I finally got my Tonka lesson last week. What is a Tonka lesson, you ask? Tonka belongs to my neighbor, Steve, who is a retired park ranger. Steve spends his “retirement” working harder than any employed person I know, turning his 7.5-acre wooded lot into his own personal park.
Steve accomplishes most of his work with his own mini excavator, which he named Tonka and actually has a name plate for. He loves this machine and he runs it like an extension of his own body. I watched recently as he drove it around our loop road, ducking the arm so easily to avoid a low-hanging tree branch, I never noticed his hands moving on the controls.
Steve treats Tonka like a beloved pet. Once he parked it in front of my house before leaving on vacation for 2 weeks. I texted a photo to a friend with the caption, “He never asks me to pet sit, he just leaves his dog in my yard.”
Observing my interest in the machine, Steve asked me if I’d like to learn how to operate Tonka. Oh, yes! Mainly for the mystique, because driving an excavator is playing with the big boys, and because I appreciate what it meant for Steve to let me try it—he’s bonded to Tonka like I am to my bike. It was an honor just to be asked. Months went by, and finally I got my lesson last week while my dear friend Jill was visiting. I think Steve knew the show-off incentive would get me out there.
I might have been reluctant to accept this challenge from anyone else, but I’ve watched Steve teach things to other people. He’s a natural at breaking things down and telling you what you need to know, when you need to know it, so you’re not overwhelmed with all the information at once. And he’s all about safety. I trusted him not to let me get into any situation that would lend itself to an episode of Northern Rescue.
We picked a sunny February day, cold but with an earthy spring tinge to the air. We went out to the backyard where Steve has several piles of compost, wood chips and dirt, in various stages of topsoil production. Jill stood off to the side in her stylish leather coat with her iPhone, ready to shoot video of my first attempt at the controls. The heft up into the seat was surprisingly hard—there are two high steps up and while I am an accomplished cyclist, I’m also a 56-year-old woman coming off a serious knee injury. But I got up into my perch and contemplated the various handles, panicking momentarily about “what do they all do?”
I didn’t need to know that just yet. First, Steve gave me the 101 on Tonka Anatomy. “This is your arm,” he said, gesturing to the business end of the machine. “This is your shoulder,” he patted the first joint where the arm could move up and down. “Here’s the elbow,” he patted the middle joint that fine-tunes the motion outward and inward. “And here’s your wrist and hand,” he gestured to the scoop at the end. At each step, he raised his own arm in a simulation of Tonka’s, and I awkwardly copied with my own.
Then he said, “Before you start, you need to know what your task is, and make a plan. Today your job is to mix this pile of dirt.” I knew about the mixing already; to make good topsoil, the pile had to be turned over every now and then to exchange the material exposed to the air and the material on the inside of the pile, which composts thermally. Disturbing a compost heap was something I could do badly without causing much harm.
“Okay, fire it up,” Steve ordered. I turned the key and Tonka roared to life underneath me. Even though all I had done was turn on the ignition, I felt a thrill of accomplishment. No one else in my family had ever turned on an excavator! Next, he had me try each lever to see what it did. The shoulder shuddered up and down, the elbow snapped back and forth, and gradually I got some control over the movements. Tonka was rocking and vibrating enough for me to know I would be in punishing pain later, and Steve showed me how to put down the stabilizer blade. That helped a lot, and I started having fun. Slowly I picked up a shovelful of dirt, swiveled to the left, and dropped it where I was making a new pile. I noticed that the control moved like a joystick and my right hand moved in an arc to reach forward, grab the dirt, and pick it up. I practiced trying to do that smoothly. Before I knew it, I’d picked up all the soil I could reach and needed to roll back on the tracks. I turned to Steve—where the Sam Hill did he go?
Steve was across the yard on a ladder, pruning the pear tree with our neighbor Paul. How could he leave me alone on this beast? I could be killed! Then I thought, Steve would never have walked away from me if there was any chance I would hurt myself, or damage his machine. This was his way of saying, “You’ve got this!”
I laughed with delight as I realized I knew what to do. I raised the stabilizer blade, then gently pulled back the handle on both tracks, so it would move straight backward. It did! I set the blade back down and moved another section of the pile. Two more times I moved the machine to reach more dirt. By the time I could do no more, I was ready to be done, and poor Jill was ready to go inside and warm up.
I looked at the heap of dirt I had moved. It had to be at least 5 cubic yards! It would have taken me days to shovel that with my weakened arms. Tonka made me super-strong. The only difference between me and Steve now was one of skill. With enough practice on my part, we could race to move our heaps of dirt and we would be evenly matched. For once, I didn’t feel like making self-deprecating jokes about my “bionic arm,” with its rod and 8 screws. This bionic arm would have made Lindsay Wagner proud.
I could barely sleep that night for the pain. Next time I’ll know to put the blade down first, and that will spare me a lot of jarring. Like Steve likes to say often, “Next time you’ll do it faster, easier, and better.”
I’ll keep practicing this summer—no compost heap will ever be better aerated. This winter, when Steve is snowbirding with his wife, Cathi, my neighbors will look to me to plow us out of our shared loop road. I, the one who waits for a neighbor with a strong young back and arms to shovel my walk, will be the one who comes roaring out with Tonka tricked out as a snow plow to save the day.
Out my office window, I see Steve going to put Tonka away for the night. He walks into the setting sun, and in my mind he’s played by James Cromwell. He pats Tonka’s shovel and says, “That’ll do, Tonka. That’ll do.”
Have you mastered a machine that made you equal to or stronger than the people around you? Tell us about that.