Benjamin kicked his feet little feet along the gravel road more than walked. His eyes focused more on his loosely clad feet and the next target for a vicious kick, than the world around him. He spotted a good size clod of dirt, stutter stepped, and gave it a mighty kick. Watching in satisfaction as it exploded in a plume of dust and smaller bits of dried mud.
Immediately upon the next step he felt the piece of gravel that invaded his shoe. Without a moment’s hesitation he plopped down on his butt and shoved his finger into the gap between his sole and the canvas. After a moment of digging his finger swept the space between his feet and the worn sole clear of the offending stone.
Mission accomplish he looked up and took stock of his surroundings. He was halfway to his destination. Mr. Moore’s old farm. After his mom told him to go outside and play, he decided he would see what the nice man was up too. He was always working on something, building things, fixing things. Not like moms’ friends. They usually came home with her, often after he went to bed. Benjamin only knew of their arrival because of the racket they would make coming into the house and sometimes for hours afterwards. Then, sometimes, they would stick around for the better part of the next day. Some were nice to Benjamin, some not so much. The friend that was there today just looked at Benjamin like he had antenna sticking out of his head. So, he was glad when mom told him to go outside. She never said where not to go, just to go.
Benjamin rounded the corner of the barn that was Mr. Moore’s long driveway. His forehead was starting to sweat, causing him to look towards the sun. I was high above the eastern horizon, but not as high as he knew it would go. Benjamin hoped Mr. Moore would have some nice cool water. His mouth was starting to dry out on this warm spring day.
Benjamin found Mr. Moore just where he thought he would, in his shed behind his house. Much to Benjamin’s delight Mr. Moore was working on something. Something Benjamin had never seen before.
“Hi Mr. Moore, what’s that?”
“Hey Benjamin,” Mr. Moore said, looking up from the project that lay before him, “it is an engine.”
“What’s an engine?’
“It can make things move.”
Benjamin thought about that for a moment, “You mean like a horse?”
Mr. Moore smiled, “Yes, but faster and it doesn’t need to rest.”
“I like horses.”
“So do I Benjamin.”
“Then why are you making an engine?”
Mr. Moore knew why. He found detailed descriptions of various engines in one of his great grandfathers’ old chests. One of many chests stored in the old storm shelter under the well house. The well house used to be powered by electricity, but that went away some time after the engine. Moore could still see the old cut off power pole about ten feet from the well house. The only reason he knew of such things was because of the copious notes and journals his grandfather kept. Descriptions of the great machines man used to build. Electricity in every home. According to one of the journals, old post road 94 used to be an interstate. A vast span of concrete wide enough for six wagons to roll abreast. Instead of horse drawn wagons, the interstate was used by cars, which used engines. Probably more sophisticated than the one he was now hooking up the corn alcohol line to.
Then he remembered Benjamin’s question, “My hope Benjamin is to be able to pump water out of the ground when the wind doesn’t blow. Maybe generate electricity, and someday, put it on my plow so I can plow the whole field in a day without wearing out the plow horse.”
Benjamin looked at him quizzically. Mr. Moore could see the myriad of questions flashing through the young man’s head. He felt sorry for the kid. The little guy didn’t know who his father was, and his mom seemed to be working herself through the lot looking for a new one. She even approached him one time, but he did not want to tread where so many others all ready had.
“How does it work?” Benjamin finally asked.
“Well Benjamin, I put corn alcohol in this tank. It runs down this tube into this thing here. It’s called a carburetor. The carburetor mixes it with air. Then a spark ignites the mixture to make the engine run. This thing on the front is a radiator which keeps the whole thing from melting.”
He looked at Benjamin, “At least that is how my granddads journals explain it.”
Benjamin made a lap around the engine looking closely at things that piqued his interest, then he looked up at Mr. Moore, “Does it work?”
“It’s your lucky day Benjamin. I was just going through the final checks before trying it out.”
“Give me a couple more minutes and we will try and crank it up.”
Moore looked at the crank on the back of the engine. It was hard to turn the engine and he hoped he could turn it fast enough to get it running. His experiments with batteries and electric motors were proceeding much slower than his progress with the engine.
“Maybe a steam engine would have been a better start.” He mumbled to himself.
“What?” Benjamin asked.
“Nothing Benjamin, just talking to myself.”
After double checking the that the radiator was full, the alcohol lines were connected, and the tank full, Moore hooked the cables to the spark plugs. He gave everything a once over, then proceeded to the back of the engine.
Benjamin nodded his head, eyes wide.
With that Moore took a deep breath, grasped the crank, and gave it a mighty twist. The engine sputtered, roared briefly then coughed as if it let out its last breath.
“That was promising,” Mr. Moore said to Benjamin, his eyes dancing with excitement.
Again, he gave the crank a mighty twist. This time the engine roared to life, the crank spinning like a windmill in a thunderstorm. Moore gave the whirling crank a wide birth knowing it would mess him up something fierce if he got tangled in it. He looked down at Benjamin, his little hands clamped tightly over his ears, a combination of fear and excitement dancing in his eyes. The engine roared louder than anything either of them had heard in this world. Blue smoke belched from it in smelly plumes.
Mr. Moore’s ears were starting to ring from the racket. He grabbed stuffing from a work bench and packed it into his ears. He motioned for Benjamin to keep his ears covered. The little guy nodded; his attention fixed on Mr. Moore.
Moore stepped up to the engine grabbed a small lever and tweaked it. The engine roared a little faster, then slowed back to its original clamor. Again, Moore tugged the small lever, this time moving it a little further causing he engine to rev much higher. Again, he let it fall back to its original level before tugging the lever one more time. This time he held it for several seconds before letting go.
With a big grin on his face, he reached up and turned a knob by the alcohol tank. After a few seconds, the engine sputtered, coughed, then fell silent.
“That was loud,” Benjamin said, his hands still covering his ears.
“It was…yes.” Moore walked around the engine a few times, gingerly touching surfaces to see how hot they were.
“Is that why they quit making them?” Benjamin asked his hands dropping to his side.
Mr. Moore looked at him, his features showing he did not understand what Benjamin was asking. Unfortunately, Benjamin didn’t have enough life experience to understand Moore’s expression, “What do you mean?” Moore finally asked.
“The engine. It is so loud. I bet that is why they quit making them.”
Mr. Moore laughed at that, laughed for several seconds. “No Benjamin, I can fix that. They quit making engines because they thought they were smarter than nature.”
Benjamin looked puzzled and Mr. Moore wasn’t surprised. He was just a kid. He didn’t understand how the world worked. Nor did he have the vast wealth of knowledge his great grandfather left to him.
Nope, Benjamin didn’t understand that when materials for batteries ran out, the vehicles they powered stopped. Nor did he understand that the huge volcanic dust clouds that dimmed the sun led to never-ending rolling blackouts. Which in turn led to a fight for survival. How society devolved into a fight of the fittest. How the greater Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area went from north of four million to well south of three hundred thousand, as hunger, disease, and violence claimed millions.
No, Benjamin didn’t understand that a small group that hated the internal combustion engine cast humanity back to the days of dirt farms, horses, and water pulled from the ground with windmills.
“They quit making them because they thought it would make life better?”