By on March 3, 2007

p100122822.jpgIt’s not just cars that are safer nowadays, but grown-ups too. Imagine telling your nine year-old, “Son, we’re sending you off to a farm to drive tractors for a family our cleaning lady knows.” That’s what my parents did, and I barely survived to tell the tale. 

For five summers in a row, I was literally “farmed-out” to a Mennonite family. Unlike their more extreme techno-shunning Amish relations, these gentle, old-school agricultural workers used tractors. My deeply religious host– a preacher no less– limited his verbal output to prayer and spontaneous mini-sermons.

When it came to farm work, words of instruction, explanation and warning were conspicuously absent. Education was provided by divine intervention or a perpetual series of baptisms by fire. My first-ever drive provides a perfect example…

There I was, a mere slip of a boy, hanging onto the back of the ancient (putt-putt) John Deere Model B like a tick. While in motion, Mr. Y suddenly slides off the seat, grabs me, sets me on the throne and jumps off. So much for Driver’s Ed.

I don’t recall how I managed to drive the tractor or, more importantly, stop. Perhaps the lesson arrived as intended.

The following summer, I was promoted to full-time tractor driver. “Take the H, hook up the crimper and run the cut field out past the oats.” Once I figured out what (and where) the crimper was, where the field lay and what pattern I was supposed to make around it, I was in tractor-driving hog heaven.

The controls were mechanical and rude. To extract any response from the stiff pedals, I had to slide off the seat and simultaneously suspend and leverage myself from the steering wheel. And hanging on to that jerking, hot tiller while bouncing through a bumpy field all day brought visceral meaning to the phrase “steering feedback”.

Inching a three ton tractor to hitch up a wagon between the posts in a barn, I learned to play the clutch friction point like a Stradivarius. I didn’t want to add a knocked-down barn to my list of accidents.

A neighbor’s boy sent me flying to the gravel when he indelicately popped the odd hand-lever clutch on an old Allis-Chalmers. I stopped trusting under-age drivers.

The tractors had twin brake pedals. One day, pulling a load, I dropped the right drive wheel into a muddy rut. Watching that tire spin I had an inspiration: I pushed the right pedal, and the power transferred to the left wheel. I discovered traction control.

When told that the biggest tractor, a Farmall Super M-TA, had 47 horsepower, I was incredulous. That thing could pull a barn. But a day spent behind a team of two draft horses pulling a giant hay wagon gave me a new perspective.

The Farmalls had five highly-unsynchronized gears. The first four were for the field; you could start in any of them. But up-shifting into fifth on the road was the problem; I hadn’t yet divined double-clutching.

My technique: I forced all my weight against the unyielding stick and ground the gears mercilessly. When the tractor finally lost all its momentum and fifth engaged, I released the clutch and it slooowly chuffed away. My admiration for long-stroke, torquey engines has never diminished.

Row-crop tractors with their siamese-twin front wheels and high centers of gravity fully deserved their nick-name “widow makers.” My first near-death experience arrived when I tried to take a tight down-hill curve on a gravel road at speed. The inside drive wheel was coming up fast when I reflexively eased the steering wheel and widened my arc. The hell with a perfect apex; I was too young to die.

The same corner tried to kill me twice. I was riding standing up, face in the wind, behind the cab of the old Studebaker pickup. Unexpectedly, Mr. Y took a right turn at the T-intersection at a reckless speed (I assumed he was going straight). Falling out, I managed to grab the outside rear-view mirror. His face expressed considerable surprise when he saw me hanging there. His explanation: the brakes were out (had been for a while). I began to understand why Mennonites had large families.

Surviving (literally) three summers bronco-riding an assortment of elderly Farmalls, Fords and Johnny Poppers grounded me deeply in the fundamentals of auto-locomotion. They were lessons that would never leave me—just like the scars on my leg and my twisted fingers.

And yet I loved those summers. I learned many useful lessons, like not to pee on an electric fence. Despite two frantic trips to the university hospital for emergency surgery, I have no regrets. (In fact, one of those trips blessed me with my first 100 mph car ride.) Life’s lasting lessons– and fast car rides– often come at a price.

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15 Comments on “Auto-biography 6: Down on the Farm...”

  • avatar

    “And hanging on to that jerking, hot tiller while bouncing through a bumpy field all day brought visceral meaning to the phrase “steering feedback”. ”

    This is hilarious. I like the article.

  • avatar

    Ah, this editorial reminds me of the “good old days”. Steel-and-asphalt playgrounds, lawn darts, slingshots, steel-wheeled roller skates…
    And riding in a ’53 Ford with my mom at 100 MPH on rte 22, my hands in a death-grip on the painted-steel and chrome dashboard. Thanks for the memories.

  • avatar

    Every time I read another installment I keep wishing I had the next chapter to turn to. Good times.

  • avatar

    Another great instalment about Paul’s education! This is a question from someone who graduated from the same school of tractor operation; did you take the course in clutchless shifting? You know a novice can’t handle an unsynchronized transmission under any circumstances, a somewhat more accomplished person can handle double-clutching, but only a true expert can manage clutchless shifting. I graduated from the clutchless school on a Fordson Major about 45 years ago at the age of ten!

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    tsofting: As I wrote, my host had a very hands-off approach. I learned clutchless shifting some years later driving trucks. The problem about shifting the tractor was that I didn’t know about pushing in the throttle, to match rpm’s with the next gear. And with a hand throttle, that’s a bit trickier than a gas pedal.

  • avatar

    I first learned to drive on a Super A, one of the simplest tractors around. The same lessons that you learned about clutch control by trying to connect to farm equipment, I learned as well. Bouncing along through a field? Absolutely. Independent wheel braking? Ditto that too. Thankfully I got slightly more training than yourself (i.e. pointing to things, giving them names, and then getting a go at it) but the fundamentals that were taught via feedback from these ultimately crude machines I still find invaluable today. To this day in even the most unfamiliar vehicle, it appears as if I am an expert driver as finding the clutch point and utilizing it to engage gears comes quite easily. These weren’t things that I was taught, but rather learned the hard way. Whenever folks tell me that straight-drive vehicles are difficult to drive or that they never learned, or that it takes a long time to get used to them, I just smile and nod, thinking that maybe they should have spent some time on a tractor too. :)

  • avatar

    Your best written and most enjoyable Auto-biography thus far. Please keep up the hard work.

  • avatar

    I have a Ferguson 35, and I swear I enjoy piloting that as much as I enjoy driving a sports car. Different moods require different machines. Nice installment, thanks!

  • avatar

    Great story…can’t wait to read more.

  • avatar

    Now all you need to do is to tell us about your adventures with your first .22 rifle. It seems that would have been a 10th birthday present or so.

    Thanks for the fun read!

  • avatar

    My father, raised on a farm in Missouri, told me some interesting stories about how the rear-ends of model “T”s became farm instruments. Farm children learned – probably still do – to drive at a much younger age than “city kids.” And my hunch, is they were – probably are – better drivers, because of it.

    As a friend of mine, who is a “city kid” in his early thirties – raised not far from 8 Mile Road in Detroit – is fond of saying, “Cars are too easy to drive today. They should be harder to drive.” The theory is people would rise to the task – or die trying. (Said friend owns a 1999 Mazda Miata with a five speed manual, a 1966 Volvo 122S sedan with a four speed manual and a 1968 Mercury Cougar whose transmission is, as I recall, an automatic.)

    I don’t know that we have to make cars that much harder to drive; but I do think there’s a lot to be said for being raised on a farm – especially in regards to understanding and appreciating both animals and machinery. It’s about real life, isn’t it?

  • avatar
    Sid Vicious

    I am the proud new owner of my first tractor – a 28 horse Kubota 4WD. Spent yesterday dragging rather large trees all over the place with only 28 diesel horsepower. At idle. Who’d a thunk it.

    Being a “genteman farmer” I had even less training than you. I did read the owners manual, however. Still, I had the thing up on 2 wheels when it had only 2 hours on the clock. Seatbelt? We don’t need no stinkin’ seatbelt!

    It has power steering and a fully syncro tranny but it’s still a widowmaker. Without a doubt I would have killed myself at age 9 on one of the old school tractors. Don’t even get me started on PTO…..

  • avatar
    Elrae Yelrah

    I still use a 1948 Ford 8N for field work on my property. It is a great piece of machinery for sure. It sits outside all year under a tree and while it may be a bit hard to get started ’round spring time, all it takes is a little love and understanding to get it kicking for another season of service. It’s great fun to shove the stick into any of the 4 gears, pop the clutch, and have the thing lurch forward (I think in first or second gear it might be able to get some air underneath the skinnies up front); the danged thing doesn’t understand the concept of stalling. The buckboard ride perched upon the torn vinyl seat, the pinkie finger thin steering wheel with considerable play in the un-assisted mechanical steering, the hot gases belching from the exhaust aimed at your leg, the hand throttle that moves around on its own…it has such great character. But most importantly it has always been a reliable worker for me and I don’t plan on replacing it anytime soon.

    I grew up using machinery such as this, and maybe that’s why I don’t understand how today’s automotive journalists can blast a car for having interior plastics that aren’t perfectly color-matched. I think they’re spoiled, fruity, or maybe both.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Elrae: The was a Ford 9N on the farm the first couple of years. It was like a sports car car compared to the Farmalls – low, small, wide track. And it was the fastest on the road; maybe 23 mph or so compared to the 16 mph top speed of the Farmalls. We loved it.

  • avatar

    Not sure if this is the place to say it, but do you know the old story about tractor manufacturers during the great depression?

    When farmers had lost all the crops to drought, and profits shrank in the face of national economic collapse, the tractor makers were hounding them to make payments -except for one. John Deere’s policy was “pay us when you can.” So, while owners of Farmalls and Massey-Fergusons were literally selling the farm, John Deere owners survived to see better days, and kept buying John Deeres.

    Now, what do you think happened to Farmall, Massey-Ferguson, et al? And what lesson can the big 2.5 learn from this?

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