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Picking Through the Tractor Bone Yard
I used to sing on tractors, believing I was singing to myself. These were made-up songs or radio songs or strung-together combinations. None were ever complete, because I don’t remember lyrics. Some were all refrain, while others had only one verse, which seemed to grow profound with repetition. Craving the esteem in a straight line, I’d aim my exhaust stack at a fence post a quarter mile off, and I’d sing. I’d stand up and sing, steer like a riverboat captain. John Deeres were made for this. On hot days, I’d pivot a little sideways and let a breeze billow my half-open shirt. Days on tractors are long and dreamy, so you need to do something to pass the time. Unfortunately, voices carry in the countryside, well beyond machinery clatter. Mom hinted I should tone it down, which I did. I sang Moon River just above a whisper, and I whistled, tried some tremolo. Mom had an orphan’s heart, soft and wary.
When you can’t sing, you conjure empires, you invent scenarios in which you’re finally given your due. These tend toward the grand sweep, the community spectacle, the clincher. When you’re young on tractors, 11-to-14, you still dream of guns and fishing gear and fireworks, the Wellington boots in the Sears catalog. You want a rowboat, so you build one in your head, while watching corn slip through cultivator shields. As you fall asleep that night, the last thing you see is four-inch corn prancing, single file. Your days and nights are seamless.
A little older, you dream of sporty coupes with cackling pipes. You’d somehow get one, work on it. You’d jack up the rear end, flip the shackles, put bigger tires in back, make the thing look like a monkey humping a football as it chugged down Main Street. Out on the asphalt, blowing north or west, you’d fly around geezers like they were painted on a fence. You’d whip tight doilies in the church parking lot, an essential rite of passage, which you now perform in your four-door sedan, renouncing Satan in a spray of gravel. You dream of Saturday nights, of meeting your friends in town, planning something big. You crave the twice-a-month dates your status allows, can almost summon the perfume. And when you’ve exhausted these possibilities, in all their permutations, you run some times-tables through your head, to clear it out, or you ponder the origins of odd expressions, like “good riddance to bad rubbish,” “built like a brick shithouse,” “see ya ‘round if ya don’t turn square.” And “Good grief,” as if there were such a thing.
You wonder where those dozen seagulls go when you’re not in the field. You’ve never seen one roost, can’t follow them home, and there’s no Google. They simply descend and ascend, as if the sod were sea. It’s a mystery, and you’re a mystic peasant, a seagull shaman. Perhaps The Nebraska Farmer will run an article on why seagulls follow kids on tractors, a thousand miles inland. Thoughts like these slam in and out of your head all day, leaving not a trace of residue. You count fence posts in the late afternoon, tally the rounds needed to finish, size up your likely praise. It will be low-key and off-hand, maybe hit you walking away, which is fine. You long ago learned to decipher that code.
I was good with machinery, both the wired up and the latest thing. I hired out to relatives and neighbors. A decade later, I spent two-years on a backhoe, and liked it. I pawed through a city’s buried treasure, ten feet down, and never once cut a cable or pipe. The world feels about right through finger tips on wobble sticks, when you’re all instinct and muscle memory. I liked those dirt machines. This is not to suggest that we were great farmers, that we did all the math, only that within the closed loop of a family’s circumstances, we did our parts. Dad worked in town, sometimes at two jobs, so we needed to, and I didn’t mind. I became good at this, just when it appeared I’d be good for nothing. In fact, I wonder now if all that I’ve achieved so far, such as it is, didn’t root in these long and solitary days, in those unfurled fantasies. Tractors, more than most things, will let you live inside your head.