Ever since he was a little boy, Alan had wanted a tractor. His “dream job” at the age of five was to mow the grass in the ditches along the highways. While I can see the large machinery captivating the imagination of a young boy, it was perhaps prudent that he took a more lucrative path in life. It was the corporate job, after all, that would pay for said tractor – though I suppose in the end it all comes back around. If you have a dream that calls you so clearly, you’d best not ignore it for long.
It was a few years into our life on the farm before Alan finally got his tractor. He went through phases of decision-making, first craving a vintage red Farmall and then a blue Ford before settling on a more practical new machine with a three-point hitch. He researched various brands online before taking the plunge, and as we walked into the dealership one overcast Saturday morning, he’d all but made his decision.
He was greeted at the counter by a guy named Mike, a weathered man who looked much older than his age. Years of smoking had robbed his voice of its timbre, and years of sun his clothing of their color. He looked like a tall, thin sinewy man until he stood up to shake Alan’s hand, and then I watched Alan’s rugged form tower over him completely.
As they walked into the forest of red machinery, I excused myself to go to the restroom. Using the women’s room in a place that isn’t frequented by the fairer sex is always a bit dodgy, and I wasn’t sure they’d even have one. But it had been a long drive proceeded by a good cup of coffee, and the conversation was sure to be a long one. We’d made an appointment with a friend for lunch right after, and Alan had conservatively allotted us two hours at the dealership. He could always go back, he insisted, if it wasn’t long enough. I’m not sure I’ve ever shopped for anything for two hours, least of all a piece of machinery. But the culmination of decades of dreaming must be given its due. Inside his intellectual exterior was an excited five year old boy, one for whom two hours of tractor talk was just getting started.
I found the women’s room down a hallway filled with brochures and box scrapers. I’m certain it hadn’t been used by the lady folk in at least a generation, but the boys had made good use of the space. The tiny room doubled as an office supply, a floor to ceiling metal shelf where a paper towel dispenser would otherwise be. The shelf was stacked neatly with various papers and tags, flanked by a label-printed note across its bottom: DO NOT RIP OPEN THE CARTONS! THE BOXES ARE GOOD FOR PUTTING THINGS IN. Signed, Mike. You can’t help but admire a guy with such a frugal passion for storage.
I returned to the showroom to find Alan and Mike talking potato plows and pallet forks. Alan started to ask a question about the load capacity of various tines, but Mike shook his head. Jeff’s your guy, he deflected. Jeff could talk tillers like a mad scientist, he insisted with a sort of mechanical reverence. He just did the numbers. He punched the button at the bottom of the steel intercom and coughed out Jeff’s name.
Jeff grabbed some keys and sauntered in, jingling. He had a gap between his teeth and a sprig of hair that poked through the opening in his baseball cap, and his thick black glasses made his dark beady eyes look even beadier. We zipped up and tucked before walking out into the cold, but Jeff didn’t bother. He was the kind of guy who didn’t need a coat; the churnings of his mental wheels were enough to keep him warm. But his knowledge of mechanical engineering, of pitch and load and ballast and weight, was unparalleled, even in the world of tractors.
Jeff explained diesel mechanics in the time it takes most people to tell you to have a nice day, and as casually, to boot. Diesel doesn’t need spark plugs, he said simply, pointing at the engine. It self-combusts under pressure. Oh don’t we all, I thought wryly to myself, though in truth I felt the same sense of enlightenment as when I first truly grasped calculus (long after it did me any good) or when I learned the simple way to tell hardwood from softwood just by looking at it (hardwood trees have leaves.)As Alan asked his question about which tractor and tines combination he’d need to lift a ton of pellets, Jeff answered with two words and a finger: three pin, he pointed. If you simply put the fork on the back of the tractor, the load capacity was nearly doubled – any tines would do.
We wandered back in after they kicked a few more tires and talked implements with a guy named Rick. He sported a wavy salt and pepper mullet that neatly framed his large, tan jowels. He peered at Alan over his glasses, his thickly curled eyebrows the only part of his expression that changed from one sentiment to the next. He’s giving you a good price on that tractor, Rick assured us in a gravelly voice. He’s got two left he wants out by the end of the month, but they’ve never been as good as that. His eyebrows arched wide with sincerity. Alan mentioned that the company had some great no-interest loans going, too. The eyebrows furrowed. Ahhh, I hate that they say that, Rick scowled. All the companies say that… John Deere, Kubota… but it isn’t true. The interest was just rolled into the cost of the tractor, he insisted. If they know you’re going to pay cash, they sweeten the deal.
As we waited for Mike to return with the papers, Rick leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms behind his head. His showroom was filled with machines that pushed and scooped and lifted and cut. As he surveyed the internal landscape, he lamented how that year had been especially bad for snowblowers. Weather’s just too nice, he shook his head slowly, and Jeff nodded in agreement. Leave it to a tractor dealer to see the gray cloud in a silver lining. They had plenty of lawnmowers in stock in case the weather got too nice, but then again, who wants to spend that much on a lawnmower? The eyebrows judged.
Mike walked back in with pages of crunched numbers. The only decision left was which tractor Alan wanted. The highest of the low models and lowest of the high were basically the same except for petty differences. Alan sat quietly for a moment and pondered, then looked up. I’ll take the 26, he said decidedly. All three men nodded solemnly in unison. It’s a gooooood tractor, they all murmured knowingly.
Mike held out a paper with a bunch of numbers and ran through them with Alan. It was a good price; far less than we’d anticipated. Alan offered to bring him a check early the next week. Mike looked back at the papers and frowned. He hadn’t expected a cash offer, and took an extra five hundred bucks off for the gesture. He gave Alan a line about being a nice guy and not busting his chops, but Rick’s eyebrows told the real story. The deal had just been sweetened.
A few days later Alan stopped by to give them the check. He chatted with Mike as he signed and stacked papers. How had his weekend been? Mike looked down. Not good, he shook his head. He’d quit smoking on Saturday, but by Sunday had started again. It’s got its hooks in me, he lamented. He’d had four oral surgeries already and was headed for another. I’m not sure it counts as quitting if the only time you’re not smoking is when you’re otherwise asleep, but I’m no expert. I’ll leave that to Mike.
It would be a few weeks before they could deliver the tractor, so Mike loaded Alan up with goods: a handful of pamphlets, a company t-shirt, and a camo baseball hat. One for your ladyfriend too, he said proffering up a small shirt, but Alan told him I probably wouldn’t wear it. Mike nodded; he understood. He held up his hand to indicate he had just the thing. He reached behind his desk and pulled out a bright pink camouflage hat.
Alan started daydreaming of all the ways he’d use his new tractor. He’d scoop Buck’s manure, pull a chicken tractor, and till up a new potato field in record time. He kept a mental list that he’d add to on random car rides, suddenly exclaiming that the front loader would make a great snowplow, if we were ever in a pinch where the plow truck was in the shop and a storm came through. I’d play along from time to time and suggest something or another, but his eyes would inevitably narrow at the thought. Not while it’s all shiny and new, he’d insist. Maybe once it’s broken in. Apparently ideas mustn’t mar the finish.
It made me laugh inside, as the first activity on his list was always “pick up horse poop”, and my ideas were too messy? But it was his toy, not mine. He got to play with it first. In truth, I’m the same way about all of my tools. He once bought a saw and second set of drivers when it became apparent that mine came with too many rules.
One evening at dinner Alan exclaimed that he’d decided what to name the new tractor. I didn’t know he’d been contemplating this, or that it was even a thing. I’d never named a mechanical device, and probably for the best. It might have included words I couldn’t say at family gatherings. His grandfather’s tractor had been named “Johnny Pop”, he told me – a name that’s been stuck in my head ever since as “Jiffy Pop”, along with a mental image of a bright red tractor with an attachment that makes popcorn. He didn’t know what his beloved Uncle Cleo’s tractor had been called, but his wife’s name was Betty, and naming the new tractor after her would be a fitting tribute.
I wondered aloud how you could tell if a tractor was a boy or a girl – I had assumed all along that they must all be boys, judging by the state of the women’s restroom. But Alan shrugged and said it could be whatever he wanted. I ceded my pink camo hat.
The week before “Tractor Day”, as it came to be scrawled on the refrigerator calendar, was “tractor training day”, which was the day Alan was scheduled to be schooled in All The Things. He asked how long the training would take, and Jeff said it depends. If you know a bit about tractors, carve out thirty minutes. If you don’t, allow a couple of hours. And if you plan on maintaining it yourself, you’d best not make plans that day.
I tried to explain tractor training to my dad. He looked at me skeptically. How hard could it be? I didn’t know exactly, but I knew that there was one throttle, two gas pedals, three brakes, and an alternating four-wheel drive. So, that hard, I suppose. And that doesn’t even include the actual tools. He shrugged.
Alan arrived bright and early, wearing a farming shirt especially for the occasion. He’d driven the truck that morning, despite not needing to haul anything. You just don’t pull into a tractor dealership in a sedan. There’s an unwritten rule about it somewhere; unwritten, just like the training he was about to receive. Tractor knowledge was passed down from master to student via oral history. Only city folk use paper.
He came home with a full brain and an empty belly. As he scarfed down his lunch, he shared smatterings of what he’d learned that day – how the wide oval cams unlocked the front loader with the sleekest of mechanics; how a single joystick controlled all the implement motions; how the diesel in the tank was just as red as the engine. And how you must always, always, grease everything.
He’d practiced driving in the parking lot, and removed the front loader and put it back on. The loader had a set of jacks hidden beneath that would pop open to the right height if you simply knew where to push. It outweighed him by a healthy bit, so it was important to get it right – not setting it properly would make it both harder to put back on, and more dangerous. Jeff also showed him how to attach the tiller and connect it to the three-point to make the tines rotate. The other implements were more straightforward – sharp blades and graders that were dragged along, but not motorized. Alan tried to remember it all.
He came home with the same reverence for Jeff that Mike had shown. Not only was Jeff a master of the mechanical, he could make nearly any repair you could imagine, and teach you how to do it yourself if you’re only willing to sit still long enough. When Jeff launched into the maintenance schedules for the various hydraulics, Alan cut him off. Some things are simply worth paying for.
The tractor arrived on a steel flatbed, the kind you’ve probably passed on the highway because they’re invariably carrying a tractor. They’re sturdy if not particularly quick, just like the beast strapped to their middle. A guy named Brian climbed out, an earthy fellow with a faded green cap that likely never left his head. He was a delivery guy who loved his job – seasonal work that was finally back in season. You can only sweep so many floors and clean so many bathrooms, he chuckled. I frowned. Had he seen the women’s restroom? Maybe just one more for good measure.
He unloaded several of the implements using the pallet fork, commenting on how smart it was for us to want it on the back of the tractor. We explained that it was Jeff’s idea, and he nodded with the same hallowed Jeff reverence that we’d seen so often before. He set the implements down and unhooked the tines, then drove back up and attached the tiller. Alan and I watched as the sleek red machine slowly made its way toward the outbuilding, excitedly snapping photos at every new movement. We didn’t have children, but I suspect if we had, it would have looked a lot like this.
As he made the final journey, I realized it hadn’t dawned on me until just then that we might not have to actually lift anything during the unloading – here was this magical new device that could simply do it for us. I was only just beginning to open my eyes to its potential. Over the next few weeks, months, and years I’d learn, and eventually come wonder how we’d ever gotten on without it. It is, after all, a gooooood tractor.