by Victor Sullivan © 2012
How Lateral Thinking got a Steam Traction Engine home
Throughout the harvest season Christy had steered the clankling, hissing, fuel-hungry, steam traction engine along the quiet country roads of Ireland from one farm's haggard to the to the next. Nicknamed 'The Raspberry,' Christy's traction engine towed a Ransomes threshing machine which towed a straw elevator which towed a large tin shed on wheels that was inappropriately known as The Office. The Office contained planks, chains, ropes, saws, axes, drums of oil, drums of grease, a crowbar, hammers, wedges, belting, wheels, spare parts, bolts, nuts, washers, a couple of buckets and a shining milk churn for conveying feed-water to the engine's thirsty boiler. There were many other things that might be useful sometime but had never been called upon, yet. Emergency fuel included wood blocks, peat, two sacks of coal, branches of trees, scrap wood from a builder's yard and any potentially good flammable material found along the way. During the threshing season maintaining a fuel supply was seldom a problem as each farmer was traditionally obliged to provide enough fuel to thresh his own grain from the straw plus provide sufficient fuel to take The Raspberry and all its appendages and attachments as far as the next farm.
Each harvest-time Christy's work pattern began with the assumption that anything that might go wrong would do so in the first week of the threshing operations. He therefore selected his earliest customers from those nearest his home, his workshop and his spare parts store. As the season progressed the distance from home increased and, rather than walk or cycle several miles each day, Christy opted to sleep in the primitive, grimy tranquility and oily atmosphere of The Office.
It had been a difficult harvest in 1955. Rain had interrupted the work on many occasions. Eventually the final sheaf was threshed and the Ransomes threshing machine was cleaned down for the last time. It was then slowly hauled onto the roadway by The Raspberry. The straw elevator followed and finally The Office was hitched on behind, ready for the long, tedious, overnight journey homewards through the network of narrow country lanes, avoiding the main roads.
The final client had not been generous when it came to providing fuel for the long trip home. Christy had eyed the meager bag of coal with deep foreboding. While the farmer went indoors for money to pay the threshing fee, Christy discreetly hoisted a shabby stable door off its hinges and heaved it into The Office, following it with several heavy wood planks he found lying nearby. Then, having pocketed his fee, he mounted the engine and urged it forward, glad to be on the road home at last.
After a couple of miles he stopped to introduce his saw and axe to the combustible newcomers in The Office, transferring the result to the engine's fuel bunker and ultimately its furnace.
A long, slow and challenging journey stretched before Christy but he was determined to get back to his home, his wife and the children. All went crawlingly well for the first two hours that saw the sun set and a darkening sky turn to a display of stars and welcome moonlight. The roadsides were seemingly endless banks of dark vegetation broken only by the regular bleached wooden gates that most farmers in that part of Ireland liked to display as symbols of affluence at entrances to roadside fields. Occasionally Christy would dismount from his still moving engine to pick up a fallen tree-branch. When a dead tree in a field caught his eye it warranted a stop while he sawed and chopped several comforting bundles of wood from its decaying stump. As The Raspberry panted gradually homewards Christy began to calculate the fuel reserves relationship to the distance remaining to be covered and concluded that his casual foraging along the roadside would not suffice. The Raspberry's greedy furnace had already consumed almost all of the reserves in The Office, including the stable door and its accompanying planks. A large one-stop source of fuel seemed unlikely, especially in the small hours of the morning. A regularly spaced reliable fuel supply would be ideal if only such a thing existed......
Christy would not have been familiar with the term 'Lateral Thinking' nevertheless he was very good at it. Also, part of Christy's philosophy was that his personal necessity bestowed certain priority rights over the lesser rights of others, such as ownership of food, drink and fuel. Surely this was an occasion that warranted determined action. Once he had made the decision he began to act accordingly and within the transit of a couple of miles he had proved to his satisfaction that his strategy would work and he confidently looked forward to steaming proudly back to base at the end of another Harvest season. He mentally rehearsed his triumphant approach to his family home. A blast on The Raspberry's whistle while still a quarter of a mile away would ensure a noisy dawn welcome from his children. They would run down the avenue to meet him to climb on the straw elevator or join him on the engine for the final yards of his epic journey. His smiling wife would have the frying pan sizzling on the kitchen range by the time he turned the huge rattling rig into the yard. It would be a most enjoyable arrival.
And so it was.
The wild-life on the quiet, empty miles of dark country lanes and traffic-free roads had been the only witnesses to the overnight passing of The Raspberry and its threshing rig. By sunrise those lanes and roads were hosting numerous herds of pedigree Hereford cattle that mingled with black and white Fresians, Aberdeen Angus heifers and half a dozen delighted bulls of mixed status. Cart horses nuzzled thoroughbred mares from a racing stable and even a few donkeys took carnal advantage of their liberation. Flocks of sheep completely blocked the roads in numerous places. Dogs barked, men cursed and shook sticks while agricultural confusion and wrath stretched across the county.
Urgent Police action was demanded, extensive searches were undertaken. The usual suspects were rounded up, interrogated and released without charge due to lack of evidence. Solicitors were appointed and compensation claims were proposed but no trace was ever found of the missing wooden field-gates. It was speculated that the gang responsible must have used a lorry to carry off so many gates in one night. Over sixty years later the event is still recalled in local folklore as 'The Time of the Gates.'