The magic of a John Deere could grip a teenage boy’s imagination in ways no female form could. You could talk to it, you could caress it, and it responded to your beckoning any time of the day. If the color of love for a young farm lad was green, it involved a John Deere, or in my case, our John Deere Model G. Love is blind and the rusty coat it wore made little difference; it was beauty to my eyes. The G wasn’t the first tractor my dad owned but it is the earliest memory I have of any on our farm.
Our Model G was the Rodney Dangerfield of John Deere’s tractor roster. Like the comedian of ironic self-deprecation, it did all the work but didn’t get any respect. It had a dual-fuel engine, using gasoline and distillate/kerosene, with two tanks, the smallest one located nearest to the forward steering column. Yes, it burned lots of gas, had slow hydraulics, and the wheel width was so hard to adjust that Dad finally set it for 38-inch corn rows and left it there. Oh, and did I mention that it over-heated a lot, once so badly it cracked the head? It was a brute; heavy, hard to steer but, in classic farm-speak, it could really pull. But boy, I loved that tractor.
To a pre-teenage farm kid, the special magic radiated by tractors could be found in unexpected places such as our county fair. Farm equipment dealers displayed machinery at the fair every July, and on the last day they held tractor parades; each dealer sitting proudly on their tractors, showing off their latest models as they snaked their way along the dirt tracks. It drew crowds – huge crowds – because a lot of farmers came to the fair.
One year after the machinery parade ended, the John Deere dealer put one of his tractors in motion by locking the right wheel brake and then positioning the steering so that the left wheel kept driving, turning the tractor in a circular, clockwise direction. Then he dismounted from the rear and watched as a crowd gathered around.
I stood, peeking out from behind my dad, as we watched this amazing perpetual motion machine spinning in circles. The crowd grew but kept a safe distance as they gingerly crept up to watch this tractor revolving around itself, like a dog chasing its tail.
Their initial wonder quickly turned to nervous laughter, followed by more than one farmer taking a slight, tentative step back as the tractor growled its way past. The riderless machine continued digging its way round and around and seemed to pick up speed on each rotation, fueled by an internal anger, goading itself on. The stationary right tire sculpted a slightly deeper hole into the sandy soil with each turn while its mate chewed a circular path.
Mothers deftly pulled their children back into the crowd as black smoke belched from the stack, the racing motor determined to unleash itself from an invisible collar. They recognize danger when their husbands often are blinded to it. A mother’s instinct knows unpredictable things happen on a farm. They sensed what would likely happen if that single brake unlocked, and having their child run over by a loose, abandoned tractor was not their reason for attending the fair.
The owner finally was satisfied with the effect his novel idea had on the crowd and climbed back on, timing his grasp of the seat rail with the tractor turn. Once on the seat, he pushed the clutch to stop its motion, unlocked the brake, and straightened the steering. Then he put it back into gear to let the tractor claw its way out of the fresh hole, and finally turned off the engine.
The crowd dissolved as quickly as it had appeared. He sat on his tractor, alone on a metal island and watched the sea of human curiosity wash back with the tide into the fair carnival. He seemed pleased as he got off and walked over to us. He obviously knew my dad because he called over using his name, “Hi, Howard.”
They talked but nothing more was said about his tractor although my father was grinning. Finally, bursting with impatience I blurted out, “How did you do that?”
He looked down at me through his thick glasses filmed with the dust churned up by the tractor tires. He just smiled and appeared to cast a wink of his eye towards my father before turning back to me saying, “Well, I just gave it a little thump with my knuckles and it did the rest. It’s all in the thumpin’.” And he snapped his wrist with the outstretched knuckles of his index and middle fingers into the air, imitating how he cast a magic spell over his John Deere. That seemed fair, but when I tried it on our G later at home nothing happened. All I had to show for it was a pair of bruised and skinned knuckles, and a tractor that didn’t move.
The G signaled a change in the history of our farm. By the late 1940s, my dad had bought it to replace the registered Belgian workhorses that had powered the farm. It got the brunt of our farm work – plowing, planting, disking and chopping; even silo filling. Its clutch was engaged by pushing forward a long steel lever topped with a gripping knob and located on the right side of the steering wheel rather than by a foot pedal found in later models. The shift lever for reverse and the four forward gears was positioned within an iron shell on the foot platform and was maneuvered around the five slots that resembled the teeth of a carved pumpkin. When the clutch lever was pushed forward, it set the tractor in the desired direction. The throttle was located just above the clutch and confusing the two could create an alarming and dangerous situation for the driver as it was known to jump from any sudden and unexpected acceleration.
The G powered the silage blower, which was belt-driven off the pulley located on the right side of the tractor frame, just ahead of the rear wheel. Silo filling would test its full power capacity. Wood blocks were placed in front of the rear wheels because the torque created by the belt pulling against the spinning blower paddles loaded with silage increased the effect of pulling the brake-locked tractor forward. It was a massive tug-of-war between two groaning, stationary machines with only the straining, spinning belt between them.
My brother made a habit of filling the blower hopper with as much silage as it would hold just to make the G work hard. As it struggled against this increased load, the front end began to bounce like a bronco straining to dislodge its unwanted burden. Black smoke shot up from the muffler as the engine labored and, with such maximum capacity stress placed on it, it is little wonder the G eventually overheated.
And it overheated a lot; once so badly that it cracked the head. Dad didn’t want to fix it but our local dealer found a new engine head in Iowa. When the refurbished tractor came back, the new head was the only true green part remaining; the rest of the tractor’s paint had worn off long before.
“Go get the G, will you?” Dad said to me one day when I least expected it.
There was an unspoken directive contained within that question; get the tractor and drive it over to where he was working and don’t ask why.
This was the first indication that Dad considered me capable of handling it by myself and I was going to make the most of it. My chance was no different from what neighbor farm boys my age had. We’d compare notes at our country grade school to see who became the first to do things; driving, disking, plowing. It became a quiet contest of who did what first. Being the youngest in my class, I always came in last.
I raced across our farmyard to jump on it before Dad changed his mind, forgetting his warning not to treat a tractor like a toy. A father’s advice can be forgiving; a mistake with farm machinery is not. I scrambled up and plopped myself on the hard seat and realized that this was my chance, alone and without Grandpa as bodyguard or navigator.
Dad’s request was like a pardon or a sentence lifted because I had finally reached the age of 12. He had established this age as being old enough to drive a tractor alone, but it was our mother who made sure that rule was strictly obeyed. A mother’s directive is not so forgiving.
It seemed an arbitrary age, and while I was jealous that my brother crossed that line sixteen months before I did, nothing I could do – no begging, no cajoling, no simple asking could change that rule.
But now it was my turn. My feet barely reached the left brake while I switched on the ignition. I had watched them start it many times so it should have been second nature for me, except I had never been allowed to do it myself. Now in my excitement, I had failed to pull the full forward throttle back but had instead pushed the clutch lever forward. When I pushed the foot starter, I was quickly confronted with the consequences of my mistake as the ignition engaged and the engine accelerated. The last thing I remembered hearing was my dad yelling, “Don’t … ,” but the rest was quickly drowned out as the G lunged forward.
I panicked and pushed the foot brakes, trying desperately to stop it, instead of pulling back on the clutch or throttle which would have. The last driver had left the choke pulled out and black smoke coughed from the muffler. With the tractor sputtering, I held tight to the steering wheel thinking of nothing else, oblivious to my dad’s hollering.
As it lurched forward, the front end lifted as the sudden engine acceleration and forward gear movement merged like a snorting, angry horse rearing on its hind legs with its rider holding on for dear life.
I clutched the steering wheel so tight that my fingers turned white. Suddenly the tractor stalled and bounced to a stop, like air escaping a collapsing balloon, and I was left sitting where I started only moments before, a relative sea of calm released from the gripping chaos of motion.
I must have looked a ghost when Dad scrambled up beside me. I was still clutching the steering wheel with a determined look but with tears streaming down as I realized this might be the last time I drove alone for quite some time. I turned and looked up at Dad, who towered over me next to the seat. He put his hand on my shoulder and gave it a gentle shake. He stood there breathing hard from running. Without saying a word, he was quietly taking in what he had just seen.
A mixed look showed in his face – part chuckling, part worried and part afraid my mother would find out. Finally he laughed, reached forward, rapped his knuckles on the metal housing in front of the steering wheel and said, “It’s all in the thumpin’, isn’t it?” FC
Philip Hasheider is a farmer and the author of several guidebooks, including How to Raise Cattle, How to Raise Sheep and How to Raise Pigs, all published in cooperation with the FFA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers, including the Wisconsin State Journal and the Wisconsin Academy of Review. He lives with his wife and two children on a farm near Sauk City, Wisc.
Excerpted from an essay that originally appeared in My First Tractor: Stories of Farmers and Their First Love published by Voyageur Press and available through Farm Collector Bookshelf.