A church congregation has the unique ability to bring together a group of people who all have a faith in common, but perhaps little else. A tractor repair customer we’ll call Clive invited my wife, Stephanie, and me to such a gathering and I’ve had strong reservations about mixing business and socializing ever since.
One feature of the event was a hayride. The large hay wagon attached to Clive’s Ford Dexta seemed to grow smaller as the crowd swelled. When we arrived carrying the customary covered dish, Clive, looking slightly panicked, asked “Where is your truck?”
“Huh?” was not the answer that he wanted to hear.
The route for the hayride included a steep, winding gravel road. All of the roads leading away from this location were of this description, so choosing a gentler stretch of road wasn’t an option. He had intended for the group to split up with half riding on the hay wagon and the rest riding on the back of my 1954 Chevrolet 3800 stake body truck, which often takes rides such as this
Being manufactured before the advent of seatbelts, my truck’s passengers are thus exempt from seatbelt laws, and they can ride on the back of the truck. I don’t feel that safety is compromised because we travel so slowly that the calves in the pastures along the road can outrun us.
Somehow, I was the last to know that I was supposed to bring the truck. With no time available to make the long drive home to fetch it, the burden of transportation fell entirely on the Dexta.
I like a Dexta well enough, I guess. They’re rugged and powerful, but they’re just so British. I know that many of the old tractors that people assume are homespun are actually from over there, but having never spent time on an English farm, I have difficulty latching mentally onto the Dexta’s sense of history and nostalgia. (My address is available from the publisher. If you care to send tickets. I prefer to travel by sea.)
The Dexta seemed at its limit in view -of its task. Clive’s worried look deepened as the hay wagon became ever more burdened with people. Although this situation would reach into the reserves of the Dexta’s capabilities and Clive’s driving skills, he judged the situation to be safe enough and fired up the tractor to embark down the shady, winding mountain road.
As Clive’s mechanic, I would be responsible if the tractor quit and the entire crowd of picnickers had to walk back up the hill. Thus concerned, I rode on the front of the wagon. Though the tractor had no problems looming, I wanted to be able to listen to the engine.
A fellow who apparently had some farm business to discuss with Clive jumped onto the drawbar. I’m sure that this man knew better than to ride in this manner with a wagon or implement behind the tractor; but if you already know the danger and choose an unwise course anyway, there ‘s no salvation left.
The front of the wagon was occupied by others of a similar background to mine — farmers, orchard workers, mechanics and so on. Behind us and to the right sat the young guys who were really too cool to be there, but too young to disobey a parental order. They rode with their feet dangling dangerously close to the wheels for effect. The left side seemed to be occupied by lovers while on the back rode the town folk dressed in their clean, light summer pastels.
In the middle of this throng rode a small group of young girls. They were coming to the realization that riding on a weaving, bouncing, swaying hay wagon, while breathing diesel fumes might not have been a good idea after such a large and diverse meal.
As we descended the steep road, the tractor’s rear tires started ever so slightly to lose traction in the loose gravel — slide-catch-scrunch. Clive began the delicate operation of slowly braking to a stop to engage the next higher gear.
A red-tailed hawk flew low across the tractor’s path, and the man on the draw bar pointed at it excitedly. In so doing, he lost his balance on the drawbar and started to stumble. Pumped up from weeks of making square bales, Clive extended an iron haymaker’s arm to rescue the man.
This distracted Clive from the delicate operation at hand, and he accidentally de-clutched the tractor; which alternately skidded and ran away freewheeling, while he struggled to help this poor sap regain his footing on the drawbar.
There was a split second for the tractor-savvy people on the front of the wagon to give the order for everyone to jump. If the wagon started rolling any faster, the passengers would face a greater risk of injury when they jumped off. Everyone could sense the impending danger. We hesitated, and the opportunity to jump safely was lost.
The veteran tractor operators were silent as white-knuckled hands grasped the wagon’s edge. Behind us, the lovers had eyes only for each other and didn’t seem to notice any problem.
The cool boys’ eyes became as wide as silver dollars, and the girls in the middle turned a deeper shade of green. The town folk, blissfully unaware of the drama unfolding up ahead, launched into another chorus of “Edelweiss.” Clive very skillfully brought this mess under control, and we had a pleasant tour of the gentle creek bottomland at the foot of the hill. The farmer arid mechanics curtly assigned a seat on the wagon to the draw bar rider.
During the steep ascent, the Dexta’s governor responded to the load and black diesel smoke nearly engulfed the wagon. I could sense the tractor weaving slightly as Clive tested the various surfaces for traction. Even the town folk were quiet. The cool boys crowd got off and walked. The green girls were now olive drab, and folks were giving them plenty of space.
Arriving back at the picnic, the town folk went in search of more ice cream and soda pop; the green girls, regaining some natural color, formed a bathroom line. The lovers strolled away on a cow path to watch the sunset. The farmers and mechanics looked about discreetly and then gravitated to that special place in Clive’s machine shed by an old International Harvester refrigerator under the old flyspecked light bulb that Clive insists that his dad installed in 1966.
There, we looked over the cooling Dexta and some other equipment while enjoying some much-welcome libation.
When asked how he managed to bring the tractor and wagon under control, Clive said it was simply a question of balance. Stephanie’s covered dish offering of Confederate Caviar was a big hit — it always is. A good time was had by all.
This article 1st appeared in the July-August 2010 issue of Antique Power magazine and was 1st published in the Review on June 7, 2017.