Auto-biography 6: Down on the Farm
It’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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