Saturday, July 14, 2007

Two-stroke Memories

Riding around on the Chinese-made, faux Vespa, motor scooter I bought a couple of months ago has reacquainted me with the rasping, sputtering two-stroke internal combustion engines of my boyhood.

I suppose the first time I grappled with such a chattering mechanical heart was negotiating with the balky law mower I guided through the muggy summer days in northern Illinois.

We always owned Jacobsen lawn mowers for some reason. Maybe it was because in Rockford, Illinois, we lived with so many Swedes — Andersons, Nelsons, Johnsons. Jacobsens were a distinctive orange and you had to yank a cord repeatedly until the lawn mower/two-stroke gods decided to bless you with a sputtering cough. You knew then that with a couple more yanks the engine would kick in.

The lawn was immense. I don’t just mean that it seemed immense because I was 10 or 11 and was dwarfed by the expanse. It must have been an acre or more. It may have taken an hour and a half of constant diminished circling to mow it, section by section.

The other two-stroke engine in my life back then was a Mercury five-horse (or was it 10?) outboard on the back of a 14-foot Alumacraft open rowboat. Thinking back on it now, I don’t know why my parents allowed me at the age of 10 or so to set out from our dock in the country at 7 a.m.

Sitting in the rear, hand on the tiller/throttle of the engine, I’d guide the boat down the Rock River, past the islands and the wooded banks and around sand bars to the Auburn Street Bridge in town where I would tie up and then walk 12 or so blocks to P.R. Walker Elementary School.

The trip down the river was probably six miles or so. The water hid its hazards, floating chunks of wood, shifting channels. The most dangerous was the early morning fog that clung to the river and could cut visibility down to the bow of the boat and little more.

I knew the river well and was never intimidated by navigating virtually blind. But then I was young and didn’t know enough to be afraid. What my parents were thinking is a mystery. Perhaps I never told them about the fog. Each morning was all a great adventure, this going to school by boat.

It was cold on those autumn mornings, though the river would surprise me with patches of warmth. I’ve been reminded of them on the scooter, which also moves through cool and warm patches no one in a car can feel. Swing off the Ross Island Bridge onto Barbur and suddenly the temperature drops on these warm summer days. The changes come and go suddenly, like those a swimmer feels in a lake. Like those a solitary boy in a boat felt on a river decades ago.

And then there is that rasp and chatter of the two-stroke. Across the years, the little engine has proclaimed that what is asked of it is work, hard work. Be grateful it says, grateful for the noisy help, the mowing of the vast lawn, the push of propeller against the muddy river, the driving of the wheels that carry me up Barbur Boulevard and Capitol Highway, that take me to Hillsdale and my home.

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