Man and machine

As a child, one of my favorite books was “Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel” by Virginia Lee Burton (first published in 1939). In it Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel Mary Anne were said to be able to dig in a day as much as 100 men could in a week. In the story, it is the twilight of the steam era and the dawn of the diesel age. Mike and Mary Anne face competition from the newer, more advanced machines and seek a place where they still can find some work.


Mulligan finds a small town that is building a new town hall. He makes a deal with the town that he can dig the cellar of the hall in a day. Mulligan and Mary Anne start work in the morning and triumphantly complete their job in time and triumphantly finish their task by sundown. But in their haste they failed to make a ramp for them to climb out of the hole that they dug. A quick-thinking boy suggests that Mary Anne become the boiler for the building and Mulligan its janitor.

Truck No. 41 has been in service for the City of Lodi’s maintenance department for the past 47 years. For the last 30 years, it has been used mainly by supervisor Richard Lenfestey. A 1966 Chevrolet C60 truck, it is basically a large pickup truck that has been modified to serve as a rolling tool box. Although not a beauty, its torquey 292 cubic-inch inline-6 engine starts up faithfully.

Lenfestey says it’s been a reliable workhorse that’s been durable and easy to fix when it does need repair. He says that there have been times when his co-workers have left the radio on and drained the battery. Starting Truck No. 41 has been as easy as putting its 4-on-the-floor manual transmission in gear, giving the truck a nudge and popping the clutch.

From its vinyl-covered bench seat to the nearly all-metal dash, the truck’s interior is what can be charitably called Spartan. Other employees don’t like to drive it. It can be rough riding and it has no air conditioning. Even Lenfestey reluctantly acknowledges that “it’s time” for No. 41 to be retired.

The truck will be auctioned off and Lenfestey says that he may even make a bid on it himself. If he does get it, it will be fitting for man and machine to be together again.

If there’s another writer seeking to write a sequel to “Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel” (Burton died in 1968), they don’t have to look any further that to Richard Lenfestey and Truck No. 41.

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