Thursday, August 10, 2006

Hemingway and the American Backhoe

8/2/2006 A Man's a Man for A' That

There are those - mostly fossilized literati of a certain bent - who consider Ernest Hemingway the nonpareil man's man, and his pleasures the most classic of the male psyche. After all, John Wayne was just an actor in the moving pictures, don't you know. Hemingway enjoyed such things as bullfighting (both for the artistry and for the matador's embrace of risk), dropping a charging rhino with a lethal phallic symbol at ten paces, and drinking superb quadruple-malt whiskey until he couldn't distinguish it from gorilla urine. But as far as is known, he never had the good fortune to participate in modern man's finest manly pleasure. Quite possibly his ignorance of this pleasure led to his fatal despair, etc. Not to be coy, I refer to the operation of an excavator arm, commonly referred to as a backhoe.

Already I hear disdainful snorts from aforementioned literati, and of course outraged rhinoid grunting from all right-thinking Hemingway scholars. (Note to H. scholars: does it ever bother you that your chosen idol considered you to be beneath his notice?) How, you may well ask, can I back up this idiotic and even uninteresting claim?

First I will qualify my assertion; it does not necessarily apply to professional backhoe operators, as their long familiarity with the machine and their complete mastery of its operation may have dulled the pleasure they once had, just as an adult rarely recalls the pleasure he once took in driving a car as a teenager. By the way, these men are princes - they can dig a well, brush a mosquito off your shoulder without you noticing, or reduce your house to rubble in the few minutes it takes to seduce their wives - so do not, ever, impugn their manhood or cast aspersions on their chosen machine. Their dexterity is dazzling only to others - if mentioned, they wave it off casually, as if one had praised their skill with a knife and fork.

What is a backhoe? You sir, you call yourself a man? Oh - you're a Hemingway scholar - say no more. A backhoe, sir, is a hydraulically powered metal arm with an elbow and a hinged, toothed, curved metal bucket at the end; it is commonly attached to a tractor of some sort, and is equipped with hydraulic struts on either side to provide stability, but it may also be on various
types of motorized platforms, and comes in many sizes. The operator sits on the shoulder, as it were, and extends, raises, lowers, retracts and swivels the arm using well-designed levers that eventually become integrated into one's subconscious just as do a steering wheel and gas pedal. There is something vaguely saurian about the arm - the mighty Tyrannosaur had no such arms, but if his chosen prey had been some sort of giant, succulent sandworm burrowing through the Cretaceous dunes, he would no doubt have evolved them with gusto.

Originally this arm was designed for general digging, and it instantly rendered the shovel obsolete. (Unfortunately the ironclad union contract that requires all government road projects to employ a dozen men holding shovels runs through the year 2525 - if Man is still alive.) But it probably took the first real operator about five minutes on a construction site to discover that the backhoe is immensely useful - it pushes, it pulls, it lifts, it dumps, and best of all, it destroys. To take on the role of Shiva the Destroyer is a heady feeling for any man.

The impetus for this rhapsody was provided by my recent employment for a couple of days in the dismemberment of a small section of a crumbling but not yet defunct factory which had partially collapsed in the heavy downpours typical of these apocalyptic times. Once upon a time young writers would fight each other for jobs of this nature, so as to get some grit in their craws and in their typewriters. Now, of course, virtual grit is so much grittier than real grit. But I defy anyone to experience online the intensity of grit that I and my two shovelmen generated. I would wield the mighty arm, tearing at several layers of old roofing, the oldest of WWII vintage, which slid down to the cement floor and flopped or shattered or skittered, and then in my relatively clumsy manner tore and twisted at the solid inch-and-a-quarter tongue-and-groove planking nailed over wooden beams, six by twelve, twenty feet long and attached to still larger beams at their ends with large metal flanges. When I had brought down enough debris, crashing through tangled webs of pipes and wires, I had to get off the machine and help my shovelmen hump the trash out into the hot sun in wheelbarrows and in our arms. The arm is a small one, with a reach of only about fourteen feet, but it is sturdy and uncomplaining; when I made one of my frequent wrong moves, it would just whine a little and keep trying; when I forgot to lower the small front blade for stability it would jump around excitedly as I flailed at a recalcitrant plank, and so I would lower the blade and shatter the plank like a twig. Men with any testosterone at all running through their enervated veins are starting to feel the lure of the backhoe now, I should think. Women - maybe not. So what if I ran a big metal arm and smashed a roof; it carries no mythic or emotional hook for the average female. However, should a typical red-blooded American female have happened by, she would have inevitably fixated on my forearms as they palpated the smooth black levers of power: she would have seen the muscles ripple subtly under the vermilion sunburn and six kinds of dirt layered in sweat and tar, and she would have been momentarily blinded to the many minor deficiencies that render me invisible to her in more conventional contexts. I have become Tarzan and Paul Bunyan, the Man with the Arm, killing Numa, the lion (in case you forgot), with his long knife, or turning virgin forests full of tedious and dangerous animals into lovely malls and suburbs with one swing of his immense axe. When I got home I took a long shower, and then just went on and took another, but the sense of deep immersion in grit, in life's real texture, lingered in my mind.

Here, then, is the typical daily program you, the pallid and sexless male academic drone, will encounter if you pony up the big bucks for Dave's Manly Re√ęducation and Testosterone Infusion Camp for English professors, Hemingway and Faulkner scholars, and all virtual male wannabes:

Crack of Dawn: leap into a Jacuzzi filled with cracked ice and bourbon. Roar loudly.
Breakfast: rhino steaks dripping blood, special prize for biting the bullet.
Morning work: operating a backhoe; we will demolish a neighborhood
originally built by Jimmy Carter.
Lunch: whatever we can shoot. More loud roaring.
Afternoon: bourbon and branch, sex (bring a woman if you lack confidence in the animal magnetism of your filthy arms), more bourbon, sleep. Skeet shooting for the wakeful.
Dinner: alligator heart, scotch, neat. Uproarious stories about the time Hemingway told Faulkner straight out to be a man and stop farting around with those interminable sentences full of crap, and Faulkner, well soused, threw his drink in his own face.
Evening: Sex. Seminars on cigars, bullfighting, etc. Discuss fine points of backhoe operation and notable feats of destruction accomplished during the day. Nightcap, your choice of local white lightning or a hair of the dog. Clean rifles. Bury the dead. Plan tomorrow's campaign.

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