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There’s a tractor salvage yard off Nebraska Highway 2, west of Palmyra, which I’ve driven past for close to 30 years. It’s six acres flanked by cash crops and pasture. The tractors there are vintage, 1930’s to 1960’s, and are arrayed more or less in rows. Most of these rows eventually disintegrate into scattered smaller components, which from the air must look like aneurisms. There’s heavier equipment too: trucks and combines and construction cranes, bulldozers, compactors and swathers, even an old airport tug, which looks like two gigantic 1950 Chevy trucks welded back-to-back at the cabs. There’s a smattering of old cars and mobile homes and city busses, used mainly for storage. One of these, a ‘56 Buick Special, is loaded with dolls and puppets and other childhood jetsam, all of it swimming in a chemical fog; a salvage-yard incongruity, more parked than preserved. And finally, there’s a large metal building to anchor the operation. Its mostly dirt floor is covered in clusters of crankshafts, camshafts, pistons, starters, generators and clutches, plus a 1960s Montgomery Ward motorcycle, a homemade furnace, a ‘46 Chevy boom truck with a bad connecting rod, and a stack of rough-sawn lumber. Dusty footpaths meander like game trails through these groupings, so you end up stalking what you want.
Outdoors, the grass around the machinery is cropped by a shaggy brown llama and a dozen or so fluffy sheep, and there’s a covey of Guinea hens to sound the alarm, startle you witless. This is all recent knowledge. I’ve pulled into the drive several times over the years and found the gate closed, and since the house is well inside the yard, up a hill, it appeared I’d need to trespass to ask permission. Throw in a likely junkyard dog and ample experience with surly junkmen, and it was easy to back out and move on, especially when all I wanted was a picture or two. You figure there’ll be something more desirable down the road.
Well, there was and there wasn’t, so when a couple of years ago I noticed a woman repairing fence along the road, I couldn’t pass her by. Here was an opportunity to make my case on neutral ground, to talk my way in with polite enthusiasm. It’s not easy to explain what I seek in another person’s possessions, and I’ve found that women are less likely to cut me off mid-sentence, send me packing with half my spiel caught in my throat. There have been exceptions, of course. I was once nearly shot by a demented old bird with a babushka bandana and Arafat’s beard. I later heard she was deaf, which made sense. I do recall her studying my mouth, as if it were some festering laceration. It angered her, but she was nuts-as-Nero before I came along.
Highway 2 is four lanes now, and the roadside is V-shaped where it fronts the salvage yard. The right-of-way there is close to 70 feet, so the woman knew I was coming, and I was encouraged to see that she didn’t immediately return to her fence. Here, perhaps, was that most beguiling thing: a seasoned soul not yet sick of the world, of all its types. When I got close enough, I introduced myself, and was delighted to find her talkative. She spoke directly and precisely, with just a hint of accent, which I couldn’t place at the time. She later told me that she was from Mexico City, the daughter of a college professor, and had studied in New York. I know New York, have my haunts, so here was another connection, however remote. We spoke initially of sheep, hers being just across the fence. I offered my limited experience raising them. Near the end of this exchange, I said that I sort of liked sheep, which is not an easy thing to say out here, and only roughly true. But she looked me square in the eye and answered, “Well, I do too!” So there it was: a beginning. Her name is Lou, which is somehow short for Maria.
The habits of sheep will lead naturally to the pertinences of tractor salvage, if you let them, and to photography, which on this day led to an invitation to meet her husband, the curator of this installation. So I hiked back up to my truck, and this time, drove all the way up the drive.
The first time I saw Paul Lansing—and on most occasions since—-he was shuffling about in bib overalls and a pith helmet, a chunk of something in his hand. He told me he was getting old. My impression on that day was that he didn’t mind visiting, but he meant to stay busy, so I should bear that in mind.
When I asked if I could shoot some of his inventory, he said, “Sure, for $100 a picture.” When I said I didn’t think I could afford those rates, he answered, “Okay then, you can do it for nothin’.” He has the impish humor of that generation.