Monday, May 16, 2011

Dear Bessie

Bessie had a thing or two to teach me...

Dear Bessie,
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you, and I often wonder how you’re doing and whether you remember our time together as fondly as I do.
   We met because of Dennis Mickey, who used to do my tractor work. He was a retired Texas rancher who lived near my small farm on the Key Peninsula. The farm had been neglected for years, and I relied on Dennis a lot at first. Old fences needed pulling down and blackberries, brush-hogging. It was soon apparent, though, that there was enough work to justify having a tractor of my own. So with Dennis’s help, I began the hunt for a good used one, combing through the Little Nickel Farm Machinery section and calling dealers.
   One morning Dennis phoned me. His friend over at the Stokes Auction knew of a fellow selling a Ford 8N. Did I want to go have a look? As soon as I saw you, I knew you were the one. You wore a coat of medium gray semi-gloss paint, neatly spread over many under coats, unmarred by rust. Your compact form promised to have a short turning radius, just right for the small projects I had in mind. Behind your bonnet was a large black steering wheel, an old fashioned manual apparatus that would turn hard, I later discovered. On your back perched the shallow red bowl of a seat and behind it, the PTO. Your crowning feature, a bright orange front loader, completed your ensemble. 
 When I climbed up onto the seat and turned your key, you coughed and then settled into a steady, low rumble. Not quite the purr I had hoped for, but you sounded healthy enough. When engaged, your PTO whirred impressively, and I knew you would be good at handling power tools. And your front loader was irresistible. Although no particular use for it came to mind, I was certain that I would find one. Up and down, forward and back the bucket went as I pushed and pulled your levers.
   Your owner explained that your 28 horsepower engine hadn’t been rebuilt in your nearly 50 years, which gave me pause until Denis explained that old 8Ns like you were hard to find, not because you broke down and became junk, but because you were so easy to fix and rebuild that folks tended to hang onto you. With that reassurance, I drove you up onto Dennis’s trailer and carefully tied you down for the trip home. 
   First on my list of projects was to smooth and level the ground where some field-grown rhododendrons had been dug up. Using a single-bottom plow, we’d first break up the soil. Then, once churned up sufficiently, we’d go over back over the ground with the blade. The area was small – about ¼ an acre – roughly circular and surrounded by mature rhododendrons. To avoid running over them, I decided to plow in a spiral. Around and around we went, making large circles at the outer edge that became smaller and smaller as we worked our way to the center. You responded readily to the levers, and I enjoyed raising and lowering the plow, turning it this way and that, changing its angle to match the changing level of the terrain.
   To thoroughly break up the soil , we made three passes with the plow, all in the same direction. Thanks to your heavy front loader, turning your steering wheel was an energetic task, becoming harder and harder as we drew closer to the center of the field. By the second pass, I noticed a slight stitch in my side, and my left shoulder canted downward. But I was having so much fun that I didn’t think about changing direction, steering you to the right rather than the left to even out the strain on my back. By the time we’d finished the third pass, my spine was tilting to port, and I couldn’t straighten up. After barely managing to climb down from your seat, I hobbled to the house, each breath so painful that I took my time before the next one. I got into bed alright, but the following morning found me flat on my back on the floor. Liz called the chiropractor, who was fortunately a small-town type of doctor who made house calls. With his help, I was able to stand up and walk around again. 

   Then it was back to work! Your implements were awkward and heavy, weighing hundreds of pounds, and difficult to change. Dennis had helped me attach your plow, but he wasn’t around to help take it back off and attach your blade so we could level the ground that had been broken up by the plow. I wasn’t sure how to proceed at first, but after pondering for a while, came up with a plan. Using a massive wrench borrowed from Pete’s Home Texaco, I loosened and removed the bolts attaching the plow. Then I drove you slowly away, leaving the plow behind on the ground. Next I backed you up to the blade and hopped down to attach it, but the bolt holes on the blade wouldn’t line up with the ones on your 3 point hitch. I couldn’t get the bolts through them. I tried moving the blade to line them up, but it was too heavy for me to budge. Softly cursing under my breath, I pushed and pulled, but to no avail. Tears of frustration clouded my eyes, and I wanted to give up. But real farmers don’t give up when facing far more daunting tasks than this, I remembered, so taking a deep breath, I began thinking. And thinking and thinking and thinking. Finally I knew what to do.
   I rummaged around in the old lumber stored under the workshop and found a sturdy two-by-four board. Kicking the dirt away from underneath a section of the blade, I wedged the board under it. Lifting the opposite end of the board I set a large rock under it about two feet from the blade. Then I sat on the board about three feet from the blade.  This lifted the blade a few inches from the ground, and I was just able to reach over and stick a rock under the blade to prop it up. The holes were now aligned well enough to thread the bolt through them. Triumph! Mind over matter, woman over machine!
Not all problems were this easy to fix. Remember the time you got stuck in the mud? Brian and Liz, who were teenagers at that time, wanted to drive you around the property, so I taught them how to operate you, warning them to stay away from the muddy patch near the fire pond where you could get stuck. You got stuck in the mud anyway, but it was when I was at the wheel. Plowing the adjacent field, I cut too close to the muddy spot, and in you sank. There was nothing solid nearby, such as a building or a tree, to attach a comealong winch to, so digging you out was my only option. It took three long days. You could call this a triumph of “Woman over mud,” although I must admit that I was too tired to feel very triumphant.

   Finally the day came when we’d done all of the tractor work that was needed, and you were left sitting idle for days on end. Dennis could do the seasonal brush-hogging in just a few hours, and it didn’t make sense to keep you anymore. Dennis quickly found a new owner for you, and I let you go with a heavy heart. As you rode away on Dennis’ trailer, I told you that I would never forget you, or the lessons you taught me, such as “A woman using her brain can do unexpectedly brawny things” and “A woman not using her brain can end up with very sore muscles.”

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