Monday, February 7, 2011

Confessions of a tractor-challenged farmer...

Hi Loyal Followers!  I know it's been a while....But what can I say, the writing comes when the inspiration strikes.  This story is a bit of different take, more about myself than the family characters.  But then again, maybe I am a character!  (A girl has to dream...).  Hope you like it!
I had to admit I was a hopeless case the day I tried to drive the tractor with only three of its usual four wheels.
It wasn't driving the three-wheeled tractor that was the final straw.  Afterall, that was accidental.  How was I to know that my father had discovered a flat, had jacked the tractor up to remove the front right tire, and left it like that?  Deceptively level and upright, I might add (in my defense!).
 I approached tractor from back, climbed on via the left side and did not notice the missing front right tire until the subsequent - bang, clank, screech - as I backed off the jack and landed on the rim, screeching across the concrete barn floor.  Oops.
(BTW - This did teach me a important lesson in tractor maintenance.  For the record. - before operating tractor, walk around the ENTIRE tractor assuring all wheels are present.  Very important.) 
No, this accidental incident wasn't what made me have to face and admit my inherent ineptness with tractors (and most things mechanical).  What did that?  Well, after the horrible - bang, clank, screech - and as I sat atop a now somewhat lopsided tractor, I did momentarily consider, albeit briefly, whether I could "still drive it like that."
I immediately banished such blasphemous thoughts from my head and proceeded to take the most prudent actions – namely exiting the scene as quickly as possible.  My father, Mr. small-engine, big-engine, driving a semi truck with 2 million miles, diesel and old equipment mechanic extraordinaire…. returns, fixed tire in hand and asks “Georgie, what happened to the tractor?” one eyebrow arched dubiously.
I profess complete and total denial.  “I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about.”
But I could escape the truth no more.  I suck at tractors.
Unfortunately for me, my tractor fiasco history precedes me.  Greatly.
There was the time I tried to clean the spark plugs.  Father left for three weeks and gave me instructions on how tp clean the spark plugs on the reluctant tractor when she (all tractors are she, I do KNOW that much!) starting acting sluggish.  I brought along one of my eager, doe-eyed farm interns.  Some good farm learning to be had here! 
So we diligently took all the plugs off, cleaned them up with the wire brush, as instructed.  And then, as we reattached wires and plugs to sparks, asked the question – “Hmm…does it matter if they go in the same order as before?”
Well, Yes…It… Does!  Two days later, complicated, multiple attempts at putting on plugs this way and that way and then this way but not that way, we gave up.  And waited for father to come back.  Obviously something was inherently very wrong with the spark plugs.  Maybe something major was broken.  Definitely a big issue.
Father comes home.  Five minutes later and the tractor is started.  My father drives by me on said “broken” tractor, shaking his head and rolling his eyes.  I try and salvage the situation and say to my, now suspicious, no longer doe-eyed farm intern. 
“And so THAT’S WHY you clean and replace ONLY one spark plug at a time.”
There was another time I couldn’t figure out where to refill the water in the 1954 Farmall cultivating tractor.  Once again, father was out of town.  And I had heard this statement before that “Oil and water don’t mix.”  So, keeping this slice of wisdom in mind, this led me to believe I had probably better not pour water into anything that smelled like oil.  Well, it’s an old tractor.  Everything smells like oil. Or gas.  Or a little bit of both.
Finally, I swallowed my pride and called one of my neighbors.  I returned from some errands to find a sign on my tractor “Water goes here.”  Ah the shame.  Almost as bad as letting your weeds go to seed.
I can never, ever remember the names of parts and things.  I have a complicated list of “thinga-majiggies” and “do-hickeys” and “watchama-bobs” that need to be fixed with one of those, you know, cranky tools that you can loosen and tighten stuff.  You know, a, “what is it called” oh yeah a “crescent wrench!”  I also, to my husband’s everlasting amusement, continually confuse which one is a screw and which is a nut.
For years, I was sensitive that this inherent, embarrassing, debilitating mechanical stupidity was gender related.  Yeah, I’m a girl farmer.  So what????  I can get dirty with the best of them (and usually do).  I don’t mind manure (one of my favorite smells) and eating dirty vegetables straight out of the field is one of my favorite things to do.  I can out-work and out-lift many men I’ve worked with.  But I DEFINITELY became the stereotypical “dumb blond” when it comes to tractors.
So I felt bad about my “female failings” until my Dad told me a story about my grandfather.  My much revered grandfather, famous for his strength, his common sense, his love of horses and his great humor.
This was the day we were digging potatoes.  I preceded to break one part, which apparently still allowed the digger to keep working (although not that well) until it proceeded to break another, more significant, part, at which point no more potatoes. 
My Father.  “Didn’t you hear the awful racket when you broke the (obvious tractor part word inserted here which I just remember as the “do-hickey”).”
Me:  “Well, yes.   It did made a lot of noise.  But it ALWAYS makes a lot of noise.”
Father.  Shakes head and rolls eyes. (Again!).  “You’re just like your grandfather.  He’d drive the field in circles until he got high-centered on all the parts he had been breaking off and leaving behind him.”
Apparently, he too, had the “tractor inept” gene!  So now, at least, I can own up to my tractor woes.  It’s not a failure on my gender  - it’s a failure on my genetic structure!  And since my father shares the same DNA, it is obvious to me what the problem is.  Tractor smarts skip a generation!  So now, I have high hopes for my two daughters.  I’m sure there must be a mechanic in there somewhere…
“Hey girls!  Now which one of you can tell me the name of this cranky, do-hickey thing? No really, I have no idea…”

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Hunting Harry

In his later years there was nothing that brought back the spring in Great Grandfather Harry Smith's step like fall hunting season.  But not because he liked to hunt.   Although he didn't have anything against it.  But what Great Grandfather Harry really liked?  Catching and kicking off his 400+ prime, hedgerow laced, pheasant harboring prairie acres, any poor soul who dared to try and hunt the Smith farm.  Including his own family.
Now, in today's day and age of "No Trespassing" and dense populations, and the generally frequent occurrence of animal hunting excursions accidentally becoming human hunting excursions, it might not seem so odd that a man in possession of 400 plus acres wouldn't want a bunch of armed strangers sneaking through the shrubbery.  But keep in mind, that wasn't the case in Harry's day and age.  In fact, much of the privately owned prairie is still open seasonally to fall bird hunters, as has been the tradition for generations.
Nope, Great Grandfather Harry wasn't really concerned about family safety, property liability and certainly not the plight of the beleaguered pheasants.  Mostly he just thought it was great fun to sneak around, catch and then kick off - in a great show of robust yelling, hand waving and creative swearing - any who dared set foot on the Smith farm with gun in hand.  It was his game and he loved it.
And so it was not surprising that it also became a game for those who did want to hunt the property - including Harry's own sons and hired hands - to try and outwit the old man.
Such was the case one morning, as Harry puttered off in his tractor to drive into town for a morning coffee.  (Harry was too cheap to buy a car.  Who needs a car when you have a tractor?  Tractor drove just fine.).  As soon as he was off, son George and hired hand Red decided to take the opportunity to get in a little bit of morning pheasant hunting before their farm chores.   They headed out into the fields, walking along the patchwork of hedgerows with dogs in front, working to flush out any hidden birds.
What they didn't know was Harry, suspicious that the crisp fall day would be too tempting, had parked the tractor halfway into town and had snuck back into the fields, hiding in wait to catch the culprits.
George and Red moved quietly along the hedges, guns poised, waiting for a bird to flush.  Suddenly a bird shot out of the brush, and at the same moment, out popped Great Grandfather Harry.
"A-ha!" he yelled. Victorious!  He had captured his game! But victory was brief...
Hired man Red, in the excitement of the moment, fired his shotgun sending a full spattering of bird pellet straight into Harry's face.  Enough force to fling the old man straight backwards and slammed to the ground.
In the endless few seconds after the accident, as Harry lay silent and Red stunned, George, in true Smith fashion, took the moment to sum up the situation.
"Ho-ho-ho!" he laughed, in his deep booming voice. "Why Red, you bagged the old sonofabitch!"
Great Grandfather Harry, true to his character, dragged himself up and home, where he spent the rest of the day in front of the bathroom mirror picking birdshot out of his face with his pocket knife.  Afterall, who needs a doctor when you have a pocket knife?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Jeanette, color critic extraordinare

Great Aunt Jeanette was not the sort of lady for mincing words.  In fact her words were usually punctuated with mostly things we shouldn't be repeating, in good company at least.  And said LOUD and grumbly, a deep low baritone voice on a small but solidly built woman.  A voice that carried across rooms, reverberating against church windows, rattling teacups. 
She was often described as being able to "swear a sailor under a table" and this would certainly be the truth.  And very colorful language indeed.  Lots of references of "witch's tits" and "sonofabitching..."
One of our particular fond favorites was the loud and frequent use of the term "owl shit."  As in, "Welllll...That's just a piece of OWWWWLLLLLL shit."  (Loud and long emphasis on "owl").  Just think about that for a minute.  We assume she is referring to owl pellets.   The regurgitated pieces of rodent bodies, encased in nasty dark sticky solid goo, that frequent the floors of our barns.  That's some darn good swearing right there!
So why Grandma Roberta ever thought to take Jeanette along to visit the newly renovated house of the local community "artiste," we'll never know.  It was not perhaps, in hindsight, the best idea.
Treva Carter, who would go on to be a founder of our local, small-town, "artistic" community, had redecorated her home.  Redecorated in the latest "colours" of the day.  And since this particular incident occurred in the early 70s, the color choices were fashionable, but less than exemplary.  Colors like "avocado," "tiger lily" and the putrid "pink champagne."
Throughout the home tour, Roberta, who was always one to bow to the standards of social graces, oohed and aahhed at all the appropriate moments.  Appreciations were noted, accolades were handed out in abundance.
Yet not a word from Jeanette.
Finally, near the end of the tour, Treva, apparently not aware of the Jeanette's true nature, made a fatal flaw.  She asked Jeanette's opinion of her newly polished, painted and coiffed home.
Jeanette's response?
"Well, I coulda SHIT better colors than that."

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The "BIG RED BIRD." Aka Farmer Bill and the city man.

Being as we are lucky to farm some land lots of other folks think is pretty to look at.  And being as those folks often will spend a nice weekend day down from the city, touring along our farm roads in straight from the car wash vehicles, cameras clutched eagerly, it is not unsurprising that on occasion the inter-galactic meeting of farmer and city dweller can inspire some confusion.  And humor.
Such was the case one fine fall day, as Farmer Bill drove a tractor planting a field of winter barley along the edge of the prairie bluff.  Earlier in the day, as was the fad of the time, there had been some folks up along the upper edge of the bluff hang-gliding.  Leaping off the high prairie edge and catching the strong upward ocean currents and gliding out along the edge of the Pacific Ocean where it leads into the San Juan Strait.
They had been there for several hours and then packed up and left.  Bill continued to work his field, back and forth, straight and tidy lines.
An hour or so after they left, as Farmer Bill came close to finishing the final passes on the field, up drove a shiny, clean jeep.  Off the main road, across the grass border and on up through the newly planted field.  Furrows of dirt pulverizing the smooth expanse of perfectly planted field.  It was a JEEP after all.
The city man driving the jeep stopped in front on Bill's path, parked and jumped out.  Hands waving and shouting.
Now it must be said that many a farmer would have likely gotten pretty ticked off at this point.  But not Farmer Bill.  He was a Smith afterall. This was a prime opportunity for getting even.
Farmer Bill turned the tractor off.  A drawn out process involving a lot of shuddering and backfiring (on the part of the tractor).  Eventually the tractor is quiet.
"Did you see the people hang-gliding here earlier?"  city man asks.  "Do you know when they left?  Which way did they go?"
Bill doesn't respond, just a befuddled stare from atop his tractor perch.
"You know, hang-gliding?  There should have been a few blues ones, a orange glider, a red one.  Hang-gliding?"  city man sticks his arms out from his side, does a little pretend glide through the field.
"Well..." Bill says.  "I didn't see no haaannng-gliders.  Nope."  Long pause.  "But I did see a BIIGGG REEEDDD BIRRDDDDD."
At this point city man is very excited.  Contact has been made!  "Oh great, do you know when they left?  How long ago was that?  Did they drive off back this way or up over the hill?"
Again, blank befuddled stare from Bill.  Another long pause.
"And it, and was a carrying something.  Looked just like an itty bitty little person. Funniest thing."  Farmer Bill looks off across the water, shakes his head a bit, his dusty, blood shot eyes glazed as he remembers this strange sight.
"That's right, that's right," says city man.  Exasperation showing.  "When did the leave?  Which way did they go?"
"And then," Bill drawls, the tiny little smirk on the side of his face unnoticed by city man. "That BIIGGG REEDDD BIIRRRDDD well it just flew right out over the ocean and then, and then it just dropped that little itty bitty thing it was carrying and it just flew on off.  Right out about over there."  And he points, straight out toward the endless expanse of blue-grey Pacific Ocean.
And with that, Farmer Bill started up his tractor with one smooth motion and was off, one hand on the wheel, head turned back to watch his implement. He executes a perfectly straight line of planted row while driving a several ton, complicated piece of machinery while looking backwards the entire time.  The city man stands in the field, white-faced and speechless.
The city man?  We don't know what happened to him.  We know he must of eventually found out he had been had.  We hope it taught him a new respect for farmers.  Or at least to not drive across their fields.

Poochie the Prairie Dog

Poochie was brother Charlie's five year birthday present.  A wiggly, excited, pee all over the floor, roan Austrian Heeler aka cattle dog.  He was a little boy's best friend and, since my brother was decidedly his own person, it was no surprise that Poochie grew up to be a singularly interesting canine.
Poochie learned to live his life as the doggy king of Ebey's Prairie.  Never mind that he was only about 20 lbs, he was THE DOG!  And being that he was a very friendly, adventurous sort of fellow, he would often take his explorations far afield.  Like two miles into town hanging out on the wharf begging treats from the tourists.  We would go into town to pick up the mail and yell at our dog to go home.  The daily errands.
He was also known to terrorize the neighbors Dalmations who were chained outside during the day.  Apparently chained just far enough away from the doggy door to the kitchen leading to their food bowl.  Poochie either really liked their food, or really liked harassing them.  But whatever the reason (and we guess the later) he would saunter jauntily by them as they had doggy conniption fits at the end of their chains and nonchalantly eat their food.
Another neighbor stopped us one day in to say he had spotted Poochie running down the middle of the road toward home, one end of a long link of sausages in his mouth.  We can't imagine where he got that but it couldn't have been good! 
Poochie was as friendly as could be, but put a collar on him and he would FLIP out!  Many a day we would find Poochie running home, a county collar on with a leash dragging behind him.  He would walk right up to the dog catcher, but as soon as she put a leash on him he was GONE.  Sweet little dog becomes a crazy Tasmanian Devil dog.  We got a lot of leashes this way.  And one PISSED OFF animal control officer.
But aside from his ability to infuriate Dalmatians, dog catchers and whoever owned that sausage, Poochie's most singular claim to fame was his ability to flatten tires.  You see, Poochie was an Australian "Heeler."  Heelers are used to herd mostly cattle and they do so by "nipping" at their legs.  Poochie didn't have a chance to herd any cattle during his life, so instead he herded cars.  Cars that went up and cars that went down our long dirt driveway were treated to the spectacle of a little roanish dog trying to eat their tires.  They were always worried, the drivers, about running over poor sweet little Poochie.  When what they should have really been worried about was their tires.  Because a few hours later they would have a flat, victim to a tiny little canine tooth puncture.  Tiny, but deadly.
Eventually, this became a problem.  A family starts getting a reputation when everybody that comes to visit gets a flat.  Small town and all.  So out came the electro collar and remote control shock treatment.  A helpful friend drove up the driveway, as soon as Poochie went into "Heeler" mode out came the remote control. Zap!  Only a few times of this and the problem was solved.
Mostly.  You see, Poochie just couldn't help himself when it came down to the tires of the vehicle belonging to his arch-nemesis, Step Grandpa Al.  Now Poochie was the sort of dog that liked EVERYBODY.  But not Al.  Since none of the rest of the family liked Al either, we could understand the feeling. And Al did nothing to win Poochie over.  Everytime he and Grandmother Roberta would come over, Al would yell and kick and throw things at Poochie, who would have by this time turned into a growling, hair raised on his back, ball of roan red vengeance.  And vengeance he would take.  On Al's tires.
One week, Al had four flat tires within 5 days.  That was the week my Grandmother tried to put a hit out on Poochie.
She called our cousin Merf, retired Sheriff's Deputy.  The appropriate man for the job.  Grandma always gets right to the point.  So she offered Merf $100 to sneak out in the middle of the night and shoot Poochie.
Merf asked her if he should put a silencer on his rifle.  Well yes, that would be a good idea, she thought.
"So," drawls Merf, "You want me to sneak out in the middle of the night and ASSASINATE their dog?"
Merf, thankfully for Poochie, declined the job.  Poochie went on a live a long and productive life, his tire-biting habit finally caught up with him in the end.  But he went out in glory, biting the tires of a huge harvest tractor-trailer in a neighboring field.  It was, for him, the road to doggie Valhalla.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Jim Henry and the Box

Back in the 50s my great uncle Jim Henry was a young lad struggling in school. Jim Henry didn't have a lot going for him as far as the excelling in school department. His name, to start, was a detraction. His first name was Jim, last name was Henry, but he was always referred to with first and last name - Jim Henry. Never ever just Jim, even as a kid... And this is always said with kinda a drawl on the JJIIMMM part, and quick on the Henry. So JJJIIIMMM Henry. Not a name that graced a future Nobel Prize winner.
    Secondly, he came from a long line of dyslexic men. My father (his cousin), to this day is a horrible speller. And can't say a lot of words - like he says "chimley" instead of "chimney" and, well, don't even ask him to try and say "aluminum" (we do it sometimes just for giggles).
    Thirdly Jim Henry's adoring mother and single parent, Jeanette Henry, was admired by all in our small town community. Admired for tough grit, her hard-working determination and mostly her amazing verbal command of all the nasty language there was to be had. The women could out-swear a soldier with creativity. And in a big, growly voice that resonated deep from the chest of this petite lady and reverberated across a room.  Jeanette didn’t say a lot, but when she had something to say, everybody heard it.
    So, poor Jim Henry had a lot of strikes against him in kindergarten. He had a sympathetic teacher, however, that decided that Jim Henry just needed a bit of "encouragement" to shine and when it came time for the annual school play gave Jim Henry the star role. He was to play the "Jack" in a Jack in the Box production. He would hide in a large box, and at the opportune time, when commanded by his classmates, pop out to the cheers and applause of the audience.
    The big evening came. The whole town was there. The big moment comes...
    "Pop out Jim Henry Pop Out!" His class chants.
    No Jim Henry.
    Confusion, pause...they try again. "Pop out Jim Henry Pop Out!"
    Again, nothing. The audience is enthralled. What could be happening? Murmurs through the crowd, the teacher looks concerned. Okay, one more time, louder this time.
    And from the the box, comes the high pitched, yet amazingly booming loud voice of 5 year old Jim Henry.
Words to make his mother proud.
 Postcript to the story added by Marilyn Sherman Clay....
Sherman Family lore always concludes the story with the words of teacher Margarent Clark. After Jim expresses his frustration with the inability to open the box,  Margaret kindly said " Oh, Jim, we don't talk like that!
Jim's response; "Well, WE do".

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The boy called Bill (but named Karl)

My dad's name is Bill.  Bill Smith.  Only it's not.  He is called Bill, as in short for Karl Knight Smith.  Got it?  Makes perfect sense doesn't it?
Well, if you don't QUITE follow, let's back up a bit...
When little Bill was born his mother Roberta and father Knight agreed, that being he was the first born child, Knight would have the honor of naming him.  And so Knight, being the ever practical ranching farmer, did name him - named him Bill.  Bill Smith.  Just about the most common name possible in the English speaking world.  Easy to say when you need to.  Not a lot of syllables.
Little Bill's mother was not so found of this decision.
"What????  You can't name him Bill!  Bill Smith!  What kind of person would name their son that?  We'll name him Karl.  Karl Knight Smith.  Karl after my grandfather and Knight for his father," Roberta was sanctimonious in her decision.
So was father Knight.
"Fine," the proud father announced.  "Name him whatever you want, but I'm calling him Bill."