Farm kids and tractor rigs rolling downhill, out of gear, a potentially lethal combination
How did farm kids in the old days live to be 16? There were too many ways to get killed or badly broken on a farm in the 1940s, before so many safety devices were invented. Totally unaware of the danger, we ran through tests of how one might go to an early reward.
One such experiment took place in 1944. My brother Dudley and I hired out to haul manure for Mr. Bolton. In the barnyard with his tractor scoop loader, Mr. Bolton dug up dripping, sloshing piles of ripe manure and filled our spreader wagons. We chugged up a long, steep hill to the field and dumped a wide belt of fragrant slop. A moving drag on the bed of the spreader pulled the manure into whirling tines at the back of the box. These spiky drums were turned by a chain drive from the back wheels and threw chunks of sodden cow pie, pig poop and horse droppings to the sky.
Either going down to the end of the field or coming back, the wind was behind us. It didn’t help much to pull down the hat and turn up the collar; the breeze brought a shower of stuff that would make Mom’s washday even more challenging.
When the spreader was ready, we hurried back to fill up again. As we neared the top of the high hill that swooped sharply down toward the barnyard, any sense of danger went on vacation. We didn’t regard the small front wheels of our tractors in relation to a deeply rutted dirt road. Teenagers again, we thought it was time to rev our engines to top speed approaching the downhill crest and kick the clutch to neutral. Gravity and the push of the heavy manure wagon would do the rest.
A tractor rig rolling downhill picks up speed quickly when the gears are floating freely. I remember the force of air rushing past, making my eyes water and vision dim. The front wheels of each tractor ran smoothly for a while in the flattened car tracks, then hit a bump and bounced or swerved as the small dual tires caught on the edge of a rut. Looking back on that day, I wonder if the Grim Reaper might have been resting beside the road, knowing that only the smallest mistake, a few inches of error in gripping the steering wheel or accidentally touching one side wheel brake more than the other, would assure him of having a good day. Somewhere a guardian angel (who stayed upwind to keep spots off her wings) watched over us.
We repeated this flirtation with eternity time after time, all day long. We grinned with pleasure at the wild ride when the rig finally slowed enough to slip the tractor into gear. We serenely stretched the odds of fate and chance against a pile of rolling, tangled wreckage. Maybe it was just as well. If we’d been nervous gripping that steering wheel, we might have had an accident. FC
Dale Geise is a retired educator who grew up on a farm near Underwood in southwest Iowa. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.