When working on a tractor there is always a need to use a tool. Usually a simple plier or screwdriver or piece of baling wire can patch a problem enough to keep from having to run to the shop.
As I got older it came time for Dad to keep me entertained, even when he was working with one of the two tractors we rented out. And it was evident that, with the clutching and braking and wrestling the unpowered steering wheel of a Ford N series tractor, there was no holding me on his lap.
And that is why one of my first memories is perching my scrawny butt on a narrow tool box on a big fender that kept my little ass from scraping on the big left rear tire of dad’s tractor.
There was an ever-present odor of grease and oil and gasoline and hot engine up there. To this day I think of those aromas as the smell of my dad.
The tool box was the highest I had ever ridden, atop that big tire looking out at the moving world with just air around me. It was nothing like being shut up in a car. The road or ground was right there moving beneath us. And when Dad was plowing or mowing or leveling or disking, the action was churning just under my feet. It was endlessly fascinating to see what Dad was doing to the dirt or the grass. And more than once I terrorized myself thinking how that plow or mower or leveler or those disks would maul my bones into the scenery should I fall off that bit of a tool box as the tractor bounced and tugged and struggled at its tasks.
Which I suppose is why I absolutely always had to have my arm as far as I could reach around my dad’s sweaty chest. No being cool and hanging on to the top edge of the fender, my body arched back and my hair blowing in the summer wind like a carefree movie star sitting atop the back seat of a convertible.
Not that I minded hanging on, even as I got older. It was never a solid ride up there and I was glad for the hand hold. And I’m sure my arm around him made my dad confident he’d know to stop the tractor before any mauling in case my hinny suddenly slip off that bit of a fender perch.
When Dad got his first Ford tractor he spent one afternoon driving it out to my mother’s grandparent’s farm south of Ustic, Idaho. My mother’s aunt Ellen had been raising her three children on that land since her husband died some thirteen years earlier at the age of forty.
Ellen led a hard life, scraping together enough egg and milk money to feed her growing kids. Her daughter Dona tells me Ellen made their clothes out of feed sacks, the unworn edges of sheets, and what good scraps could be salvaged from ragged adult clothes. Her mother was so good at combining the different patterns that Dona considered her dresses to be the prettiest in the school.
The farm had a large garden to grow the food the family would eat through the coming year. Every spring the garden needed to be turned over, raked level and prepared for planting. Dona’s older brother and sister pushed a wheeled hand plow through the dirt to break it up and the whole family got busy raking and leveling the ground for planting. It was days of back-breaking work.
And that was why my dad drove his new tractor mounted with a plow way way out in the country. The rest of us arrived in our Frazier Manhattan automobile pulling a trailer with a disking implement on it.
Dad sat on his tractor pulling the plow through the garden. It dug deep, breaking up the soil and turning it over so the remains of last year’s crop were turned under to compost into the land. Then he sat on the tractor dragging the disc, a series of circular blades that broke up the clumps of dirt left by the plow and leveled the deep ruts the plow had left behind. The job was easily done in an hour.
Years later Dona told me she and her sister and brother had watched that man they did not know sitting on his tractor. “We knew he was showing off. BUT WE WERE SURE GLAD TO HAVE ALL THAT DIRT TURNED OVER!!!!!!”
(A note: My mother’s grandparents on her dad’s side were Eric and Johanna Dahlberg. Their daughter Ellen married Earle Officer in 1925. Their daughter Dona married James Saad in 1956.)