Friday, January 9, 2009

Big Red

In rural areas, city rules are bent, tweaked and twisted until they resemble country roads. Things that make sense in urban areas simply don’t apply out here. We intend to keep it that way, for good reason.

For instance, regardless of age, every able body works. If you can drive, that adds a tool to your toolbox. Suddenly you can run equipment down to the hayfield or deliver lunch to Dad when he’s cutting down trees in the back woods. Farm work tends to mature kids a bit earlier, so waiting until sixteen to learn how to drive seems just plain silly. Especially when you’re the oldest kid – Mom and Dad have been running all the errands and are anxious to put you behind the wheel. A very dented and rickety wheel, but a wheel nonetheless.

For town kids, your 16th birthday is usually the momentous day upon which your parents hire a professional company to whisk you away and teach you how to drive. The perilous, stressful business of learning to drive is administered by trained, well-medicated instructors in a well-padded, sterile environment. Mom and Dad throw some money at the issue, then go duck and cover.

In the country, there are tons of vehicles and animals upon which to practice your driving skills. After trying to get an ornery two-year-old horse to stop, finding the brakes on a car is child’s play. Your horse has already taught you a basic rule - you mess up stopping on a horse, and you will soon be sporting stitches or worse. Ye olde simple country rule – mistake=pain.

When I was about twelve, I was given an all-terrain vehicle. It was pink, had six moon tires, a massive roll bar, an earsplitting engine, and was named Maxx. It could go through nearly anything, including deep mud, water, and snowdrifts, even taking on steep hills. The butterfly choke didn’t work very well - in order to start it, you had to lean way back across the engine, putting your hand over the intake so your hand was literally the choke. Unfortunately, you had to lean directly over the exposed battery terminals, so if your arm was a bit too low and made a connection, a nasty shock would run from your elbow to your hand, now covered in fuel. That would happen only once, then you’d be more careful.

At first glance, this sounded like great fun. The only thing is, we used it more for work than anything else. Although I will admit, once you got past the chance of getting your arm shocked, being able to drive a pink ATV around was a thrill. If you ever want to keep your brothers from borrowing something of yours, get it in pink.

My first truly scary driving experience was on an International Harvester tractor. Dad let me drive “Big Red” because he said I couldn’t kill it no matter how hard I tried. It had a double-clutch that ignored my puny weight, so in order to shift, I had to jam both feet on the clutch, grip the steering wheel, and push down on the clutch with all my abdominal might. Then shift.

One day I was driving Big Red in a hayfield, nearly a full load on the hay wagon behind me, with Mom on the back stacking the bales. We were headed downhill and suddenly the old tractor’s brakes took a break. Big Red wouldn’t stop, and we were quickly running out of field. I peered back at the hay wagon, flexing and bending behind me faster and faster as we picked up speed. The bales swooped and swayed, threatening to fall off, possibly taking my mom with them. I knew she’d survive to kill me later. I yelled to her but she couldn’t hear me, probably because she was yelling at me. I tried turning Red slightly to the right, hoping to miss the trees and swamp, all the while pumping the brakes.

Tractor accidents usually look pretty ridiculous, rarely getting the respect and awe due, say, a NASCAR crash. They often occur at very low speed, with sad, silly, predictable results. A silo gets wiped out, a tractor rolls over seemingly in slow-motion to take a nap, or simply plows through an old barn as the driver bails out to safety. They’re usually more embarrassing than anything else. Especially for a young driver not weighty enough to compel the brakes to work.

Big Red lurched to the right. A few bales flew off the left side. I stood up on the cranky clutch and stomped, downshifting to slow the tractor. It was not happy, stuttering and growling, but Red did slow a bit, enough for me to turn it away from the fast-approaching trees. Eventually we rolled to a stop. I crawled off and hyper-ventilated on the ground, watching bales tumble down the hill past me.

“Are you gonna sit there all day? Let’s get this hay picked up.” Mom was apparently just fine.

Later on, when blood returned to my head, I mentioned the faulty brakes.

“Don’t be silly,” Mom said. “Your father’s never had that problem. You just need to try harder.”

The following week, Dad was hauling a full load of hay back to the barn. He was negotiating a narrow, tricky, back road when Big Red’s brakes disappeared again. The whole rig ended up jackknifed, one rear tire on the hay wagon hanging over a cliff.

The nice thing about being a grown-up is that you can send the kids home, call a friend with a big tow truck, and quietly fix your messes without anyone the wiser. And you don’t even have to try harder.


insomniac said...

wow,...when the apocalypse comes, people like you will eat people like me for food.

Annie said...

lol, insom...yes, and you'll taste like chicken. ;)

pogo said...

As a semi-farm kid I was driving the tractor at age 8 while bigger folk tossed and stacked the bales on the wagon. (At age 15 I had to toss the bales.)

At age 13 I was sent to town in the family car when mom was too busy to go for errands.

I don't remember not knowing how to drive.