I was browsing around iTunes looking for a song or two the other day when something from a long, long time ago was suddenly just there. For some reason, as I was scrolling through some old stuff, out of the blue came a clear-as-day memory. I must be getting old.
It was from way back when when I worked on a farm. Just like I was still there, I could see a hazy field of oat stubble. Short, scratchy stalks and fat rows of straw left over after the combine had done its work. I was looking down the hood of an International 826 Hydro tractor with the throttle wide-open.
I know it was a real scorcher because I remember the metal on the machines being almost hot enough to burn my hand. I was baling straw on a hilltop field that day, throwing kicker-rack wagons full of string-tied yellow blocks that would be stacked in a screaming hot, dimly lit mow by another bunch of kids that got paid a buck a load to empty out what I tossed in. I can still smell the dust, hot oil, baler twine and diesel smoke like I was standing by the big back tires. I was probably 16 or 17 years old.
Looking over my shoulder from the tractor seat, there was a white AM radio on the right fender. Somebody had bolted it on in just the right place to block my view of the baler pickup so I had to sit skewed sideways to see around it. It had the volume knob turned up as far as it would go.
It had only one scratchy, over-driven speaker that was probably dying a slow, painful death at the hands of the teenage kid behind the steering wheel. It couldn't overwhelm the roar from the stack but it had enough oomph to catch a few notes of the songs if you leaned over a little closer. The only time you could understand it much at all was when you throttled off to make a turn at the end of a windrow. Tractor cabs with Bose sound systems and air conditioning were a thousand years in the future. It seemed like a miracle then.
And I remember that song. It wasn't what anybody remotely considers 'classic rock'. Certainly not much of a blip on the music world radar. Not even one of my all-time favorites; in fact I don't think I own a copy that I could put my hand on. But it has a picture attached to it that has lasted 40-plus years.
It was "Delta Dawn" by Helen Reddy. What a funny song to hang a memory on right? But I can hear it mixed with the pounding from the baler, the exhaust and transmission whine from the big red Hydro and the rattle from the loose shield on the PTO shaft.
In her younger days they called her Delta Dawn
Prettiest woman you ever laid eyes on
Another bale gets airborne from the kicker into the pile on the wagon. The recoil makes the seat jump a little. I can feel the sun. I can see endless windrows of fluffy yellow straw shimmering in the heat...the wagons filling up and being hauled away...the empty ones coming back from the unloading crew at the barn. They're working a lot harder than I am so life's good. Helen's voice is hard to make out over Mr. Diesels invention but she's still there.
I know I'm covered in black dust because baling oat straw does that and I'm pretty sure I wasn't wearing a hat because back then, who cared? You burned to a crisp once and then tanned the rest of the summer.
Delta Dawn, what's that flower you have on?
Could it be a faded rose from days gone by?
I can't say for certain but there was probably a bread bag full of sandwiches in the tool box. Maybe a cooler of iced tea getting a lot warmer under a tree by the fence. And the rows upon rows that steadily turned into neat, tied up square packages under that summer sun. Fill the twine boxes when they run low. Drop a full wagon and start on an empty. Watch for woodchuck holes that'll snap an axle or tip a wagon over.
And did I hear you say he was a-meeting you here today
To take you to his mansion in the sky?
Spin the steering wheel on the headland and get lined up for another pass. Slap the throttle back up and nudge the speed down a little while the song plays on. It was probably on WTKO AM in Ithaca because that was the only station the bent up whip antenna could pull in. The DJ most likely cut it off as it faded and read a commercial. I don't remember the end...only the song.
A silly song that packed so much into such a tiny little space. Something about what it was to be that kid. To sit on that dirty tractor and see that tiny piece of the world on that one bright summer day.
Could it be a faded rose from days gone by?
It may very well be...but it's pressed between the pages of a book that I can still take out and read once in a while. All it takes is something to help me find the right page. Ms. Reddy...I owe you one.