Diesel Upgrade

All swamp men eventually feel the urge to upgrade to diesel. 

“Why do you need it?” my wife asked me.

“All the swamp people have diesel generators. I just have that dinky Home Depot thing.”

“But it works.”

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“But it’s not diesel.”

It was going to be complicated. I’d have to build my generator shed bigger, rewire some stuff. I still get confused over all that 110 and 220. And wasn’t there something about a compression lever to consider?

“I got one I’ll sell you cheap, ” Jack said.

“You think it’ll push both my window units at the same time?”

“That and light a football field. Come by this weekend and we’ll load it up.”

On Saturday, I drove my pickup to where Jack lived on Weeks Bay. When I turned off the dirt road and pulled up to his house I saw how he’d come to know so much about machinery and construction. The front yard looked like a salvage operation with everything from water pumps and old trucks to sledgehammers and deep freezes. Excitement and awe coursed through me at the sight of this place. It was a man’s playground.

Jack stepped out of his front door and lifted his chin at me. It’s weird seeing swamp people when you’re not in the swamp. You tend to forget that most of them have jobs and real houses. I’ll never forget when I ran across Jack in town one time. It was like seeing a deer in Walmart.

He pointed to a giant piece of iron machinery sitting at the end of his porch. It was mounted on skids and painted army green. It made me think of something unbolted and robbed from the floor of a factory during the Second World War.

I got out of the truck and approached it.

“That’s her, ” he said.

“Man, ” I said. “How much you think it weighs?”

“Six, seven hundred pounds, maybe.”

“Where’d it come from?”

“Pulled it out of a shrimp boat.”

“You don’t think it needs any new parts?”

“Maybe an on-off switch. Starter falls off sometimes. Just needs a bolt in it. Might need to drain out the oil and change some filters and stuff. Maybe rewire the plugs.”

My mind raced. “OK. How we gonna load it?”

Jack grabbed a length of chain off the porch. Weaving through the salvage yard, he climbed onto a rusted-out front-end loader and pressed the starter button.


Jack climbed down again and retrieved a can of ether from atop a nearby deep freeze. He sprayed it somewhere into the nose of the beast and climbed on again. This time, it sneezed and woke.

I helped him shackle the generator to the shovel, and he lifted it and backed away, swinging the giant machine before him. He drove it to my pickup and lowered it until my
leaf springs were flat.

It took me nearly two hours of white-knuckle driving to get home. All that time, I couldn’t figure out how I was going to get it out of my truck, much less into a boat and up to the camp. But just the fact that I finally had one in possession left me overly optimistic.

I pulled into the backyard with my three excited kids trailing “Daddy’s big surprise.” I drove to the back fence and saw a solution. With the children watching, I draped a rope over my shoulder and started climbing an old white oak. It had been a long time since I’d climbed a tree, and each time I stopped to look down, my legs trembled.

“Don’t fall, Daddy, ” my oldest daughter yelled up at me.

“I’m not, ” I said.

I reached the limb I was going for and dropped the rope over so that both ends touched the ground. I returned to earth and fastened a come-along to another tree. Then I tied one end of the rope to the come-along and the other end to the generator. My plan was to drive out from under the machine and leave it swinging from the limb above. Then I could lower it gently to the ground with the hand winch.

“Stand back, kids.”

They knew those words usually meant a loud tool was about to start or something violent was going to happen. The kids scattered across the yard to a healthy distance. I cranked the truck and eased forward. The rope grew taught, and the generator began to slide backwards in small jerks. Finally, it tipped off the tailgate and dropped like a Sherman tank, uprooting the oak and bringing the tree crashing down over the back of my pickup. The kids cheered. I drove out from under it all, got out and left the generator buried beneath the tree canopy where it still sits to this day.

Sometimes a man has to walk before he can run diesel.

Watt Key is an award-winning novelist who grew up on the Bay in Point Clear. His third novel, “Fourmile, ” which was released in 2012, received a coveted Starred Review from Kirkus Reviews.

text by Watt Key • illustration by Kelan Mercer

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