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How much emotion can we pour into a machine? A ton. Consider the average automobile. The first person to own that sleek new thing is in love with it. He’s almost idolatrous. He fancies how he looks in it: so jaunty and jazzy and prosperous. The proof is in a snapshot clipped to the visor. He can’t walk away from his ride without glancing over his shoulder. He buys sunglasses that match or contrast its color scheme.
The next owner feels some of this as well, but focuses more on prudence, on the wisdom in dodging that initial depreciation. What he fears most is buyer’s remorse, so he chooses cautiously, pays a little more, keeps it quiet. His car is a mirror. He buys an aerosol can of new-car scent. A subsequent owner just wants a reliable work car, never mind the dents, the rust, the broken grill and taped tail light, the coffee-with-cream spilled down the defrost. He knows who he is, refuses to pretend. He plans to drive this beater ‘til the wheels come off, and almost does. The final person to own this car will park two blocks away and walk to his appointments. This is pretty much the full range of human emotion, the long and the short of it, from the Rift Valley down to you and me.
When I wander through Paul’s yard, and see the Johnnie Poppers, Farmals and Allises, the Fords and Olivers, the Massies, Cases and Molines, I see the folks I knew who drove these brands when I was a kid. I was a covetous child, so I noticed. My farmers are gone from the seats, of course, but they’re visible in the wear. Most old tractors had stamped-steel seats and low steering wheels; a combination that made every operator appear slope-shouldered and hunchbacked. These days, any old tractor I see can sprout a concave man in a straw hat, his chambray shirt buttoned all the way up. Some of these men smell of sour milk and sweat, from the morning’s milking and the afternoon’s fieldwork. Some show damp cords of soil in their neck creases each time they take a drink. Some wear hats with green plastic visors sewn into the brims. Some wear those yellow reversible chore gloves with the extra thumb.
When I walk up to an old tractor, I want to get up on it, to sit its seat with my feet on the brakes and take its measure. It’s usually a zigzag ascent: from ground-to-drawbar-to-axle-to-seat. In the days of wheeled plows and sickle mowers, a tractor’s brakes were often uneven; the plowing brake on the left riding lower underfoot than the mowing brake on the right. These tractors had light front ends, so you needed independent braking to make sharp turns, to suck the front wheels around. A plow was naturally a harder pull, so its brake took a longer stomp. For reasons I can’t explain, I’m eager to know if the left brake rides low to the end. These are old affinities, these plows and mowers and things. In fact, I can still see my little brown-shoed-self reflected in a plowshare and moldboard. Together they’re like a polished spoon, bright as chrome. I’m sitting on my heels, arms dangling. It’s late spring and Dad’s applying axle grease to the rear share with a two-inch-wide strip of cedar shingle, while I examine the barnyard swale in the front share. Plow blades in May are like funhouse mirrors, like lenses ground by soil and conviction. Dad dips into his dented bucket and lays down a Van Gogh-like impasto, though without the Van Gogh qualms. The grease goes on streaky, green where it’s thick and yellow where it isn’t. A plow won’t scour if it’s not shiny, won’t fold the ground over in silvery slabs. Plows are shiniest at the end of its season, so that’s when you want to smear them with grease. This grease was all about next year’s scour—now long gone—about the speed of flash rust, about weathering the weather between.
A plow may be just a plow, but a sickle mower is a wicked thing, prone to collateral damage. Its ledger plates slam to and fro at breakneck speeds, just an inch or two above the ground. Out of cussedness, they mimic the lulling whir of sewing machines. A sickle bar clips every stem in its path, be it alfalfa or meadow grass, pheasant, fawn or bunny leg. Everything clipped falls backward, startled. You get used to these rare and incidental losses, and if you’re decent, climb down and finish them off. Coyotes and crows and hawks do the rest. You only worry when the family dog runs scenting before the bar, side-to-side, tail up. He’s smart enough to know that machinery flushes wildlife, but not smart enough to keep clear. He thinks the danger’s under the tractor, where it usually is, not six feet to the right of it, where alfalfa does a line dance. You shout at him, throw what’s handy, get off and boot him home. You do what you can, but there will always be inattentive dogs named Tripod. I once even saw a little two-legged mutt, who wore his surviving legs at opposing corners. He’d been run over by a car. He was tight-skinned and bug-eyed and a nervous wreck. He could almost run wide open, but was disappointing in the turns.
A few years ago, at an outdoor party, I heard a fireman joke that he hadn’t felt this bad since he’d mowed the legs off the dog. He’d made this personal fact a figure of speech, carried it with him off the farm, the way we do. Partiers don’t want to hear such things, but I knew immediately what he meant. He meant a sickening kind of bad, a barf-in-the-clover kind of bad.