Driving the tractor, ZJ Farm

Photo by Patricia Black McCauley

Photo by Patricia Black McCauley

I found Susan outside the barn after I finished milking. She wore the same clothes as yesterday, ripped shorts and a tank top that began its life as pink. One desperate bobby pin held her unruly curls. ““LK wants her tomato seedlings today.” And then, “You haven’t learned to drive the tractor yet, have you?” she said.

“No, but I can,” I said, feigning confidence.

“Okay. Hop on. I’ll get David to show you while I get her trays organized.”

I walked to the dark and dusty barn. From the outside, it was that old farm version of the color white. Not white, but dirty, lived-in once-white. The building itself stood so proud and necessary. There was a set of massive sliding wooden doors at the front and back. The back doors were always open for the lambs, and this provided the only light. I pushed with all my weight to slide the front doors open, one at a time. The far end of the barn was filled with the remaining straw, dust, and fencing from last season’s lambing. The Kubota was parked among huge orange metal trailers packed with soybeans, oats, or corn. Each had a scattering of plastic jugs around them, in various levels of disrepair. I sat in the squishy black seat of the small orange tractor and waited. All I needed was a straw hat and a lifetime worth of grit and I’d blend right in.

I heard David’s skateboarding in the garage, and then it stopped. He came to meet me, not wearing yesterday’s clothes. Rather, he wore sagging jeans, a Blink 182 shirt, and had a comb stuck in his mini-fro.

Susan headed up the path on foot. “We’ll fill the bucket at the hoop house, and then you can drive her trays down here to load them in the truck.”

Whatever that meant.

I got off the seat and David sat down. He turned the key halfway, holding it. I wondered where to sit. I settled on the edge of the seat, half a butt cheek on the rim, the rest balancing in space.

“What are you doing?” I asked, as we just sat there, awkward.

“Counting to thirty.”


“I don’t know, you just do it,” he replied. “Or it won’t start.” A red light came on, with an oil can symbol. I pointed to it, and David just shrugged. “I don’t know what it means. Doesn’t matter.” At last he turned the key fully, and with a rumble and eruption of smoke, it was running.

He drove first along the path parallel to the barn, showing me the front and back pedals, one for moving in each respective direction. They seemed to have nothing do with speed. Acceleration, I gathered, came from a hand lever. He then reversed without looking behind him, nearly hitting the dog. I shooed Martin around the tractor and up the path to the garden. I watched him go, longingly.

David did a three-point turn and headed around the silo and driveway, immediately at full speed. It felt like riding in a combination of a convertible and a little red wagon. As we sped up, the vibrations were replaced by bumps and jolts on my increasingly sore butt. I didn’t want him to think I was trying to sit on his lap or something, so I was mostly doing a prolonged squat.

“How do you stop?” I hollered, over the roaring engine and the bumps.

He turned the acceleration lever back down, and we slowed, rolling to an unsure neutral-ish pause.

“But what about a brake? What if I need to stop fast?”

He shrugged.

“You can use this to put the bucket down,” he said pulling another lever on the side. The big front scoop on the tractor went down and rested on the ground. “If that’s down, you won’t roll.”

Slow down and not roll were not exactly the same thing to me as brakes, but it seemed that was all I was going to get.

“Don’t touch this side,” he said. “That’s the PTO.”

“I don’t know what that means, but okay,” I answered, obediently.

It was my turn. I slid into the comfy driving position and David climbed behind me, standing and holding the back of my seat. Forward pedal, and I gently turned the accelerator by hand. I looked over my shoulder, worried he would fall, but he only teased me for going too slow. I tried going faster, but was too scared. We returned full circle to the start, David thoroughly bored. I slowed down and took my foot off the gas. We inched toward the barn and I breathed out, relieved.

Except, we were on a slight decline, and weren’t fully stopping.

“David! It’s still rolling!” I frantically pushed my foot in space of an absent car brake. My heart pounded. Should I try to turn sharply? Put the bucket thing down?

“You can’t try to stop it on a hill…” he was saying, laughing. He tried to reach over me, and I pulled the side lever. The front scoop went up, not down, and there was a crunch and a crack as we ran into the huge, old, beautiful barn door.

I looked up to see a long vertical split in the wood, and a hole where my big front shovel ripped its way to a stop.

“Oh shit!” I said. David found this even more funny, since I never swore. I got out of the driver’s seat and looked at my destruction. David backed the tractor up, shut it down, and then joined me.

“Nice,” he laughed, gazing at my wreckage. I reached up and touched the spot, frantic, wracked with guilt.

Susan returned from the hoop house, carrying a tray of seedlings.

“What are you two doing? I’m waiting for you up there.”

“Yeah… Kelsey totally crashed into the barn,” David said almost proudly, no help in my defense. I would give him the stink eye for tossing me under the bus, but I was about to cry.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” was all I could get out. David looked and me and started laughing again. Then, amazingly, Susan started laughing too. They were both laughing. Hard. Which… I’d never actually seen before.

“Well, you’ve left your mark,” said Susan, in no hurry to recover her composure. “We’re always going to remember you now.”

My wedding, years later, with the tractor hole remaining on right hand door of the barn. Photo by Patricia Black McCauley

My wedding, years later, with the tractor hole remaining on right hand door of the barn. Photo by Patricia Black McCauley

Powered by Squarespace. Contents copyright Kelsey Heeringa.