Let’s Join the Work Force! Or How Not to Drive a Tractor

So, the Horse Trek (see previous post) was not only a right of passage in a way, but it was also re-affirming – I had tried something new, and it turned out that I was good at it.

If you’re lucky – you’ll find a solid handful of these things throughout life – things you are good at and really love to do. You will find, as most people do, that as you get older, the list of things you are bad at keeps getting longer, while the list of things you are good at stays relatively the same. I guess the trick is to pick one of the things you’re good at and find a way to make a living at it. For me, that’s happiness.

So for me, the list of things I’m good at then is horsemanship, flying an airplane (believe it or not), driving, writing (c’mon – back me up here), cooking, talking to people (I’ve always had the gift of gab) and figuring out puzzles.

That last one I’m only sort of good at, but I included it because I combined my problem solving skills with my writing and people skills to end up as a government analyst. Not exactly a glamorous niche in life of course, but I enjoy it, I’m good at it, and it pays the bills.

Now let’s be fair – I should also tell you the things I’m not so gifted, or basically suck at. Math. I can do it, but I hate it, and it hates me. Contact sports. Most people think I have some sort of psychological hangup about sports because I was never included in them growing up, but the truth is that I just suck really badly at them, and then there was the famous Junior Varsity Basketball Incident. (I’ll tell that one in my next post even though by now most of you have already heard that story a few times). Gambling – I lose almost every time. Chess. I love the game – but I’m not hard to beat – try losing to a TRS (Trash) 80 Radio Shack Computer chess program for a blow to your ego. Playing the guitar. I enjoy it, but I have to admit that my guitar playing sounds a little like Freddy Krueger playing a harp. I’m just sayin. Fence building. I can honestly say that no fence I ever built is still standing. You can expand that one to anything in the construction realm, actually. You wouldn’t want to live in a house I built. I’m just sayin.  Oh, and driving a tractor. Don’t want to forget that one.

Now wait just a darned minute – didn’t I just say that I’m a good driver? And yes, yes I am, but only with things that are meant to be driven on a road. I am convinced that tractors are fundamentally flawed by design. They just have a really bad tendency to not keep all of their wheels on the ground, in my experience.

Spring, 1985. I was going on 16 years old, and it was decided that the 8 bucks a week in allowance I was receiving would come to an end in the interest of me getting some sort of job. Time to enter the ole’ work force – no more lazy dog days of summer for me. Sigh. It wasn’t long before I was riding my bicycle to ranch homes (if you are envisioning the scene in Napoleon Dynamite where Napoleon runs all the way to a house in the middle of nowhere to find his uncle, you are pretty danged close) to mow lawns. My first paying lawn job – I mowed our lawn at home all the time with our self-propelled push mower, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one – was on a 2 acre lawn that required the use of a John Deere lawn tractor. Pretty simple machine – handle forward to go forward, all the way forward to go faster, backward to back up, and another lever to drop the mowing deck. Anyone could do it, the machine is simplicity itself.

What the John Deere Lawn Tractor New Owner’s Manual fails to mention is that 95% of the machine’s weight is balanced on the rear axle. Drop some grass catcher bags on the back, fill them up, and you have to drop the mower deck just to keep from doing a wheelie. The manual – and yes I read every word of it – does not mention this at all. I really think it would be more appropriate if Page 1 of the manual bore the following disclaimer: “THIS LAWN TRACTOR IS PRONE TO DOING SUDDEN WHEELIES BECAUSE THE WEIGHT IS UNEVENLY DISTRIBUTED! DO NOT TAKE OFF SUDDENLY AND UNDER NO CURCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU BACK IT UP TO A CLIFF.”

Okay, maybe not quite that specific, but you get the idea. I was just getting the hang of not doing a wheelie on the thing when starting forward when the farm’s owner drove up to me to inform me that his daughter had come home the previous night from Antone’s (a popular steak house and bar outside of town) and had accidentally driven her coupe over the barrels I usually dumped the grass clippings in, so why didn’t I just dump the clippings over the edge of that little cliff (about 35 feet down) on the edge of their property into the small ravine below. No problem.

The next time the bags were full, I raised the mower deck and sort of drive-bounced the machine over to the edge of the property and backed a seriously ass-heavy tractor up to a cliff. It is possible that with the hot sun beating down on me I was suffering some mild dehydration, which is the only excuse I can think of for not thinking things through here.
The soft earth underneath the rear wheels caved in from the weight, dislodging the grass catchers only partially, and sending the nose of the tractor skyward at a 45 degree angle, the whole mess teetering precariously on the edge of the cliff.

The owner came out of his house to see his $3500 tractor looking like it was being prepared for orbital launch and the grass catchers dangling off the back of the tractor like potato sacks caught in the wind. And me having abandoned ship, spread-eagled over the front of the tractor trying to keep it from falling backward into the ravine.

The owner did two things very quickly: brought over his GMC pickup with a tow chain in the back (you know this couldn’t have been the first time this had happened) and simply wrapped one end of the chain around the trailer ball on the truck’s bumper, and the other end around one of the tractor’s front wheels, and dragged it to safety. Not up to OSHA standards, to be sure, but it got the job done. The second thing the owner did was to fire me. Sigh. On to the next summer job, I guess……

Later that same summer, I ended up working in a field with my best friend, putting up barbed wire fences (never get talked into doing this, by the way), digging trenches, tilling fields, etc. Just general field hand work. One day we had to drag some uncut double railroad ties from point A to point B. We didn’t ask where the boss had gotten the railroad ties, we didn’t want to know. Suffice it to say that Point A wasn’t very far from the tracks. Great, not only are we breaking our backs in the sun, but now we’re accomplices too. So we tried to get these ridiculously heavy wooden beams into the bed of the truck, but the truck bed was 8 feet and the beams were 16. It just wasn’t going to work. So we called the field boss, and he said use the tractor – there was a chain behind the seat of the pickup – we could use the tractor to drag the ties to Point B, which, if I forgot to mention, was in the middle of a muddy field. One of us had to stay on the ground and help guide the ties, and the other would drive the tractor.

Now look – I am not trying to rip on the John Deere Company here, I’m really not. The truth is, they make the most dependable and longest lasting tractors. Or so I hear. I just don’t know what they thought would happen when they put two gigantic wheels on the back and then a single wheel on the front that looked like a training wheel off some kid’s bicycle. I’m just sayin.

So I get on this big farm tractor and manage to get it going (this one wasn’t quite as simple) and we get the ties wrapped up in chains and hook the chain to the tractor’s tow hook, and off we went. These tractors will just go anywhere. Right across a field of gooey brown mud. I’m tellin’ ya. Until, of course, you hit a sinkhole and the whole affair goes into the Earth nose first and lists to starboard 45 degrees or so, then, not so much.

The owner came out, saw his tractor sticking ass-up into the air, the nose and training wheel buried solidly into the Earth, and fired me. My friend was nice enough to take me home. I don’t even know how they ever got the tractor out.

I did eventually find a job I liked and was good at that paid pretty decent – driving a school bus, but that, as you know, is another post.

Like all of us, there are things I’m good at and things I suck at. Driving a tractor, it would seem, is in the latter category for me. Although to be fair, I still think their design is questionable. I’m just sayin……

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