Nathan Thompson has a gift.
Give him a howling motor and he’ll have it purring in no time. Show him a leaky transmission and he’ll shore it up. And give him a saw blade, a trailer bed and a 1935 Model E John Deere engine, well, he’ll make a table saw.
But ask him for a history lesson, and he’ll talk your ear off. Sometimes with a few tears in his eyes.
“It’s history, and history is dying,” the 75-year-old mechanic said, staring at his homemade contraption on display Sunday afternoon at the Spokane County Interstate Fair.
He’s talking, of course, about his father’s old saw he spent hours working next to as a kid, toiling away at cutting wood at their home in Colville. Rather than let those memories go to waste, he bought an old motor at a state auction a few years back so he could show a piece of his childhood to children.
He fixed it up, painted it the classic John Deere green and yellow (the same color of the Green Bay Packers – his wife Priscilla’s favorite team) and bolted it to a modified trailer bed. On the other end, he stuck his dad’s trusty saw.
His hard work seemed to pay off. Once he finished gassing it up, spreading some oil on its moving parts and cranking it to life, the awkward puttering of the engine drew in several onlookers, most of them wide-eyed little kids. But it was when he connected the engine to the saw via a long, curvy belt, and the blades started moving, that onlookers really saw the appeal.
“None of you are OSHA, are ya?” Thompson said joking, referring to Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors.
He grabbed a piece of wood, inching it toward the moving teeth before methodically sawing the end off. The motor kicked up and petered out behind him.
“All right,” he yelled at the engine. “Straighten up.”
As a lifelong mechanic, settling an unruly engine is something Thompson has plenty of practice at. He’s been working with them since he was 11, his wife said, and he’s made a career out of it.
He was a mechanic while going to school in South Dakota, where he and his wife first met. And again 13 years later when they met by happenstance in Rwanda, of all places.
He was a mechanic in the Navy, and during the Vietnam War. He was a mechanic most recently for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, where he retired in 2007.
And on Sunday, surrounded by curious fair patrons looking for a piece of history, he was again a mechanic, showing off an engine older than most people’s homes. And his smile couldn’t have been any wider.
“When you’ve been gifted with this, you want to share it,” he said. “I want to share it.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day's top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter