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Once Upon a Tractor

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Once Upon a Tractor

Stephen King had Christine. Scott has a tractor.

It was a late summer day, warm and pungent, and I was in the fair hamlet of Sagle, on an old farmstead amid the unique and varied architecture of a budget and demand system. Two partners brought together for eons by frugal farmers everywhere.

This place has been there a while and puts out a comfortable feeling like an old pair of gloves. Everything seems at ease with itself and its neighbors; settled in and pleased to be there. It not only has everything one would expect to find on a small farm, but from several generations even! It’s like an open-ended time capsule where things are added in but seldom go away.; They simply find a vantage point from which to watch the action.

Tom and Lorraine are old farts like me, wonderin’ what hit ‘em and where the time went. The rest of the cast and crew are all in various stages of growin’ up and still have some energy to throw around in that pursuit.

When the tide is in (everyone is home), it’s like being part of a “Walton’s” episode. I’ve had the pleasure to be around this bunch for twenty years as I pop in and out to help with one project or another; pretending to be a carpenter, welder or just a regular nincompoop. I can do all three at once, but it requires that I wear a helmet. Realistically I should probably wear one all the time. I try to keep a clear head whenever I’m over there. To accomplish this, I simply raise the ear flaps on my hat, using the snaps provided for that very reason. Even if I’m just standing by and watching the show, I make sure my laces are tied proper and double knotted as I often get hauled into the plot line ill-prepared, leaving my shoes behind in the gumbo of aw-struck determination, reminding me what sock hops were all about! Okay, maybe not where you grew up.

Sometimes I simply get to observe and not get involved, standing a pretty good chance of getting through it without using a first aid kit. Like the day  I was inside trimming out a big picture window when a tow-headed dust devil blew past, emitting a frequency my ears no longer make any sense of. A short moment later, a four-wheeler followed down the same path like some new-age farm dog without a tail. In the third place was a muddy butt in one tennis shoe and a backwards hat, sportin’ really large eyeballs. I chose to stay out of it as the machine seemed outnumbered anyway, but it also reminded me of an earlier example of why sometimes it’s better to just stay home where the coffee pot is.

Like I was sayin’ in the first paragraph, it was a warm and pungent day. I was setting up on a little welding project out in front of Tom’s machine shop. Alone on the farm, except for the great-grandmother who was holding on to reality with the help of her daytime TV shows.

I wasn’t expecting any shenanigans to pop up until the school bus returned with the hired hands. Not pointing any fingers, mind you, I just know when the action starts around there. Feeling safe and almost secure in this knowledge, I made a little bet with myself that it was gonna be a pretty groovy day. I used my mood as collateral.

“I should be finished with the explosive and high voltage stuff before the kids get back,” I said into my welding hood as I inspected for any squatters that may have moved in since I last used it. Someday down the line, I’ll have to tell ya what can happen if you don’t pay attention to that rule.

“The Domestics,” a country a’capella group, were goin’ through their repertoire, chorusing from every direction. Typical rural vocalizations from highs to lows with waves of crescendos that had a rhythm echoing off the old walls of the various buildings, punctuated on occasion by a blast from a lonely young bull. One old hen had what I could only make out as a case or two of hiccups. I tried (briefly) to calm ‘er down but only succeeded in workin’ up a sweat and actually made her sound even more hiccupy! Short of inviting it for supper, there’s not much you can do to calm an excited chicken, although removing my welding hood might have helped some I s’pose. I’ll never profess to knowing much about chickens other’n what I suspect.

I started cutting, grinding and welding, and just havin’ a great time when I noticed a different sort of smoke; sort of rubbery, diesely and greasy. Kind of a mechanical potpourri—not welding flames, anyhow! I swung my hood back and caught some cow inspecting my work or maybe it was gettin’ off on the light show. “Was that you or am I standing on a gob of hot metal?” It was neither as another whiff came past my nose, indicating a sudden need to turn around. I don’t recall what I was hoping to see after an about-face, but I would’ve preferred the gob of hot metal underfoot over a tractor fire any time!

The very first thing you do in the “size-up” phase of any fire is “[email protected]$#@!!T, how’d that get started?” Then you move on to other considerations like type of fire, exposures, wind, potential victims, how the hell yer gonna put it out and what, if anything, you’d like put on yer headstone. I chose, instead, to seek out a fire extinguisher, which proved to be a real pain in the ass. If I could play it back for you somehow, it’d probably surprise even me.

The roll-up was just that, up, and the “man door” was likewise open. About four feet away from the far end of the shop was the nose of my tractor fire, which wasn’t quite serious yet but I knew it was thinkin’ about it. In retrospect, I should have peeled off a boot and flogged the fire with a sweaty sock!

I tried to start out on a calm note. “So, where’s that groovy little dry chemical extinguisher Tom’s got hangin’ around here somewheres? It most certainly be a hangin’ here someplace! Where, where oh where, would that extinguisher be?” My voice was starting to put out a sing-song cadence. This is usually a signal my mood’s about to change.

I did three complete sweeps of walls, shelves, nooks and crannies, and with each pass my questions got shorter and more to the point until I decided maybe a dry chemical wasn’t going to be the solution here. I considered water. This was a natural in as much as there happened to be a frost-free hydrant right between the tractor and the shop. I allowed myself a small cheer which promptly trailed off into disappointment when I noticed a front wheel was parked on the hose nozzle.

Surprisingly, one more detailed pass for that elusive extinguisher did no more good than the first three did.

Back to the water method! “Maybe there’s... hey, another hose!!!” Fifty feet away was a coil of hose hooked up to yet another hydrant. “Farfignugies!” I offered to the God of Fire and Other Situations as well as a few silly chickens that were startin’ to worry about my game plan.

I opened that hydrant handle, grabbed the hose, and proceeded the fifty feet or so to cool that damn tractor down. The flames were still there on the fire-wall (where else?) under one edge of the fuel tank but strangely not growing. I took a quick time out to thank my lucky stars.

That’s when the tractor fired up.

Well, actually, started up... on its own! For some damn reason, I know less about tractors than I do chickens. I was starting to smell a conspiracy; not quite the same as a burning tractor, but similar. Maybe the bus came back early. This would explain a lot of the past three minutes. Not havin’ a whole lot on my mind, a weird thought occurred to me: what if it decides to go for a drive somewheres?

I had twenty feet to go but only five or hose and I don’t care how creative you get with yer thumb, the pattern one puts out will be insufficient to extinguish a determined fire. Then it started movin’ backwards. I immediately pictured a bouncy poltergeist singin’ the theme from “Green Acres” with flames coming off the firewall! At least I hadn’t lost my sense of humor.

Not feelin’ like hopping on a flaming tractor, I dropped the hose and made a dash for a tire chock. I slammed a big chunk of beam behind one rear tire but it just skittered along until I decided to play my smart card and put a foot on it. As I did so, I saw the headlines in my mind. “Man dies by Sagle tractor. Last words heard clear to Westmond, Talache and Garfield Bay.” “I just wanted a damn extinguisher!” The chock stuck and for a bit the engine slowed and almost stalled out. Almost. In fact, my heart was firing a hell of a lot faster than that tractor, almost as if there were some unseen forces behind this machine’s behavior.

I was just about to take advantage of the fact that the other hose was now free and presumably available, when I was forced to watch that rear tire crawl, put by put, over the chock, turning about ten degrees to port as it crawled on over. This established a new set of rules and the first one to make ‘em up, wins!

“Fire Department’s on the way.”

This good news came out of the great-grandmother, who’d abandoned her soaps in favor of a more natural opera. “Oughta be here within the hour, I’m sure. That’s their average but they may take longer as I told ‘em you had things under control,” she offered.

“Thanks!” I said as I reset the chock; studying its effect and plotting a course, all the while keeping an eye out for “Candid Camera” hiding in the bushes. I did notice a lack of exuberance in her demeanor, pointing out that either this was no big deal or she was saving her enthusiasm for “The Price is Right.”

I needed to put this thing out of my misery and decided on what to run it into, causing the least amount of damage. A cherry tree came in handy so I worked that agricultural freak show, chock by chock, on a steady, dead-end path. Then it just gave up! One last chugg-pffff and it was over.

Apparently it heard the faint evidence of a siren en route and surrendered before getting humiliated. In reality, the battery that had been powering this electrical short circuit through the ignition, starter, flywheel, drive-train and rear wheels chain of events had simply run out of juice. The thick plastic jacket of the feed line was no longer hot enough to burn.

Lorrain told me later that the tractor had pulled this stunt before and not to think it was my cutting, grinding or welding that caused the fire—just a coincidence. Actually, I believe the tractor was running away from home.

“So, where the heck is the fire extinguisher anyway?” I asked.

“Isn’t it behind the door of the machine shop?” she asked back. It was as good as an answer.

I walked over to the shop, closed the man-door and stood there for probably quite a while, just lookin’ at that ten pounder hangin’ on the wall in the corner. Out of sight and definitely out of my mind.

And so it goes.

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Scott Clawson Scott Clawson No, he's not the electrician, he's the OTHER Scott Clawson, who's a quality builder when he's not busy busting a gut while writing his humor column for the first issue of each month, or drawing his Acres n' Pains cartoons.

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