Thursday, March 24, 2005

Driving A Tractor

Bitterman tells me about learning to drive on a Massey Ferguson tractor at the tender age of nine by a cruel grandfather who wanted to sip mint juleps on the porch while overseeing the farm work at his child labor concentration camp.

I never got that lucky and my story’s not nearly so exciting. Shit, my family didn’t know anything about farming, and though we lived in a semi-rural environment, we never grew anything or tried to as far as I know.

Naw, I got to be friends with a boy named Ronnie Welter when I was away at reform Catholic Boarding School. His family were fairly well to do in a small Arkansas town in the shadow of Petit Jean Mountain. Occasionally, we’d get all the proper permissions in order and I’d ride the Continental Trailways bus home with him and spend a weekend.

They lived on a large farm and our main recreation as fourteen year old boys was to go tearing off over hill and dale on the old mostly gray Ford tractor which would belch smoke and sputter and die fairly regularly. When that happened we had to take the distributor cap off and sand the points with an emery board that we kept wedged near the engine.

Really, that’s about as exotic as it got for us.

It did give me the confidence to nod yes when my boss asked me if I knew how to drive a manual shift truck.

I was fifteen and working in a very exclusive Little Rock restaurant as a dishwasher. They had re-stocked the bar that day and there was a mountain of empty boxes outside the back door. Being the fancy place it was, the dumpster was relegated about a hundred yards in back on the other end of the parking lot.

He handed me his keys and said, “just toss ‘em into the back of my truck and drive them back there.”

The boss had an old farm truck. A three quarter ton 1949 Chevrolet pick up, with a behemoth brush guard welded to the front bumper. I twisted the door handle down, opened the door and climbed in.

I stuck the key in the ignition, turned it and nothing happened. Of course the dome light had burned out at least fifteen years earlier, so I dug my Zippo out of my jeans pocket and lit it to take a peek. Then I remembered that some of the old cars had a starter button. Yep, there it is.

I Pressed the clutch to the floor, and mashed the starter button and she roared to life. I shifted the column lever into reverse, gave it a little gas, turned to look over my right shoulder and slowly, ever so slowly started to let the clutch out. I move a few feet in reverse and then the lumbering truck shuddered violently and died.

I let her roll back into the parking space, repeated the starting process and ground it into reverse again and started to back up. Again, the violent shudder and sudden death.

This happened 3 or 4 times before I muttered “fuck it” and pulled the parking break, stuck the key in my pocket and humped the boxes out to the dumpster as fast as I could. I returned the key to the boss man and nodded yes when he asked if everything was alright.

The next night when I showed up for work, the boss called me aside.

“Last night when you used my truck, did you hit anybody?”

I assured him that I did not. I didn’t admit that I didn’t even get out of the parking space, much less have an opportunity to hit anybody. “Come here and let me show you something,” he said and we went out into the parking lot.

There, he pointed out that the brush guard on his truck had one of the bars bent at a forty five degree angle and pointing straight out in front. I told him that I couldn’t have done that.

Then he took me over and showed me one of the waitresses’ cars. It had been horribly vandalized with multiple and repeated gouges and scrapes down the driver’s side and even a couple of large holes punched in the door for good measure. As he began to point out that the damage to the car was at about the same height as the bent brush guard on his truck, a light went off.

I started to feel sick to my stomach as the sudden, repeated and multiple lurches of the truck, the violent shuddering and dying began to replay in my mind. I turned pale and looked him in the eyes and said, “you know, I honestly didn’t think I did this, but now it all is starting to make sense. I must have done it.”

Everyone was pretty cool about it, I think they could tell I was being truthful. I really didn’t know I had hit her car, what with all the engine noise, nervousness and all. They let me settle the matter by paying her deductible on her insurance and she reported it as a hit and run.

It wasn’t until much later, when I got a job as a delivery driver, that I actually learned to drive a manual shift vehicle.

1 comment:

BillyBudd said...

Back in the old days when I was newly married and much smarter than I am today, I used to take on side jobs to make a few extra bucks. I worked for a large equipment rental company and our customers were contractors. I offered to repair a large old dumptruck that used to be a NYC snowplow. About the size of a Duce-and-a-half, the old girl had not seen any maintenance since the Truman Administration.

"Just drop it off at the house" I told Ted and sure enough the antique Leviathan was parked in my driveway the next morning.

I rebuilt the carb, new plugs and points and set the timing.....She purred like a kitty. I went in the house and extracted my bride. "Honey, check this bad boy out!" I said beaming with pride at the thought of demonstrating my mechanical prowness. I opened the drivers door and reached up to the ignition. Varooom! The rusty cold war relic jumped to life. My sense of accomplishment was soon replaced with horror as the beast lumbered up my driveway in granny gear. As fast as my twenty something legs would carry me I ran after my handywork and dove into the cab. I was able to catch her as she slowed to a crawl when the fence and my storage shed offered suitable resistance. I sat in the cab, The odd bumper and old headlights stared off into the distance like an old draft horse eager to please despite age and infirmity.

My speechless bride offered a smile and a lowered head as affirmation of a testosterone driven debacle. Two decades later this story still brings a smile to our faces and a chuckle about "The old days".