Friday, November 27, 2009

The Gearhead

So I got thinking about music from the past and that almost always leads to something else...

There was a time geologic ages ago when I worked on a farm. I was a teenager for most of it and for some reason, actually loved what I was doing. Something about machinery I think...small boys and big toys...

It evolved out of a field next to the house in Caroline where I grew up. We lived beside a flat piece of cropland that I never really noticed much except when I was hiding in the tall grain or cornstalks and the times every once-in-awhile when the tractors would show up. I used to sit and watch them go around and around, not really knowing what they were up to but fascinated just the same. I would wait long minutes between passes to watch them make a turn at the end of the field and dive back in for another go-round. I think I was a little scared of them but couldn't ignore how much they intrigued me.
My Dad knew the farmer who worked the field and the two of them would occasionally meet along the headland and shoot the breeze for a bit in the evening. It was just meaningless big-people talk to me but I always managed to wander over next to the tractor or truck and just look up at the monsters while the men visited about weather and politics. Dad introduced me to this tractor-man and he shook my hand once like he always did when he and Dad met. My fingers wouldn't even reach around his palm as he took my hand and his callouses left scratches but I almost felt grown up for a minute. I did eventually learn that this farmers name was Herb and I remember him from back then as a big man usually dressed in grey who mostly looked as dirty and dusty as his machines. His clothes smelled of old hay, the cowbarn from morning chores, diesel fuel, baler twine and sweat. To me, it was the smell of summer. He wore a limp-brimmed old hat that used to have some farm machinery's label on it before it disappeared in the dirt and he probably shaved once or twice a week if he had time or happened to go to church on Sunday. But he always waved and smiled as he worked his way past my lookout perch and when he stopped, I soon found out that he often had cookies and sandwiches stashed in brown paper bags and a quart metal jug filled with whole milk right out of the bulk tank or a jar of used-to-be-iced tea. More important, he was willing to share whatever he had with the wide-eyed, waist-high kid hanging around the big back tires.

Then there was the first time he offered me a ride. I had to ask Mom first and I think I had to do some pleading but somehow I ended up on the fender, way up there in the air, watching the hay go by and feeling like I was flying. I almost think I sat behind the steering wheel while he drove but it's all pretty fuzzy. I don't remember too much except the impressions of a really young boy but what I do know is I was well and finally hooked. I'm pretty sure they had to pry me off when dusk fell and the day was over. Unless I'm really mistaken, I would have slept right there on the platform if they'd let me. It was a start.

From there on out, Herb couldn't make a move in that field without me attached. Having to go to school was a real hardship in the spring and fall because he would start without me and I'd find half the work done when I got off the bus. He'd plow, plant and cut in turn as the seasons went and I'd usually be nearby at least watching the wheels go around or shamelessly trying to finagle a ride. Rainy weather was a serious disappointment because it meant the equipment parked under the maple tree wouldn't move that day and I might miss something. Gradually, the big red and green tools became more familiar and I started to know what each one did and how they worked. No matter what, they were all fascinating to a grade-school, entry-level gearhead.

The first really vivid memory of any particular machine came from that same field beside the house. Late one summer when harvest came around, Herb pulled in on a sunny afternoon to cut oats with the biggest thing I'd ever seen on wheels...a faded red combine. Much later I'd find out that it was really pretty small as these things go and it was already old when I first saw it but to me, it was like looking at a moon rocket. Later still, I got to know that old soldier as a plain-jane Massey Harris 82 with a ten foot grain table and pick-up reel but the day I first saw it, it was a wonder of the world. It was noisy and dirty, hung with belts, rods, augers and chains. You had to climb a ladder to get in the cab which was equipped with a bewildering array of levers, pedals, old burlap bags, stray tools, an inch of black dust and the ever-present brown lunch bag. When it chewed into the grain, it looked like the whole thing was in motion...belts and pulleys spinning, straw and chaff flying out the back, reel wading into the standing crop like it was pulling itself along. It was absolutely mesmerizing. Of course, I wanted a ride as soon as I saw it and Herb was willing to oblige. I made the long climb aboard and could hardly breathe in the heat and dust of the cab. Air conditioning was at least ten years in the future and all there was was a couple of little fans to blow the suffocating air around. The door was tied open and the glass windshield was almost opaque from dirt but it still was the most incredible thing I'd ever seen. Herb boosted me up and I rode around the field watching the slats pull the stalks into the cutterbar in waves and the feed auger swallow it in a cloud of dust. Behind the cab, the clean grain poured into a bin in a steady stream until it threatened to overflow and the straw shook out the big hood at the back in long windrows behind us. Every time around, we had to stop beside an ancient Dodge truck and dump the grain bin with a long auger and spout on the side of the little Massey. After a while, Herb put the machine in low-and-slow gear and set the header height a little high, put me in the seat to steer and climbed down the ladder as we rolled along to check if any grain was going out with the straw. He couldn't have been gone more than a minute or two but I thought I was the king of the world 'driving' that old beast out there in the sun. It sure was a big thing for a small boy, even though I didn't have a clue how to stop it or do much of anything except follow the line of the last cut and hold onto that big steering wheel spinner for dear life. There just was nothing like it.

I know that evening came too soon and I finally got hauled into the house for dinner when the dew fell and the oats got too tough to combine for the day. Herb and Dad chatted as usual before Herb headed home with the old Dodge and the day's load of grain. He had to get there before it got dark since the muffler-less truck probably hadn't had working lights in a decade. My clothes got stripped at the door and I got thrown in the bathtub to scrub the incredible amounts of dirt and chaff out of my hair and off my face. That's about the time I discovered for the first time that I had rip-roaring hay fever and a dust allergy. My eyes swelled shut and itched so bad I thought I'd scratch them out but I was too busy trying to breathe to bother with it. My Mom put cool washcloths on my eyes to take down the swelling and I eventually sneezed out enough crud to inhale again but it looked pretty bad for my future riding on combines. I don't know if I cried more about being miserable or the proclamation that my farming days were probably over.

I think I begged and made myself a nuisance so much over it that Mom and Dad finally relented and once more, I rode the combine. Predictably, I was a mess again but to my mind, it was worth it. Eventually, a prescription from the doctor made the hay fever tolerable if not ignorable and I was off and running on other adventures in Holsteins and International Harvesters, which paved the way to the railroad and the right-hand seat of a locomotive. In a sense, everything since has been tied to that old '82' and that long-ago summer in one way or another. I guess you just never know how some seemingly insignificant events can shape your life...even when you're only a little, four-foot tall future gearhead.

1 comment:

rrpilot said...

"I guess you just never know how some seemingly insignificant events can shape your life...even when you're only a little, four-foot tall future gearhead."

How very true...for me it was two-fold, a kind NYC Subway Motorman who opened the door and let me blow the horn and a random chance conversation with a guy named Earl Pardini...