“… their insides are open to view, simple, clear, and direct …”
They seem to come with the houses these days. Who would buy one otherwise? And for what? But once received as a gift, or once inherited, one finds many uses for them. One might finally ask, What did we do without this machine?
I suspect there’s a part of the brain that longs for black dirt, and digging in it, smelling it. If lucky enough to have been born with gardens and real crops and big machines, one inherits a love of digging. And of dirt. Southern dirt is best, but what we have is New England dirt.
We inherited the tractor with the house we took over from my in-laws ten years ago. It came with the three-stall garage which half-serves as a barn to those with a history of farming. We have old family photos of my father-in-law farming the lower two acres with the FarmAll. In my memory of him, he is sitting high up on that black seat with that wide-brimmed straw hat on his nearly-bald head, with that patient pace of his, with that look that said he had all day to plow the corn field, in those baggy Levis, in those L.L.Bean rubber shoes. Then that mild reporting at day’s end of the earth he had moved, the dirt he’d played in. Before putting the FarmAll with its specialized plough attachments to bed at night, he’d tend to it, check its oil with the dipstick, kick its giant tires, then wedge it into its tight space, wiping his greasy hands on a rag and stamping his feet at the back door. Word is that photos exist of his dad on the same tractor – he’d bought it, after all, to do some real farming – but we don’t seem to have them. It’s enough to know that our FarmAll has served three generations faithfully.
I look at this old FarmAll with a personality of its own and think of skeletons – machines without muscle or skin, just the inner workings of red pistons and gears and springs, honest and open to view and far from clean — the business end in plain view, nothing extraneous. A black seat high up needs restuffing with horsehair; the hood is remarkably rust-free considering the fact that it’s an early 1900s model as best we can tell. A little smokestack sticks up. It’s all tires and rods, stripped to essentials without today’s packaging that would render it “pretty.”
It’s pretty enough: the first garage sale we organized required its heft to move everything down to the main road. Women clustered around the fifty-cent baskets and vases and the one dollar children’s toys; men gravitated to the FarmAll, touching it, rubbing rough hands along its spine, like they would a prize steer at a state fair.
“Is the tractor for sale?” No.
Spring comes reluctantly, but never mind. On March weekends when frost is still on the ground and my husband needs a fleece jacket, he pops open the third stall where the FarmAll lives. Before I’ve finished my hard-boiled egg and toast with honey, and my second cup of Hazelnut decaf, I hear the FarmAll’s motor cough the winter out of its pipes, turn over after long minutes of doubtful coaxing, ready itself for the season’s work. And they’re off. I don’t see my husband much during summer weekend days. He and FarmAll, his putt-putting red friend, are off to till, to haul, to move. I’ve often told him that he was born a century too late. His straw hat and L.L.Bean rubbers look more natural on him than his three-piece suits and Nordstrom dress shirts. When he’s up on that seat, he – like his father, his grandfather – is happy down deep where he lives.
“Let me show you my tractor,” he says to our son-in-law who was suburbs bred, and I hear them outside, working the gears, adjusting the clutch, and hitching up the old wooden trailer with the backflap. Their voices rise and fall; questions are asked; stories are told, and not always about the tractor. I see my father-in-law in the same role: that quiet leading toward, that sharing of wisdom through work out on the land. And then they’re off to the mulch pile with shovels or to the woods with saws. With the windows open during the day, I can hear the motor running and limbs cracking like a small animal enjoying its lunch.
Our son-in-law walks alongside the tractor, perhaps thinking he’s ready to learn to drive the thing. I hope he dreams of inheriting it himself, shaking off the tensions of his week, hooking up the trailer, loading mulch, carting off brush, moving dirt as if he already understands that tractors are part of the grounded life of country living, that their insides are open to view, simple, clear, and direct, and that they are as faithful as a beloved machine can be, as dependable as the love of dirt itself. I often wonder if the gift is the tractor. I think not.
Photo credit: Ladyheart