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Preface & Reader Response



It's hard to find a task on a farm that can't be helped by a tractor.

 


MAN, ART & MACHINES



TRACTORS ARE US

by Jerry Murley

Just as my father-in-law did so often, I feed my trusty steed, step high with my left foot, hoist my right leg fully over to the other side of my mount, and set out into the wilds – into the tall and uncut. But though he serves as a faithful breed might – a companion helping me do heavy work alone – he is not a handsome horse but a homely, bent-up, rattling tractor. Of late, in a time of humble abundance, my steady assistant is any from a stable of tractors, each possessing a unique personality needing special attention, each more capable of performing particular jobs with special implements than the others.


Growing up, I was not much of a motor man. Sure I owned, or had use of, some cars that I loved at the time: a blue Chevy Nova, a green Volkswagen Karmann Ghia convertible, a Plymouth Barracuda, a used Honda 350 motorcycle, a new green Triumph Tiger motorcycle, my very own new red VW bus, my wife's used white VW bug, a used orange Nissan truck, a red Nissan station wagon, a used dark-gray Mazda, and finally a string of used and new, mainly used, Honda Civics and Accords. Though I tried commuting by bus and bicycle between mile markers VW bus and VW bug, where I live in the South you are virtually non-existent without a motorized ride of your own.

Despite the Nissan truck and the VW bus, I never was much of a utility vehicle or truck guy either. That is until I moved into a rural area and had big jobs to do by myself that were very difficult to do year after year without mechanized assistance. As I have aged, the assistance of a truck or tractor has become a necessity. For years, personal ownership of a truck was not required because my father-in-law had a perfectly serviceable one right across the road. For years, the older it got and the more beat up it got the better, until it would not start reliably and the suspension and brakes became a bit too much of a thrill for old folks and people with a family of their own. A couple of years ago, my wife and I broke down and bought a ten-year-old black Toyota Tundra, which we love. We used to chuckle at our neighbors using an electric golf cart to putter around their front field. The laugh is on us: now we use a big black horsefly of a truck to do the very same things. Walking back and forth up a hundred-plus yards of incline gets very old with age.


In terms of tractors, I have been very, very fortunate. My father-in-law kept a stable of old tractors that he bought from friends and neighbors in the area. His 1954 Ford NAA was my favorite. I have spray painted over the rusty fenders and hood a couple of times. It still lives but no longer has a bushhog implement. It's great for plowing and discing and dragging fallen trees all over creation. I didn't much like his diesel International Harvester for a number of years. It's loud, the clutch is a booger to push down, it exudes grimy grease, oil, and hydraulic fluid. It looks like a wreck, especially since it was wrecked a number of years ago, when my father-in-law used it as a step ladder to check a bluebird box and it rolled out from under him and three hundred yards down the hill smack into the creek. But the IH has been the work horse of the farm and my good, if sometimes immovable, companion for the past ten years.

On the farm nowadays we are just nuts about tractors. My mother-in-law helps keep the old stable alive and has added a small diesel with a front-end loader, a box scraper attachment, and a bushhog implement. My nephews up the hollow use that one a lot for all kinds of scraping, pushing, pulling and lifting work. Now my brother-in-law has been bitten by the bug. Besides using the other three tractors, he's added another vintage Ford to the collection and tends it dutifully.


The more the merrier. It's hard to find a task on a farm that can't be helped by a tractor. And it's hard to find a weekend that doesn't generate a new task that calls for a trip to one of the barns to crank up one of these antiques. I have only a few rules to remember in this setting: One, return the tractor in as good or better condition than how you found it. Two, take your time, these things can kill you. Three, tractors can kill you. In an area of steep inclines and unfamiliar terrain and stubborn men, tractor accident stories can be pretty gruesome and not as uncommon as you might think. Young boys and old men are the most likely victims. But I will attest to pulling some hairy stunts that gave me much pause afterward – and I consider myself to be extremely cautious. There is just something about a male with a tractor or truck that scares the bejesus out of civil society and family members.

Still, I enjoy my tractor time. The IH seems so powerful, yet compared to the farm tractors used by 86-year-old Paul, our neighbor, it is a mere tricycle. To chain up a large log and drag it exactly where you want it, imbues the driver and self-foreman with a tremendous sense of empowerment. One walks with a strut for hours after such feats.

Maintenance is another matter. Tractors need it and it is hard to provide it. My father-in-law's tractor manuals are grimy with oil and grease smudges and almost illegible due to highlights and underlines. There are notes like "don't do this" or "do this first," scattered throughout. Maintenance is so hard to remember in part because these machines have been so reliable, though in idiosyncratic ways, that it is easy to forget what you did to fix something six years ago. Luckily we have found ourselves a tractor mechanic with a passion for his work who is good to work with. His shop in also out on a farm in the hills; his front field looks like a tractor graveyard or museum. He has parts that he bought ten years ago for $2.00 that he will sell to you for $2.10. It is the strangest business model that I have ever encountered outside of a commune. But he is just the man to tame these rugged beasts at a fair price.


With a big truck or a big tractor, it is easy to assume an attitude that no one can tell you shit about anything. But in truth, a tractor man listens intently to the tales of old timers, for old timers and old tractors are one, each a quiet path to the other – faint, worn, parallel tracks in the grass leading to less-trodden but wondrous woods. A familiarity with the rhythms of both is a modest avenue to intelligent work, some degree of self-sufficiency, and a firmer grasp on life past, present, and future.

These tractors inspire. They are not kept in sterile environments, probed, stuck, studied, and tested for quirks and imperfections. They keep working in their messy way, covered in dust and grime, rust and grease, unassuming and powerful, cantankerous but predictable. Their engines are not the music of the heavens or of pristine nature. They breathe through a veil of soot. But they are a connection between ancient man and modern science, between nature and man's wily arts. We marvel at mechanical feats and gigantic culture expressions of man: monolithic stone sculptures and the pyramids are but two. An old tractor in a seedy farm yard is such a relic, indicating what man has been and can be no more. We cut and plow, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, and still nature pushes back. We make little advances that do not last for all time, yet they live from generation to generation if continued and maintained. The repetitive effort and slight achievements are gratification enough, made bearable by assemblages of worn metal, fragments of the big men who preceded us.

 

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