My first introduction to the big diesel machine did not go so well. My dad worked as a pipeliner at a junction location in rural Pike County near Magnolia. The several acre site required mowing and my father, wanting to give his lanky teenage first-born son a summer job, decided to put me in the seat of “Big Red.” She was a 1974 International Harvester, loud, smelly, and powerful. The exhaust fumes rose high and black from the smokestack, and the tricky clutch did little to stop Big Red from lunging forward in whiplash motion when she went in gear.
Dad tried his best to go over the fine points of driving a finicky tractor, but “Mechanical Clark,” as my parents facetiously called me, was a tough case. I managed to make a few mowing laps, lulling my Dad into a false sense of security, and proceeded to roll full speed toward the dam of a holding pond. Grinning from ear to ear, I waved at Dad with the excitement of a little kid and lowered the bush hog to mow a strip of grass near the water’s edge. At about the same time, a swarm of bees decided to buzz by my head, and with my quick reflexes, I swatted with both hands, at which time the steering wheel jerked to the right near a soft spot of ground. Panicked, I jumped high in the air and landed on all fours, safe and sound in the fresh cut grass. Meanwhile, Big Red, with no operator, plowed a course directly into the pond, slowly disappearing like the Titanic, until there was nothing but a few bubbles reaching the water’s surface and a fading whimper of drowning metal. Big Red found her watery grave.
My eyes met those of my Dad, and to my surprise, I saw horror, not anger, and then heard laughter. He was bent over, slapping his jeans and shaking his cowboy hat with pure delight. The moment was so unexpected and shocking, and with his son safe, he thought the “tractor death march” was the funniest thing he had ever seen. Embarrassed, I knew my days of tractor work were over that summer.
Fortunately, we found a neighbor with a tractor and a chain to pull out the submerged remains of Big Red and after considerable repair, we got her running again.
Today, Big Red is parked at my tree farm, and she keeps my deer plots and lanes in good shape. She does not run as well now, but I don’t either. Lucky for her, I do not have a pond, but I do have a few deep mud bogs. She is quite accustomed to getting stuck in the muck. But after swimming with mussels, I guess a little down time in the good Earth is not so bad.
Riding my tractor is a cathartic experience, where I now wear earmuffs, enjoy nature, and reflect on life’s journeys, always careful to keep both hands on the wheel. I’m not sure how that machine has survived all the abuse from it’s farmer pretender owner. But one thing is for sure. Every trip with Big Red is filled with surprise, challenge, and a driver in the seat.
Clark Hicks is a lawyer who lives in Hattiesburg. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.