Farm boys weren’t in Little League, we didn’t hit tennis balls against garage doors, our sports were rock throwing, at each other of course, we could shoot baskets against the old tank house but we couldn’t dribble in the dirt so we were handicapped compared to town kids. Thats what we called them. Town kids. In return they called us farmers and you can be sure it wasn’t any kind of compliment either.
We knew them of course. Our parents were friends and we picnicked at the Tar Springs picnic grounds where an older boy might work me over just for fun. I sat with them in Sunday school class, Harry Hart, John Lindstrom, John Marshall and Billy Perry. We were in Boy Scouts too. We didn’t know smoking, didn’t kiss girls and we didn’t run around in packs. We lived too far apart for that. On the other hand, we knew poison oak and Horse Nettles. We didn’t burn poison oak in campfires like Blair Sheldon, Skipper White and Hardy Estes did, who were Oceano Boy Scouts. It made their Camporee pretty short. We knew where vegetables came from and could identify them by sight and smell. We knew how to get dirty and muddy and we really knew about tractors.
Before we were old enough to drive them we found other uses for them. My brother and I would take old gunny sacks and saddle up the big rubber tires of the wheel tractors, take a bit of rope for reins and ride with the cavalry. We climbed up to the seats of the tracklayers, pulled the steering levers and yanked the throttle lever as we rode with General Patton’s “Hell on Wheels” tank battalions across France. You could take a broken piece of an old bean pole and chip away the caked mud on the bogie wheels like you were sculpting Mount Rushmore. We inhaled the sweet smell of diesel in the tanks and tried to smear the grease from the lube guns on each other. We were the bane of my mothers attempt at keeping us clean.
The tractors on our farm were as common as cars and trucks on a city street. When I was about eight my dad took me in his pickup down to Santa Maria to see his old friend Ralph Hanson. Ralph grew up just down the road from my great-grandparents farm on the Guadalupe road. He and dad were in the same class at Santa Maria Junior College. After they returned from University Ralph started a tractor business on the corner of West Main and Blosser road. By the 1950’s he had expanded it to a large operation where he sold International Harvester tractors and repaired any kind of farm equipment no matter who built it. For a little boy no place could have been more fascinating. We went into Ralph’s office and as they talked about stuff an eight year old wasn’t interested in, an adult conversation can be pretty safely ignored when you’re that age. I walked out to the showroom where the brand new machinery was displayed. International painted their machines bright red and just like an auto showroom the were polished until they gleamed.
After a bit, since no one was paying any attention I wandered out to the shops where the real action was. The repair bays were all occupied. There were machines up on hydraulic lifts and others parked over grease pits. The men working were dressed in greasy overhauls, wrenches and screwdrivers poking from their pockets so that they clanked faintly as they moved about. Down at the end a welder was working on a disc and when I walked up he said, “Hey kid, don’t look at the flame you’ll go blind.” I already knew that so I peeked through my fingers like my dad had showed me. No one seemed to think there was anything odd about a boy wandering around unattended, farm kids knew to stay out of the way and were expected to do so without prompting. One of the mechanics looked up and saw me watching him and said, “Hey kid, wanna stick a gum?” He took out a pack of Beeman’s Black Jack and thumbed out a stick. “Thank you,” I said, “My Uncle Jack likes this kind.” My dad was a Juicy Fruit man but Uncle Jackie liked the licorice flavor of the style. The first chewing gum distributed in sticks, Black Jack has an unmistakable black licorice flavor, rounded out by anise and ginger. Black Jack gum got its start from Mexican chicle brought over to the states by El Presidente Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Knew about him ‘cause he killed Davy Crockett on TV.
When I wandered back to the office the two men were still jawing away, don’t think they even knew I was gone. Eventually they stubbed out their cigarettes, shook hands and Ralph walked us out to the pickup. They said good bye again and we drove down the Guadalupe Road to my great-grandparents house to see my uncle John Gray. “What did you do there dad?” And he replied, “Why, I bought a tractor, a brand new one too.”
I clearly remember when the truck from Hanson’s delivered the first one we had ever had that was brand spanking new. It was an International Harvester Farmall model C cultivator. A shiny bright red with cultivator bars painted royal blue and all the implement clamps a rich ebony black. A farm boy could identify make and model by color, the same way townies identified cars. International, red, John Deere, green and yellow, Caterpillar, yellow, Fords were grey and Allis-Chalmers were bright orange. Olivers were Green. Of course they only sported these gleaming colors for a few days, for they were made for hard use and no one was in the least concerned with keeping them shiny. They were made for work and work they did.
It seems the all cousins and family who came to visit wanted a tractor ride and my dad was happy to oblige. We have photos of them sitting on machines which were evidently a big thrill for them as none of them lived where they could ride or drive them. Our reality was different though. Six days a week, sometimes seven you could see and hear them in use on our farms and all ones ones around
To farm kids they just were. You grew up watching your father George or Lester Haas who worked for my dad, Uncle Jackie, Lester Sullivan, Oliver Talley’s men or Kaz Ikeda’s on the farm next door over even, as we got a little older, “Tookie “Cechetti would drive his dad George’s Farmall to Branch school once in a while. Driving them through the fields or down the roads from one farm to another was just the ordinary thing, not special, just a fact of life. When we were very small small we rode on my dads lap, when we grew tall enough we rode on the the cultivator bars, standing up on them and holding on to the drivers seat. Dangerous? Of course it was but as with all things, if one kid did it they all did. Dad knew the worst that could happen was you could fall off the back into the dirt. I looked more dangerous than it was. He would never let you do something like that if he was pulling something behind, ever.
When I was eleven, dad tried having me drive the tractor that pulled the broccoli cart through the fields when harvesting. This was a large two wheeled cart used to collect the cuttings before packing. The laborers hand cut the broccoli heads with a knife and then tossed them into the back of the carts. The tractor dragging the cart moved at walking speed between the rows of the crop while this was done. By having me drive the tractor my dad would save money not having to pay someone else to do the job. At eleven, my legs weren’t long enough to reach the brake and clutch pedals so they were rigged to operate by pulling the levers that operated the hydraulics that raised and lowered the cultivator bars. Left one for the clutch, right for the brake.
Broccoli is a spring crop. Planted in the winter it is harvested in early spring. It likes the cool weather. Rain in the spring also makes this a typically wet and muddy job and holding the single front tire in the furrow takes more strength than I had. I’d go along fine for a bit then the wheel would suddenly turn sideways and begin plowing a wide swath through the broccoli plants. This ended my driving career pretty quickly which was ok for me as I had to do it before school when it was cold and wet. I did like being with my dad and the men in the fields though.
We had many kinds of tractors over the years. There were several kinds of wheel tractors, John Deeres, Farmalls, and the Allis Chalmers. Caterpillars or Cats were properly called crawlers because of the revolving tracks that provided grip, we called them all “Cats” even though they may not have been built by the Caterpillar corporation. Dad had a big International Harvester track layer. It was red, which was the international color and it served many uses. It could pull a 14 foot disc followed by a drag harrow and a ring roller when it was used to prep a field for planting. One winter dad and Lester Haas welded a frame on the back of the tractor, bought a large two blade propeller at the Oceano airport, mounted that on the top of the frame, hooked it to the Power Take-off and used it as a wind machine to move air across the tomato fields on nights when a hard freeze was expected. Those acres were right outside my bedroom window and I soon became very familiar with the sound of a big Diesel engine’s roar as it spun that blade all night. A couple years later during a very wet winter the same tractor had three foot long 4 X 4′ bolted to each track plate to increase the width of its feet so it could pull the celery carts through the mud-sloppy fields when it was harvesting time. Dad said he made more money renting out the big Cat to other farmers than he did on his own celery crop.
We had two old John Deeres, both built in1930. One was a Model A and the other, a Model B. They were both a quarter century old when I learned to operate them. They were early twentieth century technology at it’s finest. Neither had an electric starter or even a crank. They were started with a big flywheel mounted on the side. A very heavy chunk of cast steel that weighed at least a hundred pounds. That flywheel weighed more than I did. They started when you opened the settling bowl to drain any collected water in the gas line, then opened the petcock to let gasoline back into the line. Next you closed the choke and retarded the spark, turned the flywheel over a couple times to draw gas down into the cylinders then advanced the spark, threw the flywheel as hard as you could and hopefully the danged thing would fire. On a cold morning, a little seriously applied swearing helped. The spark was supplied by a magneto because those old girls didn’t have batteries. Magnetos are something you can look up if you want, I’ll just say that the spark they supply is seriously nasty. Ever touch a spark plug or uninsulated magneto wire and it will shake you like a dog passing peach pits. You will surely have to change your underwear if you do. Very simple machine and they will run forever. You can fix them with a Crescent wrench and a screwdriver. At least one of those old Johnny Poppers still lives and runs up in Creston and is closing in on a hundred years old. Why the Johnny Popper? Listen to one run sometime, you’ll know why they call them that.
Cultivators were hard on the man who drove them. The steering wheels were offset slightly to the left so the operator could hunch over to the right and see the implements as they ran by the plantings, sometimes on both sides at once and usually just an inch or so away. One slip of the wheel and the blades could take out several feet of crop. It takes a lot of concentration and it’s darn hard work. No romance in it at all. There are thousands of plants in a farm field an each and everyone is worth money. Each is vitally important to the grower.
By the time I was 13 or so I drove every kind we had. Weekends and days after school and in the summer before I was old enough to drive a real car and had a license. There was nothing quite so cool as driving the big D-4
Cat pulling a disc, harrow and roller back and forth across the fields doing figure eights , trying to figure out how to make the turns come out just right. I seems silly now, but we drove without a mask to fight the dust. You might wear a bandanna if you had one but they were of limited use. We didn’t have mufflers, either, on the big diesels. Your ears rang after hours of powering up and down the fields you’d park the rig and wobble to the house, still vibrating from the shaking tractor, ears buzzing, covered with a thick coat of dust and blowing muddy boogers to clear your nose. When you’re thirteen it’s all pretty manly.
Running the steep side hills planting my uncles hay crop we would stand on the uphill axles of the tractors , hoping that if she went over you might have a chance to jump clear. Once in a while the tires would lurch sideways in the loose dirt and your heart would stop every time. No one in the family ever tipped one over during sixty years of working but we all had the “jumping out of our skins” experience at one time or another.
I used to drive one of the John Deeres for my uncle jack. Pulling the mower to cut hay or the side delivery rake to drag it into windrows ready for the baler and of course the most fragrant job of all, the manure spreader. We would load the wagon full of manure from the corrals and then pull it through the plowed fields all the while the spinning auger at the rear throwing manure high in the air where the breeze blew it all over. At the end of the day you had a very nice coating of sweet, semi-digested feed from head to toe. The funny thing is, no one who actually did the job seemed to mind. It didn’t help much to pull down the hat and turn up the collar; the breeze brought a shower of stuff that would make Mom’s laundry even more challenging.
I don’t know what it is about big machines but hardly any boy I know doesn’t remember them fondly. Those machines were simply built and easily repaired. Today you must have an education in order to work on farm machinery. The cabs of tractors are now enclosed, with air conditioning, dust filters, GPS and computer screens that provide the driver with all kinds of information about moisture content and nutrients in the soil. You can’t buy a used John Deere for a $100 dollars anymore. Lots has been gained but lots has been lost too. It’s not farming, it’s agribusiness now. That might have been helpful in the back of the bus in 1959. Instead of “You stupid Farmer” it would now be “You stupid agribusiness man.” I doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?