In Coop I wrote:
The equivalency is not absolute, but I’ll pretty much guarantee you most farm kids remember their first moment at the wheel of a tractor with the approximate clarity of their first kiss. Me? Lisa Kettering, beneath a white pine in the moonlight on the road to Axehandle Lake, and: Jerry Coubal’s John Deere B through the gate beside the Norway pine with the pigtail twist alongside the lane out back. Nicknamed Johnny-Popper because of the distinctive two-cylinder pop-pop-pop of the exhaust, the tractor was a gangly looking machine with tall rear wheels and a slim front end supported by two wheels cambered to a narrow vee. The steering wheel was mounted in the near perpendicular and stood flat before your face like a clock on the wall. The square padded seat sat level with the top of the towering rear wheels, so you rode high, with a clear field of vision. Rather than a foot pedal, the B model had a hand clutch consisting of a slender steel rod capped with a round ball – rather like a solid iron walking stick. To engage the clutch you fed the walking stick forward; when you wanted to stop you pulled it backward, and the works disengaged with a steel-drum ping! Dad and his neighbor Jerry shared the Johnny Popper back and forth during haying season. One morning when I was nine years old I went out back to watch Dad rake hay. When he was done he unhitched the rake and let me ride back with him. On the return trip, we came to the gate beside the lane and the twisted Norway pine. Dad got down from the tractor to open the gate as he always did, only this time after he swung it open he looked up at me and said, “Why don’t you take’er through?” I still remember the offhand way he uttered the words, and how the adrenaline surged through me when I heard them. I realize now that he was probably anticipating my wide eyes.
The John Deere was a good starter tractor, because you didn’t have to reach any pedals. The tall hand clutch, the position of the steering wheel, and a broad steel deck between the seat and the steering column made it possible to operate from a standing position – in fact when I was older I often drove standing up if only because I could fantasize that rather than some hayfield in Sampson Township one was navigating the Mississippi in a Mark Twain paddlewheeler.
Back there at that gate, with the John Deere going pop…pop…pop at low idle, I addressed the wheel with knees trembling. Reaching down to the gear selector, I ran it through its cast iron maze and into first. Then, with one hand on the steering wheel and heart tripping, I pushed that hand clutch slowly, slowly ahead until sure enough the green machine was inching forward, and there I was, driving tractor. The gate was plenty wide but I felt like I was piloting the Queen Mary through a checkout lane at the IGA. When I passed through the gate – head swiveling left, right, left to make sure I hadn’t snapped the fenceposts – I pinged the clutch out of gear with a combination of exhilaration and relief. Dad took the wheel back for the ride home and I rode happily on his lap, still his small boy but much taller in my heart.
There’s more to the story, and I got to tell it in My First Tractor, a collection of essays on that very topic. Contributors include Roger Welsch, Jerry Apps, Ben Logan, Pat Leimbach, and Bob Feller. Yes, that Bob Feller.
Book is now out and available.
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