all of his
82 years, mostly in peace and quiet until the
government blasted an interstate through his
barnyard. Now 23,200 vehicles rush past
his porch every day, around the clock. That’s
nearly 8. 5 million howling engines a year. You’d
think he’d be tempted to turn that cannon
loose on the passing lane.
I visit Tom whenever I need a piece of iron
cut, bent, or welded. Sometimes I visit in the
company of my wife and two daughters; we
bring food and stay for supper. Sometimes I
visit to drop off some homegrown pork chops
or a dozen eggs. Sometimes I visit just to visit.
I rarely come to Tom seeking anything more
than 10 minutes of his time and a size 6011
welding rod. He is not my mentor, I am not his
acolyte; we are simply neighbors.
Tom’s workshop looks like an antique store
that’s been stocked by Rube Goldberg, curated
by Hunter Thompson, and rearranged by a
small earthquake. Everything you can imagine
is in there, from deconstructed engines to partially finished cannons. In the darkest corner
sits a 3-ton lathe. Why such a big lathe?
“Because you can do a little job on a big lathe,
but you can’t do a big job on a little lathe,” he
says, grinning. The lathe is older than Tom is,
He keeps bees, brews hooch, and built
a snowblower that spews snow 50 feet
Back when he was a young man, Tom would
head for town when the chores were done, riding his brand-new 1948 Harley-Davidson. To
make sure the ladies noticed him, Tom had a
special setup: First he wove decorative green
and red lights through the front wheel spokes,
and then he rigged a pair of generator brushes
so they contacted a copper band soldered to
the brake drum. Finally he wired a switch that
drew power from the low-beam headlight.
When he hit that switch, he says, the bike lit
up like a rolling Christmas tree.
Arlene Knutson was in church the first time
she heard the Harley. Tom raced it full throttle
right up the sidewalk, and when he invited her
to hop on, Arlene said she wasn’t riding on any
motorcycle. Sensing he was at a disadvantage
But then the call comes. Tom is in the hospi-
tal. He was going to get the mail and fell. The
next day he fell again. Turned out to be a stroke.
To relieve the pressure, the surgeons had to lift
a piece of his skull. You can tell Tom grilled them
because when I visit the hospital, he describes
the surgery in great detail. Quite the same way,
in fact, that he would describe a tricky move on
the lathe. He talks about how they drilled the
burr holes, the dimensions of the piece of skull
removed, and the parts list for the repair. “I got
three titanium plates, and each a’ them has four
titanium screws. That’s how they held the lid on.
When I saw the x-ray, I said to Arlene, ‘I thought
they went to Kmart and got pop rivets!’”
The surgeon said he drained most of the
blood, but a little air bubble remained.