When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was The Story of a Bad Boy, by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, in which he told of his escapades as a young boy growing up in 19th century New England. I guess the following tale of some of my misuses and abuses of our little Ford Ferguson tractor back in the 1940s could bear the same title. I wouldn’t dare confess to these antics if my father was still living, and I still don’t know how I got away with them without him knowing (maybe I didn’t).
The H____ family lived about a mile from our farm in western Pennsylvania. There were three H____ boys, Thornton who was my age, John a little older, and Bob a little younger. We loved to play cowboys and Indians and when I could get away with it, I’d drive the tractor to their place and we’d use it as our stagecoach. There was a large field across the driveway from their house that was grown up with sapling trees and chest-high bushes. This field was our Wild, Wild West.
A couple of the H____ boys would go out into the field and set up an ambush and I’d come crashing through the underbrush on the tractor. When they sprang their trap, I’d shut off the ignition key and jump from the Ford (while it was still moving) in order to return the hostile fire. It’s a wonder we didn’t wreck the tractor, or run over one another.
My cousin Bob, who lived in town, would always spend four or five weeks with us every summer. Although he was two years younger than me, he was the same size and we got into lots of mischief together, with him riding a rear fender of the Ford, or, sometimes driving it.
One of my favorite tricks was to hook a length of baling wire to the governor arm and hold the engine governor wide open while roaring down the road in high gear. This stunt upped the Ford’s road speed from a sedate 10 miles per hour to something a lot faster.
Bob and I would occasionally ride our bikes into Negley, Ohio, a small town about five miles from the farm. Here we bought candy and pop, and one store would sell me a pack of cigarettes even though I was only thirteen or fourteen (I suppose I told the clerk the cigarettes were for my father, even though he didn’t smoke. Probably didn’t fool the clerk either.).
One day, when Dad must have been away, we hooked up the governor wire and drove that Ford tractor all the way to Negley and back with the engine roaring at many more RPM than it was designed for—I can’t imagine why it didn’t blow up.
On warm summer evenings (remember, this was in the days before bucket seats and center consoles raised a huge barrier to young love in a parked car) guys and their girlfriends would often park along the secluded dirt roads around our farm for a session of “necking.” Certain parking spots were favored by these folks and we kids knew where every one of them was. Sneaking up on these lovers and disturbing them was a sport we called “bushwacking.”
We usually did this on our bikes, but once in a while (probably when Mom and Dad were away for the evening), we took the tractor. I recall one night in particular when it was dark, but there was some moonlight. With Bob on the fender as usual, I shut off the tractor’s lights and eased up to within about one hundred yards of a parked car. We then tiptoed up behind the sedan, whose occupants were deeply engrossed in what they were doing.
We began banging on the sides of the car and yelling, before taking off on a dead run back to the tractor. There had been two couples in the car and both guys unexpectedly jumped out and chased us. Well, we got back to the tractor with a good margin of safety and I hit the starter button. The old Ford’s engine turned over but wouldn’t catch. The two guys were getting closer and were yelling all the dire things they were going to do to us, when that stupid engine finally fired, I jammed the transmission into high gear and away we went. They came after us in the car, but we cut across a field and got away.
That was the first time any one we’d bushwacked ever came after us and we were a little more careful after that.
I’m sure Dad thought I was a trustworthy and responsible kid, but little did he know. Here I was, not only risking damage to the Ford Ferguson tractor, which was essential to our farming operation, but I was jeopardizing my cousin’s life and my own (especially if those two guys had caught us). When I think back on it, I’m not exactly proud of my behavior.
Now a disclaimer for any kids who might be reading this. DO NOT try these stunts with one of your father’s tractors. You might not be as lucky as I was.