Twelve years old. My first time to drive a tractor. Or anything with a clutch, for that matter. It was the summer between elementary and junior high school and we were making a tour of relatives I had never seen, as well as several I knew only vaguely. Great aunts and an uncle along with my Mom’s cousins, all in Kansas, and then on to Illinois to visit my aunt, uncle, and cousins there. It may have been a trip of only a couple of weeks, but in my memory it was much longer, probably due to the many different beds in which I slept. Southern Kansas was our first stop on the long trip and we were at Uncle Paul’s farm. The lanky old farmer was married to my grandmother’s sister, so technically he was “great” uncle, and I think the title fit. He shook his head at the antics of four rowdy would-be delinquent boys (of course my sister behaved herself perfectly), but I think he loved every minute of it.
We wandered the fields where we found Native American arrowheads, fished the pond (keeping an eye out for cottonmouths), and swam in the river while digging up fresh water clams. Then he pulled us over the hill and along the dirt roads, riding on the flatbed trailer behind the old tractor. Unbeknownst to him, we even took more than a few turns jumping out of the loft of his century-old barn into the corn bins down below. What an adventure for this young man, about to enter the perplexing stage of being a teenager, inevitably leading to the awkwardness and angst so characteristic of those difficult years. But, that was all in the future; no need to borrow from its troubles. For those few days, the joy of country adventures was enough. Add in the amazing meals, when the table bowed under the weight of the food Aunt Edna cooked, and we were content.
I’m not sure how it came about, but Uncle Paul became convinced that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to let us learn to drive his old farm tractor. Thus it was that on that fateful summer afternoon, I waited impatiently for my turn to drive the suddenly very sporty vehicle (beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder). My first time to drive anything bigger than a mini-bike! Of course, I would be great at it; that went without saying. Since my oldest brother was already driving a car with a manual transmission, he was allowed to teach us to drive the machine. The two brothers just older than me had no problems, learning the trick of revving the engine just enough to have the torque to engage the gears when the clutch was released. Back and forth, up the dusty driveway, the little red tractor chugged, never out of control, never emitting a sound of disapproval, until finally it was my turn.
I clambered into the wide seat, designed for comfort and not for looks, glancing over the controls. As my brother stood behind the seat on the hitch, he explained the different pedals. “That one on the left is the clutch. You let it out to engage the drive gears. The middle one is the brake. Push it when you need to stop quickly. The far right one, on the other side of the steering column? That’s the accelerator. You won’t need to use it much, except to get the engine revved up when you’re engaging the clutch.” I listened, but I guess I didn’t hear. I was too excited! I was going to drive this puppy!
The next few moments are kind of a jumble in my mind. I remember revving the engine with the accelerator and popping the clutch. Miraculously, the engine kept running and we leapt forward. The only problem is that I kept my foot on the accelerator and we went faster and faster. Big brother was shouting, “The clutch! Push in the clutch!” I complied, engine still roaring, but then he yelled, “The brake! Push the brake!” The only problem with this maneuver was that I had to remove my foot from the clutch, to comply. The machine jerked forward again with plenty of power still being supplied by the wide open throttle. For the next few seconds, I kept hearing, “The brake! The clutch!” over and over. By this time, he was trying to climb over the seat to turn off the ignition, but on a small tractor, the huge back tires are quite close to the seat, so his pants leg somehow got entangled in that rotating part of the out-of-control vehicle. Through my fog, I finally got my foot off of the accelerator and hit both the brake and clutch at the same time, slowing the lumbering, ugly old farm implement (you see how quickly perceptions can change?) to a stop.
My own embarrassment at my failure to tame the unruly beast was only surpassed by my brother’s mortification at having to walk the length of the driveway to the farmhouse, right past the onlooking family, holding his jeans closed. The moving tire had ripped his pants leg, right from the lowest hem all the way up to the inseam and it was flapping in the wind. He refused to speak to me for the rest of the day. I was not foolish enough to ask for another chance at driving the maleficent machine which had defeated me.
I never recall that summer without at least a chuckle at the vista my memory opens before me. As a family, we have laughed about that comedy of missteps again and again, but invariably, the laughter turns to silence as we contemplate the danger and horrors which could have been the outcome. In my mind’s eye, I see my oldest brother lying on the dirt lane, body shattered by the big wheel which could have pulled him under it, just as easily as it ripped his bluejeans. Or, equally as bad, both of us trapped under an overturned tractor after it leaves the level drive and wildly careens into the ditch beside it. But, just as quickly as the dark clouds dim the spectacle, the realization that neither of those possibilities actually happened hits again, and the laughter is back. The payback for borrowing trouble is never profitable, but the benefits of counting the blessings we have been given are always multiplied exponentially.
I think that the teaching of Jesus, when he warned against worry and fretting, includes the “if onlys” of the past. “Sufficient unto the day, is the evil thereof.” We get through the bad times with the strength He provides, and are blessed by Him in the good times. What more can we ask?
Split pants and damaged pride both make for some mighty good memory sharing. I bet you’ve got a few of your own to get you started counting your blessings.
“Every evening I turn my worries over to God. He’s going to be up all night anyway.”
Mary C Crowley~American entrepreneur and writer~1915-1987
“Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has many – not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.”
(Charles Dickens~English novelist~1812-1870)