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January 19, 2017 - Jerry Nelson
I have been faithful most of my life, but for some years when I was young I openly cheated. She even moved in with us. Confessing that I had a scarlet International Harvester mistress is difficult for a lifelong John Deere guy like me. The two major tractor manufacturers that compete for farmers’ affections are John Deere and International Harvester. There are other brands, but powerhouses Deere and IH dominate. This rivalry is so ancient that archeologists have discovered red and green farmers’ mailboxes depicted in Paleolithic cave paintings. The competition between International red and John Deere green can be every bit as bitter as a rivalry between two major sports teams. Tractor-centric insults fly like pointy objects at a dart tournament. “John Deeres are green so they’ll blend in with the vegetation after they crap out,” an IH guy might crow. “Internationals are red because of all the red ink they’ll cost,” a Deere fellow might retort. As you can see, it gets pretty nasty. Switching allegiance from one color to the other would be seen as treason. It would be akin to changing religions or painting your house purple with yellow stripes. It just ain’t done. When I was little, Dad was firmly in the Deere camp. The “putt-putt” of a two-cylinder Johnny Popper was the soundtrack of my early childhood and was as soothing as a mother’s heartbeat. One day when I was 11, a bizarre noise assaulted my ears: the whirring of an IH tractor engine. Dad had purchased an “M” Farmall, bringing the blasphemous International Harvester red onto our farmstead. By then, I had fully mastered our “A” and our “B” John Deeres. Hungry for new experiences, I swiftly decided that the bitter battle between Team Green and Team Red wasn’t my fight. I scrambled up onto the “M’s” operator’s platform and soon became intimately acquainted with the exotic temptress. Thanks to Dad’s open-mindedness, I grew up bilingual. Maybe a more apt term would be “ambi-tractored.” Dad bought a loader for the “M” and the method of his madness became clear. The controls of our “A” and “B” were operated by hand. Running either of those tractors with a loader on them would have required the dexterity of an octopus. The “M” featured a foot-operated clutch. This freed up an entire appendage to run the levers that ran the loader. Being our lone loader tractor, the “M” was crucial for the daily operation of our dairy. It was imperative that the “M” start every morning. In the crystallized depths of winter, this often proved to be a slope too steep for its anemic six-volt battery. Starting that beast in the deep cold involved more choreographing and chanting than a pagan sacrificial ceremony. You had to jiggle the choke and open the throttle at precisely the right moments while muttering, “Dear God, please.” The engine would begin to sputter and you had to orchestrate the choke and the throttle while each cylinder voted on whether or not it would fire. And once the engine started, you had to sit on that freezing operator’s platform and play with the loader to loosen up its cold hydraulic fluid, which had become the consistency of chocolate pudding. There were times when we were so desperate to get the “M” running that — I’m ashamed to admit this — we resorted to mood-altering substances. Specifically, we used ether, otherwise known as starting fluid. The “M” often seemed deeply depressed when we asked her to start on subzero mornings. Dad would crank her engine as I shot a pungent stream of ether from a pressurized spray can into the general vicinity of her air intake. Upon inhaling that blast of powerful stimulant, the “M” would begin to snort and pop excitedly. This practice could be dangerous; ether is extremely flammable and backfires are common. The tractor didn’t always start, but the combination of hope and hazard certainly made things exciting. Dad calculated that if we took the muffler off the “M,” the tractor might fit into the center alley of our stanchion barn where she could sleep overnight. It was a tight squeeze. The driver had to duck his head lest he thump his noggin on the ceiling joists. But in the morning, the “M,” having enjoyed the greenhouse-like warmth generated by our Holsteins, would start like it was summertime. The “M” never seemed to mind that she smelled like a cow barn. It’s been decades since I first felt that ruby temptress purr beneath my touch. But I bet if I sat on an “M” today, muscle memory would instantly transport me back to my 11-year-old self. Besides, you never forget the thrill of that first clandestine romance.
Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at email@example.com.
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