Auto-Biography: Tractor Driving Maniac

I took this picture of my future replacement “practicing” on the Farmall H; the Ford 8N is in the distance, and the soon to be doomed Studebaker pickup as well


(first posted in 2007)   It’s not just cars that are safer nowadays, but grown-ups too. Imagine telling your eight year-old: “Son, we’re sending you off to a farm for two weeks to drive tractors for some family our cleaning lady knows.” That’s what my parents did, and I barely survived to tell the tale. Regrets? Hell no; it was the best time I ever had as a kid.

For five summers in a row, I was literally “farmed-out” to a Mennonite family where all the girls were born before the boys, who were still too young to drive a tractor. Unlike their more extreme techno-shunning Amish relations, these conservative Mennonites used tractors and such. But my deeply religious host– a part-time preacher no less– was a taciturn man who mostly reserved his limited verbal output to prayer and spontaneous mini-sermons, right in the middle of the field even, whenever the spirit struck.

When it came to learning my new craft, words of instruction, explanation and warning were conspicuously absent. Education was to be provided by divine intervention or a perpetual series of baptisms by fire. My first-ever tractor drive provides a perfect example…

There I was, a mere slip of a boy, hanging onto the back of the ancient 1930s (putt-putt) John Deere Model B like a tick. While in motion, Mr. Yoder suddenly receives a heavenly twitter that I should now be the one driving. He slides off the seat, grabs me, sets me on the throne and jumps off. So much for Driver’s Ed. I can still see him standing there, very slowly receding into the distance, with a look on his face that was a mixture of absolute trust in the intercession of St. John of Deere and doubt.

Just aiming the the tractor was easy enough. But what the bewildering array of levers and pedals all did was beyond me (I vaguely knew in principle, but not the specifics). When it came time for forward movement—minimal as it was—to come to an end, I had no idea of what to do. Somehow, the lesson arrived as intended. Trial and error?

The following summer, when I was nine, I was promoted to full-time tractor driver as soon as I arrived. “Take the (Farmall) H, hook up the rake and run the cut field out past the oats.” Once I figured out what (and where) the rake was, where the field lay and what pattern I was supposed to make around it, I was in tractor-driving hog heaven.

The controls of these old Farmalls were totally mechanical and very rude. To extract any response from the stiff pedals, I had to slide forward, practically off the seat and simultaneously suspend and leverage myself from the steering wheel. And hanging on to that jerking, hot tiller while bouncing through a bumpy field all day brought visceral meaning to the phrase “steering feedback”.

I was drafted each summer during haying time. The preacher’s young sons (Steve and John) weren’t yet old enough to drive, so I earned my three meals a day. Unlike them, I wore t-shirts sitting on the tractor all day long under the blazing Iowa sun. The melanoma I had removed a few years back from my forearm brought it home as to why the men wore long sleeve shirts and straw hats.

There was quite a fleet of elderly tractors at my disposal. The “sports car” was a Ford 8N, a low slung utility tractor that usually sported a blade on the back for clearing out the dairy barn. It was by far the fastest of the bunch, with a top speed of almost 20 mph.

Seemed more like 55, to this ten year  old, especially compared to the John Deere. That fast top gear was meant strictly for the road, but nobody told me that. Bouncing across a rough field in top gear was proto-ATVing.

The Model B John Deere was from the thirties, and its two cylinder 149 cubic inch engine made some 18 hp, on a good day. It sported two 2-speed transmissions, yielding, yes; four speeds. Figuring out how to end up with the right gear was another matter, But it didn’t seem to matter too much; it was always slow. Top speed was a brisk walk; made a great tractor for cultivating, but terrible for hauling a wagon to some distant neighbors. You could look down and count the pieces of gravel at top speed. That exposed flywheel spinning inches away from your shoe laces was how one started these old Johnny Poppers, and was treated with respect once under way.

The two main field tractors were early fifties Farmalls, an H and the vaunted Super M-TA, the biggest Farmall International made in 1954. It actually had power steering; what decadence! But I was most often relegated to the H, to help me build up my city-boy arms.

There was one more, but it only came out once or twice from its hiding place deep in bowels of the machine shed: a John Deere Model D from the twenties, with steel wheels.

Its two garbage-can sized pistons displaced 501 cubic inches (8.2 L) and when pushed all the way to its 900 rpm red line, developed some 40 hp. Why did it come out so rarely?

It was ancient, a bitch for Mr. Yoder to start by hand spinning its flywheel, was slow as molasses, and not very efficient. Only when it was needed, to pull out the other tractors and their load if they got stuck in a mud hole during an unusually wet summer, did it make its regal appearance, looking disdainfully down on the newfangled tractors with their sissy rubber tires.

With its lugged wheels, it was utterly unstoppable. You could see the drive wheels pulsate with each piston power stroke. It afforded some of the more memorable moments of my youth, to see, hear and feel that D’s completely un-muffled sewer-sized exhaust pipe huffing and chuffing away to pull out the M-TA and a drag full of hay up a muddy slope at a snails pace.

A drag? Yes, in the archaic meaning of the word (a heavy sledge for hauling loads). To pick up all the hay bales spewed randomly all over the field by the baler, a large wooden drag (or sled, skid or stone boat) was employed. It was a big flat platform made of sturdy local oak, somewhat resembling a barn door, and was pulled along on the ground with a chain behind the tractor. Not very efficient, but the fields were very close by, and it slid over the hay stubble pretty easily; not so much on the gravel road. If you popped the clutch too quick, the men trying to stay upright on the moving drag were not amused.

My job was to steer a weaving course between the bales, and get so close to each of them so that Mr. Yoder and a helpful neighbor standing on the drag would just grab the bales as they went by on each side, and stack them. I got lots of dirty looks for all the getting off and running I made him do. I didn’t fully appreciate their plight until I was old enough (twelve) to stack the forty pound bales myself (now that was hard work). I looked longingly up at the oldest son on the Farmall whose turn it now was to make us run for the bales.

The drag was pulled up to the big barn, and hay forks were were lowered and inserted into a cube of bales. The little Ford 8N was hooked to the other end of the rope, and at the signal, carefully driven forward to raise the bales. When the forks hit the rail at the top of the barn, the wheels on the fork would engage, and it would now move horizontally into the barn hay loft. There was another rope hanging down from the forks,  and when the bales were at the right point in the hay loft, the rope was tugged, releasing the forks and the bales would tumble down, to be stacked by…whoever ended up there. I used to drive the 8N for that job, until one year I was deemed to big and strong to not be in the haymow stacking bales. Hard, hot and dusty work, putting away a whole winter’s worth of hay for a herd of dairy cows.

The lessons learned were often in precarious circumstances, but indelible. Inching a three ton tractor to hitch up a wagon between the posts in the bowels of a barn, I learned to play the clutch friction point like a Stradivarius. I didn’t want to add a knocked-down barn to my list of accidents.

The tractors had twin brake pedals, which seemed an unnecessary annoyance. One day, pulling a load, I dropped the right drive wheel into a muddy rut. Watching that tire spin I had an inspiration: I pushed the right brake pedal, and the power transferred to the left wheel. Divine intervention revealed traction control to me.

The big red Super M-TA was the Caddy of the fleet and the apple of my eye. The words “Torque Amplifier” had an almost mythic spell on me, and often appeared in my dreams but without a proper explanation of how it worked. With its power steering, driving the M was downright decadent compared to that miserable H. Its big four cylinder engine had 264 cubic inches, and it gave a delightful growl from the exhaust stack. Sitting up there in control of that big machine made me feel like a king. When told it made all of 47 horsepower, I was incredulous. That thing could pull a barn. But a day spent on Mr. Y’s father’s Amish farm behind a team of two draft horses pulling a giant hay wagon gave me a new perspective on that terminology.

The Farmalls had five highly-unsynchronized gears. The first four were for the field; you could start in any of them. But up-shifting into fifth on the road was the problem; I hadn’t yet divined double-clutching, and my dear preacher-ersatz-father never bothered to give me a lesson in that. He seemed content enough to hear the grinding of gears in the distance rather than take the time.

My technique: I forced all my weight against the unyielding stick in the direction of fifth and ground the gears mercilessly. When the tractor finally lost all its momentum and practically stopped, fifth finally engaged, I popped the clutch and the big Farmall slooowly chuffed away. My admiration for long-stroke, torquey engines has never diminished.

I drove an old Oliver once when I was “lent” to another son-poor neighbor. It had a six cylinder, and I loved its art-deco/aerodynamic styling. The six was as smooth as butter, but it just didn’t quite have the low end grunt of a Farmall four, never mind the planet-rotating torque of the big John Deere twins.

Row-crop tractors with their siamese-twin front wheels and high centers of gravity fully deserved their nick-name “widow makers.” My first near-death experience arrived when I tried to take a tight down-hill curve on a gravel road at top speed. I made what I thought was a brilliant decision to avoid even bothering with the useless brakes: pull back the handle on the M-TA’s “torque amplifier”. It normally reduced forward speed in the field by 50% without a balky shift down. I assumed that it would do the same on this downhill to slow me down. Not so: it worked like an underdrive while under load, but free-wheeled on a downhill. The big M actually sped up.

I watched the big inside drive wheel start to lift up; reflexively I eased the steering wheel a bit and widened my arc as much as possible, and the big wheel came back down, slowly. The hell with a perfect apex; I was too young to die. Mr. Yoder, who was behind me in his pickup, thought for sure that the M was going to roll.

The same corner tried to kill me twice. As I always did, I was riding standing up—face in the wind—behind the cab of the old Studebaker pickup. Unexpectedly, Mr. Y took an abrupt right turn at the that same T-intersection at a reckless speed (I assumed he was going to go straight, given his speed). Falling out, I managed to grab the driver-side outside rear-view mirror. His face expressed considerable surprise when he saw me hanging there just outside his window (damn Studebaker for being the first pickup without running board). His explanation: the brakes “were out” (had been for a while). I began to understand why Mennonites had large families.

The elderly Studebaker pickup had spent its prime years as a tow truck and now hauled the occasional cow or pigs . Its tired flathead six was fragile and it clattered, but Mr. Yoder knew how to baby it. One day Mrs. Y was going to borrow it for some reason. She started it with a heavy foot, the engine innards became outers, and smoke billowed out so profusely, the whole barn was obscured for fifteen minutes. Spectacular for me, but not for Mr. Yoder, who couldn’t quite afford a proper replacement. I went with him and test drove a used ’56 Ford with a proper V8, and he thought it to be a veritable hot rod. He ended up making his own by cutting down an old 1947 Chevy sedan and building a bed out of a pile of lumber. Making a living on a small farm with a mortgage and a big family wasn’t easy.

Surviving (literally) those elementary-school year summers bronco-riding an assortment of elderly Farmalls, Fords and Johnny Poppers grounded me deeply in the fundamentals of auto-locomotion. They were lessons that would never leave me—just like the scars on my leg and my permanently disfigured fingers that I mangled in a hay elevator.

And yet I loved those summers. Waking up in the morning to the sun rising over the old barn across the road, with the only sound breaking the utter silence being the distinctive clatter of galvanized steel feeder box doors as the livestock ate its breakfast. The peak experience was the “Ice Cream Supper”, when each related family made a gallon of homemade ice cream, and then took it to the elder’s farm, where a dozen or more in different flavors were set out with giant plates of cookies. Now that was a memorable supper.

I learned many useful lessons, like not to pee on an electric fence. Despite two frantic trips to the university hospital for emergency surgery, I have no regrets. (In fact, one of those trips blessed me with my first 100 mph car ride, in a neighbor’s  ’56 Ford with the “Thunderbird” 312 engine.) Life’s lasting lessons– and fast car rides– often come at a price.