Driving tractor was not a career I would have chosen, especially not at the age of forty-four. Operating heavy equipment was outside my realm of experience and opportunity.
But I needed a job to finance a trip to the “old country,” where I would meet my great aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Getting a job was no problem. I casually mentioned to one of the hired men from “The Ranch” that I wouldn’t mind working there, fancying a job stringing barbed wire or picking rocks. The boss heard wind of my hint. He always needed extra hands, and he had known me since I was a toddler. I was hired.
I wore my bib overalls and carried a bag lunch. How lovely it would be to picnic in the grass after a morning of wholesome farm work!
I parked my mini van where it would be safe from unwieldy swathers and cumbersome combines. I tried out a ladylike saunter on my way to the equipment shop, where the other farmhands congregated before heading out to the fields. I lurked shyly, inhaling the scent of oil-sodden soil, diesel fumes, and man sweat.
The foreman noticed me, and with a jerk of his head to indicate that I should follow, led the way to an ancient Case tractor. It loomed above me like a red and yellow dragon. I couldn’t reach the bottom step.
“This is your tractor. You’ll be inverting the hay, flipping it over so the sun can get at the belly side. Get in and start ‘er up.”
I had no idea how to start a tractor or drive it.
So, he drove it out to the field for me, and I followed in my van. In the safety of two hundred acres, he gave me the shortest tractor driving lesson in history.
“Throttle. Brake. Clutch. If it won’t start, hold this bolt to the starter here. Make sure it’s outta gear if you do that.”
Away I went.
I learned other lessons that day.
I learned that no matter how long the baler man stops to smoke a cigarette and chat with the mower man, he’ll catch up to me.
I found out that the boss always shows up when I’m maneuvering around a tricky corner. Warning dust clouds do not follow the boss like they do ordinary folk.
This is important. Don’t touch the clutch when going downhill. I really did see my life flash before my eyes.
I also learned to pay attention to dark clouds on the horizon.
I should have heeded the signs of pending doom after my short lunch break - no time for a blissful repose in the alfalfa - when I smelled something burning. I hadn’t released the emergency brake. That also explained why I had stalled five or six times.
Congratulating myself that I hadn’t done any permanent damage to the tractor, I made my merry way round and round the field, oblivious to the boiling black mass overhead.
Huge raindrops smacked the windshield. I stood on the clutch and the brake and rolled to a stop. Immediately, water began streaming sideways across the filthy glass, and the wind whipped rain through the open side window. A deluge poured in through the defunct, over-the-cab air conditioner, sluicing torrents of mucky, oily sludge in grimy rivulets down my face and neck. Within seconds, I was drenched, from my moussed hair to the cuffs of my overalls.
Sudden flashes struck me with fear. I decided not to sit there waiting to be drowned or hit by lightning. I abandoned ship... er... tractor.
I splashed my way to the van, getting saturated to the knees. Already, the windrows of hay were pummeled flat and sodden. Grasshoppers paddled vainly in the rising tide.
Sitting on a pile of absorbent junk mail, I drove through the downpour to the shop.
“Got a little wet, didja?” one of the hands asked. The others nodded sagely through the smog of cigarette smoke and welding haze.
“Time to go home,” said the foreman. “Day’s over.”
I wished summer was over.
I stuck with it, though, and by August’s end, I learned that the rain that nourishes tender shoots also threatens to destroy the harvest. I realized that, too often, I have idyllic expectations that are not realistic. And I discovered that I’m not too old to learn something new.
One thing eluded me, though. What did the men at the shop do all day?
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