I had read about the World's Largest Ball of Paint many many years ago, and had been keen on seeing and painting it ever since. Unfortunately I hadn't found myself near enough to the northwest corner of Indiana before now to visit, but since I was at last within striking distance, I chose to devote all my resources to finally accomplishing something I'd been wanting to do for a very long time.
My appointment was set for 7:00 p.m. since Mike likes to show people the Ball himself and he works a full time job during the week. He and his son Mike Jr. met me as soon as I stepped out of the car into the deepening gloam and led me to the shed with the aid of a flashlight, since Mike lives out in the country where light is scarce. When I first spied the Ball through the french doors of its special building (donated along with a good amount of paint by Sherwin Williams) my excitement spilled over and I gave my new knees a run for their money, springing up and down like Tigger.
Mike was generous and friendly and modest as I spent the next hour plying him with a barrage of eager questions. The more he talked, the more I could appreciate the pure goodness emanating from this extraordinary man. Over 30 years ago, he took a fun project he started with his son, got his entire family and community involved and has been having fun and sharing it with people ever since. Mike is all about allowing other people to participate and even turned down an offer to move the ball to a fancy pavilion in the nearby town of Alexandria because he wants to "see the ball. I wanna see people's reactions when they paint it. I wanna be here when they're here." He's discovered a marvelous way to meet like minded folks and give something to each of them. What a peach!
Mike carefully documents each layer and so took my picture and then had me note my name and such on his register. I received a certificate and was encouraged to choose some trimmings to take home with me (when the ball begins to pooch down in a random spot, Mike will trim it a bit to help keep it round). Before I made it back to the car, Mike had even scooped up an armload of whimsical plywood pumpkin and candy corn cut outs he'd made as given them to me as a gift so I could put them in my yard when I got home. The guy just can't contain his generosity.
I drove away, brimming with love, feeling like I'd just met the Ghandi of the Roadside Realm. And not only had I met a holy man, but I had relics to prove it.
Mac and I tossed down a pork-o-licious breakfast in Waterloo, Iowa Monday morning and then dashed off to the John Deere assembly plant just east of town for a 10:00 tour. We were first shown a brief video and then each of us was issued our very own pair of safety glasses (oh boy oh boy oh boy) before our silver haired tour guide led us to a waiting tram. One entire car of the open topped tram was already packed with "Golden Key" customers, each of them grinning ear to ear since they were being taken on a special behind the scenes tour that would culminate by the end of the day in their being allowed to start their very own tractor (i.e., the one they had ordered) for the first time.
Oh and by the way, as has been the case with every single tour I've taken of this sort, absolutely NO photos were allowed so I'll have to rely on narrative alone.
Our tour guide turned out to be amazing. He'd been employed on the assembly line for over 27 years and was able to name every part of every model we passed. He also cracked some rotten jokes, which in my experience almost always makes a tour better. He told us a story I particularly enjoyed as we were pausing to watch the painting robots paint chassis after chassis in regulation John Deere colors. The robots had been taught their painting routine by a fellow that had worked on the painting line for many years. Fancy software engineers had captured the strokes of the experienced painter using virtual reality techniques, translating subtle movements of the human arm into a computer program that moved the robotic nozzle in exactly the same way as the practiced hands. When the robots were finally fired up, the engineers were mystified when they observed the robots making a series of wild, inexplicable movements at the very end of the routine. What they soon discovered was that the experienced painter had sneezed just as he'd finished his last stroke and the involuntary moment of his arm was captured along with all the official movements. That's such a lovely industrial fable, isn't it?!
A variety of tractors are made at this particular plant, my favorite of which was the 8345R. I've hunted up a picture from the internet since I wasn't able to take one of my own:
Would you look at that thing! It's gigantic! The rear wheel is probably 5 or 6 feet tall and dude, it has tank treads! I hadn't planned on being so impressed with a tractor, but I just couldn't help myself when I saw the 8345R.
If it's not already obvious, I really really enjoyed my tour. I've been on a good number of assembly line tours over the years, and I have to say John Deere ranks as my second favorite to date - so good it almost knocked Hundyai out of the top spot! Hundyai still reigns supreme due to the sheer number of robots alone, but John Deere managed to get every single thing right about their tour. It was mpressive, but not too slick; comprehensive yet intimate. Hell, we even got to keep our safety glasses!
As we stepped off the tram at the conclusion of our tour, I noticed a row of glass showcases near the exit that held row after row of small green and yellow objects. When I went over to investigate, I found a display of the work of one Jim the Welder, fabricator extraordinare. Jim happened to be walking by as I was exclaiming loudly about how much I liked the display, so he stopped to tell me about the pieces he'd constructed over the years. Jim, it turns out, is one of the chief metal fabricators at the plant, designing and building all sorts of custom metal work for the assembly line. Years ago in his spare time, he started making miniature metal sculptures of familiar everyday objects (e.g., a biplane, a motorcycle) which incorporate the classic shapes and colors of John Deere tractors. Tiny Frankenstein objects that are part tractor and part tug boat or fire truck. They're hard to describe, and since I wasn't able to take pictures will remain sadly unrepresented here - a real pity since they were such delightful little sculptures, each and every one of them. You could tell Jim got a kick out of seeing someone who enjoyed his work so much.
I think if it were me, I'd have gone through the drive through instead.
Mac and I headed south to the city of Newton so we could make a stop at the Maytag dairy where they've been producing the famous blue cheese you may have heard of since the early 40s. After a quick stop at the cheese shop to provision our larders, we headed on toward Davenport where we'd decided to spend the night. Mac found us a route that followed along the bank of the mighty mighty Mississippi, just as the sunset was beginning to fade and it was a lovely end to the day's journey.