Tractor Lessons: A Farm Kid’s Rite of Passage

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The long hours spent in the metal tractor seat — come rain, snow or glaring sun — are formative in every farmer’s life. “My First Tractor: Stories of Farmers and Their First Love” presents 25 essays from notable rural writers relating fond and not-so-fond memories about their first tractor.
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The coming of the tractor, along with electricity, television and a host of other “modern” conveniences, marked the beginning of a new era in agriculture.

Margret Aldrich is an editor and writer living in Minneapolis with her husband, Gary, and sons Abe, 3, and Asher, 1. While Margret enjoys driving her VW station wagon, she looks back fondly on the days of driving tractors on the family farm near Beaver, Iowa. In this story, history repeats itself as her dad gives Margret and then Abe their very first tractor lessons. Driver’s ed was never so much fun …

“The first thing you need to learn about driving a tractor is how to shut it off,” my dad said matter-of-factly, looking me straight in the eye and pointing a finger at my nose. This was how he began my inaugural tractor-driving lesson, which was a rite of passage for every farm kid. I knew that this was serious business.

It was summertime in central Iowa, and I had just finished fourth grade. The corn, soybeans and alfalfa were in the ground, our flock of sheep was in the pasture and because Dad had some extra time on his hands (and a 10-year-old girl to entertain), he thought this might be a good time to begin tractor-driving lessons. I had been on a tractor plenty — sitting on Dad’s lap and “helping” him steer as he plowed a field or drove a wagon of beans the 2 miles to the elevator — but I hadn’t been tall enough to reach the clutch and break pedals and, therefore, hadn’t been old enough for driving lessons. Like the amusement park signs that said, “You must be this high to ride,” I had to pass the clutch-pedal test before I would be allowed to pilot the tractor.

So, before he imparted any further tractor wisdom, he motioned for me to climb up into the driver’s seat of the IH Farmall 806D and show him that I could press the clutch all the way to the floor. I pulled myself up into the seat. It felt good up there. I looked to my right at our farmhouse and felt about as tall as the third-floor attic window. Over my left shoulder, I saw our border collie patrolling around the sheep in the east pasture, subtly herding them into a loose group. I enjoyed the scene for just a moment then took a deep breath, grabbed on to the steering wheel, and stomped on the clutch as hard as I could. It groaned as I pushed it down, down, down — all the way to the floor.

“All right,” said Dad, “That means you’re ready!” In one motion, he climbed up beside me and started up the engine, because, as he had promised, our first lesson would be shutting it off.

“How do you think you do it?” he said over the roar of the engine.

“Turn the key off!” I yelled. I tried, but the key didn’t do it.

Dad moved the long throttle handle behind the steering wheel all the way to the left to cut off the fuel supply, and the engine stopped. He started it up again and let me kill the engine. Lesson one, check! I was anxious to get moving and tear out of the gravel driveway.

Well, as with most tractors, that Farmall wasn’t exactly going to tear anywhere. I suppose that was the beauty of teaching me to drive a tractor rather than one of my grandpa’s beat-up drag-racing cars. I wouldn’t be moving fast enough to do any damage. The rest of the lesson creeped along, too, and went something like this:

Step one: Turn on the key so the battery connects to the starter.

Step two: Move the throttle a little to the right so the engine gets some fuel.

Step three: Push the clutch pedal all the way down until it engages the safety switch.

Step four: Keep your right hand on the steering wheel for bracing. Then with your free hand, push in the starter button.

With my skinny, fourth-grade leg standing on the clutch, I had the best of intentions, but you know how the next few minutes went: Start, chug, stall. Start, chug, stall. Start, chug, stall. Until, finally, the tractor lurched forward, hiccupped, and kept going, breathing a black, smoky sigh of relief from its stack. We were on the move! Dad helped me steer the tractor onto the main road and then let me bump the throttle up bit by bit. The tractor roared louder and louder, vibrating every tooth in my head and every bone in my body. There was no sign of stalling now — I glanced down at the big back tires, and they seemed to be spinning at breakneck speed. On either side of the road, black fields were lined with straight, healthy rows of new plants, and red-winged blackbirds watched us from the fence posts.

We drove like that for a while, Dad offering up comments about the soybean crop or the cows eating grass near Beaver Creek, me loosening my white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel ever so slightly.

Then, trouble. (I might have gasped, but the tractor was too loud for anyone to hear it.) Coming toward us was a big green machine — our neighbor, Mr. Hunter, on his new John Deere. My heart raced as I wondered how two tractors could possibly pass each other on that thin strip of gravel. We chugged closer. And closer. I felt like I was playing the slowest game of chicken the world had ever seen. I could read the seed logo stitched onto Mr. Hunter’s cap. I could see the dirt of a morning’s work on his face. Dad guided the tractor farther and farther to the right, until I was sure we were going to topple over into the ditch. Our Farmall and Mr. Hunter’s Deere finally met, with merely inches (I was sure of it) separating them. And then, the most wonderful thing happened: As our tractors squeaked by each other, Mr. Hunter looked at me, offered the hint of a smile, and lifted his index finger off of the steering wheel to say hello. I finger-waved back. The rite of passage was complete; I was a real farm kid now.

As the years went by, I graduated to faster-moving vehicles. By age 12, I was allowed to drive Dad’s 1960 Chevy pickup by myself as long as I stuck to gravel roads. If I had a friend with me, we were allowed to drive it only in the pasture. That was safe for innocent bystanders, but not for that poor old pickup. My best friend and I drove it as fast as we could over every bump in the field, knocking our heads on the ceiling and knocking the battery on top of the engine. It was a long walk to the house to tell my dad about that one — it made me think I should have stuck to tractors.

These days, I live in Minneapolis with my husband and two young sons, but my parents are still on the farm. Not much has changed there, happily enough. The Farmall 806D and the ’60 Chevy are still around, though they’re now housed in a Morton building instead of the gray, weathered barn. The red-winged blackbirds still watch the comings and goings on the stretch of gravel that runs past the farmhouse, though the road is now called 210th Street instead of Rural Route 1. My husband, boys and I like to visit as often as we can, and we celebrate every Christmas there. I particularly love being at the farmhouse toward the end of the summer, when the corn is high in the south field and the fireflies are thick in the evenings.

This summer, my oldest son, Abe, was 2 and a half when we were on the farm. Old enough to walk out to the old sheep barn with the dog (and me not too far behind); old enough to eat three ears of corn on the cob in one sitting; and old enough, I found out, to learn how to drive tractor.

Although he wasn’t even close to passing the clutch-pedal test, my dad (ever after known as Granddad) thought it was about time Abe had his first tractor lesson.

“That’s all right with me,” I said, and the two headed off to the machine shed.

“Now, Abe,” I heard my dad say. “When we’re done, I want you to tell me if the tractor was loud or if it was quiet.”

“OK, Granddad,” Abe answered, as he practically galloped to the big, red tractor.

Abe scaled the Farmall and looked, I thought, particularly small in the driver’s seat with my dad. The two had a grand time. Abe took his steering duties quite seriously, only taking a hand off the wheel to wave at Gary and me as they left the driveway and headed for open road, his smile stretching from ear to ear.

When they finally pulled back into the driveway and turned off the tractor, my dad posed the question, “So, Abe, was the tractor loud or was it quiet?”

“It was LOUD, Granddad!” Abe answered approvingly.

Later that night, Gary jokingly asked my dad why he had never been invited to drive the Farmall. Apparently, Gary had never driven a tractor before.

“What?” Dad exclaimed. “Never driven a tractor? Well, don’t you worry, Gary. I’ll be sure you get to drive the Farmall all you want at Christmastime. And I’ll be sure there’s a snow blade on it.”

When we got back to Minneapolis after that visit, Abe was already thinking about the next time he would get to drive tractor with Granddad. I wondered whether we should start practicing the index-finger wave, just to be prepared.

We put some pictures of Abe and the Farmall in a photo album and, later, I overheard him showing them to a friend.

“That’s me, that’s Granddad and that’s MY tractor,” he explained. Could this former farm girl’s heart be any more filled with pride?

Reprinted with permission from My First Tractor: Stories of Farmers and Their First Love, published by Voyageur Press, 2010.

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