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The Farm Tractor from Hell

Michael Hillman

While I don’t have my wife’s green thumb, I do seem to have the ability to fix anything mechanical. Given the age of everything mechanical on our old farm, a ‘grease thumb’ just might be better then a green thumb.

My love of mechanics started early. Tinker Toys quickly gave way to Erector Sets, which were followed by lawn mower engines and, eventually, cars. My love of mechanics and technology prompted me to pursue an engineering degree and my first five years after college were spent serving as an Engineering Officer onboard nuclear submarines.

I can still clearly remember standing in the bottom of a dry dock the night before the USS Kamamamaha, a nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine, was to be re-floated after a two-year overhaul. Responsible for the operation of her nuclear power plant, I had learned an immense amount of practical and theoretical engineering during those two, long years. I had resolved countless complex problems involving nuclear, electrical, or mechanical issues and was confident that henceforth, the resolution of any mechanical problem would be child’s play.

Then I bought a farm tractor . . .

One of the more immediate issues I had to address after buying the farm was obtaining a suitable tractor and mower to cut its ten acres of pasture. My first inclination was to purchase a new tractor but sticker shock quickly made me reevaluate that option. The more I hemmed and hawed about what to do, the taller the grass grew. By the time summer arrived, the grass in the pasture had grown so high that our cats and dogs were often lost in it for days.

Weary of listening to our calls for our animals, a neighbor suggested that I get in touch with Kermit Glass, the local purveyor of used tractors. At 5 foot 5, and 145 pounds, Kermit wasn’t an imposing man but having been in the tractor business for 60 of his 80 years, what he lacked in physical stature he more then made up for in tractor repair trivia and home spun humor.

"You the city slicker that bought the old Hipsley place huh?"

"Uh, yeah. How did you know?" I replied.

"Easy, you don’t have any dirt under your fingernails, so you must be a city slicker. Talk around here was that you were a nuclear engineer. Is that so?"

"Um, Yes sir."

"Never had a nuclear engineer around here before. Most folks around here can’t even figure out how to change their oil . . . you do know how to change oil don’t you? So what can I do for you today?"

Kermit patiently listened as I explained my needs and then walked me over to a '51 International H' on the far end of a line of used tractors. With a twinkle in his eye he explained that "she was owned by a local Amish farmer who only used her on Sunday when the other Amish were at church. . . . She'll do you just fine. Just make sure that the oil pressure gauge is always pegged high." Kermit threw in an "almost new" bush hog, and the deal was done.

According to Kermit, to start the tractor all I had to do was "just pull this button out, pull this lever back and push this button in," which, when performed by Kermit, resulted in the tractor immediately roaring to life. Unbeknownst to me, the tractor apparently had a profound dislike for nuclear engineers and decided that it would be good sport to humiliate me as often as possible. It wasted little time in doing so.

The following day the tractor was delivered and, upon returning from work, I approached it with confidence. Following Kermit's direction, the tractor roared to life—for ten seconds. Ten times I repeated the starting procedure yet all I succeeded in accomplishing was to wear out the battery. Perplexed, I called Kermit for help.

"Did you open the fuel valve?" he asked.

"Fuel valve? What's that?"

"It's that little valve under the fuel tank. Got to open that or you won't get any gas. Didn't you say you were a nuclear engineer?" With dented ego, I found and opened the offending valve and the tractor came to life, and I proceeded to cut the pastures.

For reasons which now escape me, I remember having fun the first few times I cut the pastures. Initially I had aspirations to make the pastures look like golf greens, and for the first few months, I cut and re-cut the pastures in every possible pattern and direction, meticulously insuring that no one blade of grass was higher then another. My neighbors, who are real farmers, would drive by and shake their heads in disbelief, especially when I would stand on the tractor and lip sing the theme song from "Green Acres". They, along with my wife, thought I needed to get a real life.

For most of the summer the tractor ran well, then one day I noticed that the oil pressure gauge was no longer pegged high. I immediately shut off the tractor and called Kermit for advice.

"Well, did you put any oil in it?"

Oil? Oil?!! Kermit never said anything about putting oil in it when I bought it. How could I have missed something so obvious! My feeling of incompetence was only increased when I had to call Kermit back ten minutes later to find out where the oil went in. His closing comment of "you sure you're a nuclear engineer?" sounded like a challenge, so I decided to prove my technical abilities and not simply add oil, but change the oil.

In no time at all the oil was changed and with the oil gauge pegged high, I confidently returned to cutting the field. Within an hour however, the tractor exhaust became quite noticeable, within another hour, the tractor was putting out a smoke screen that a World War II destroyer captain would have been proud of. Soon the smoke was so bad, that this time Kermit called me and asked if my house was on fire. When I explained that all I had done was change he oil, he asked what type of oil I had used.

"10W-40 detergent oil, of course."

"That wasn't too bright an idea there Mike, You just cleaned out all the sludge and dirt that had been plugging up the cracks in that old engine for years. Now the oil’s just a’pouring past those old rings. You really a nuclear engineer?"

Faced with the very real possibility of receiving citations for violating air quality requirements and having to change the spark plugs every fifteen minutes, I decided I had no other option other then to rebuild the engine. After all, how hard could it be, I mean, I had rebuilt a nuclear reactor . . . Word of my plans quickly spread around the neighborhood. On the morning of the operation, I discovered that stands had been set up around the tractor, which were rapidly filling with local farmers. Kermit began the day’s festivities by warming up the crowd with predictions of what I would break this time. A few farmers even brought a few guns "just in case we have to put it or you out of misery."

Undeterred by their sarcasm, I began to organize my tools, which brought howls of laughter as it became apparent that my city slicker socket set didn't have a socket large enough for even the smallest bolt or nut on the tractor. However, putting on latex gloves to keep my hands clean was just too much for the old-timers and Kermit had to call for an intermission till oxygen bottles could be found for them. Through the ‘operation’, jokes about ‘wanabe’ farmer nuclear engineers flew fast and furious. In the end, i.e., when all the six packs were consumed, the operation was declared a success and ,to the amazement of all, especially myself, the tractor roared to life without a hint of smoke.

For the next few years all seemed well and the pastures slowly began to take on my much wanted golf course appearance. Little did I know however that the tractor's contempt for me was building. After a suitable time had elapsed, it up and decided not to start. Unwilling to call Kermit and be humiliated again, I spent the whole day checking and rechecking all its electrical connections, all to no avail. With the pasture only half-mown and the sun setting fast, I finally broke down and called Kermit. In hopes of prevent him from making me feel like a complete idiot, I immediately launched into extensive explanation on everything I had checked and done.

"Why'd you do all that Mike? Heck, all it sounds like is that the starter is stuck out, just unbolt the two bolts holding the starter in place and spin the starter gear back in and it'll start up good as new."

I couldn't even begin to fathom how he knew this would work but with nothing to lose I did as he said. It worked. When I called him back to thank him, he couldn’t help but chuckle and asked: "You really a nuclear engineer?"

Several weeks later, the tractor again refused to start and, after verifying everything was where it was supposed to be, I called Kermit. What the heck, I figured, he already thinks I'm incompetent, What do I have to lose.

"Won't turn over, huh? Sounds like a dead battery to me, Mike."

I refused to tell him that the slap he heard was the sound of me hitting my forehead with a board. Since it was Sunday, I was sort of at a loss for what to do next.

"No big deal, just jump it from you truck."

"But the tractor is a 6-volt system, and my truck is 12 volts."

"That's OK, Just touch the leads real fast. It'll work."

Completely convinced that I was now the stupidest nuclear engineer on the face of the earth, I proceeded to carry out his directions. Just like Kermit said, the tractor roared to life when I touched the jumper cable to the tractor ground. However, Kermit failed to warn me that I'd get a lot of sparking, which promptly ignited the gas that was constantly leaking from the gas line. Within seconds, the engine was ablaze, fed by years of grease and oil buildup on its side.

Audrey, who had been watering the side garden and watching dispassionately my display of engineering valor, shook her head and with a hint of satire said, "Let me guess, they taught you that trick in the Navy? Now I suppose you'll want to use the hose and interrupt my watering, right?"

Refusing to accept her invitation to a debate, I grabbed the hose and quickly put out the fire. As the last of the flames were extinguished, the tractor sputtered and died. I swore I heard it laugh at me.

Determined to win the battle of wills with the tractor, I set about rebuilding or replacing everything I had yet to tinker with and, for a while, the tractor ran quite well. However, just when I thought I had got the hang of ‘tractoring,’ it once again up and died. Up until that time it had always had the good graces to die near the barn but this time it died in the middle of the field, which added insult to injury, for I now had to figure out how to tow it back to the barn. For the next two hours, I retrieved everything and anything I thought could help pull the tractor. Though my wife insisted that her garden hoses were off limits, I still managed to sneak two out of the garden. By the time I was done, there was more rope and wire connecting my truck and tractor then a tugboat pulling ship. Unfortunately, the ground was a little bit softer then I figured, and instead of pulling the tractor forward, I sank the truck up to the axles in mud. Just then, Kermit happened to drive by.

"Looks like you got yourself in quite a fix here Mike. I don’t mean to sound smart but it’s a lot easier to pull your truck out of the mud with the tractor facing the other way . . . " By the time I finished explaining what had happened, he was laughing so hard he was leaning against the tractor gasping for air.

"Rebuilt the carburetor, huh? You didn't happen to change the fuel filter while you were at it, did you?"

"Fuel filter? Fuel filter?!! You never told me this thing had a fuel filter!"

"Mike, every engine has a fuel filter. Didn’t they teach you that in your fancy nuclear power school?" With the confidence that comes from years of farming, Mr. Kermit pulled out the clogged filter, pressed the start switch, and the tractor returned to life. Later that evening, I received an anonymous call, and while I can't be sure, I swear the laughter on the other end sounded like Kermit's.

Tired of fighting with the tractor and being the laughing stock of the local farmers, I opened peace negations with it. Much to the detriment of my ego, I found myself forced to agree to most of its demands. These included not starting it on days when the temperature is less then 70 degrees, wrapping it with an electric blanket in the winter, feeding it only the finest premium gas and only running it for three hours at a time. For its part, the tractor agreed to start without support of a battery charger at least once a month and not to quit in the middle of the field. Signed in both blood and oil, the bargain has been keep pretty faithfully for the last few years.

The rains this year, however, caused the grass to grow unceaseingly, resulting in the need for almost non-stop cutting of the pasture. Feeling I had broken my side of the agreement, the tractor no longer felt obliged to keep up its side and promptly broke down again.

After setting a record by stalling out five times in one afternoon. I found myself grabbing a gas can with the full intent of burning my nemesis to the ground once and for all. Thankfully, Audrey reminded me that there was an open burning ban in effect and that, while it might make me feel better, she'd take the fine for breaking the burning ban out of my hardware allowance.

After two stiff gin and tonics, I managed to successfully coax the tractor back to life and nursed it back towards the barn and its current resting-place. Since that fateful day, I've been reflecting on what to do with it. The old Navy saying "Run she may, shine she must" seemed to point the way out of my predicament. If the tractor isn't going to run well, it might as well look good. I've therefore decided to restore it as close as possible to its original condition, decals and all. When it's finished, I intend to park the tractor before an alter I've made, where I'll sacrifice John Deere tractor parts to it in the hope that it will occasionally start. If that fails, I'll either park it in my wife's formal garden as a flower stand or donate it to the Lions’ Club for their annual Thanksgiving 'tractor shoot'.

As for cutting the pastures, after six seasons of being jostled about on a rusty metal seat, having exhaust fumes blown in my face, next year I'm tearing out the pastures and replacing them with Astro Turf.

Mike lives with his wife Audrey on their farm east of Emmitsburg, where she has come to the conclusion that his unique ability to color the truth is a direct result of his mother not having spanked him enough.

Read other Humor stories by Michael Hillman

Read other stories by Michael Hillman