Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Tractor Wild

Planting a vineyard to make your own wine is only for the calm-at-heart. (Some argue that it’s only for the certifiably insane, but we’ll just let such jealous tongues wag on for now.)  At any rate, you need patience because clearing a field of stones and tilling it takes a whole summer, letting the ground settle takes until the spring, planting and watering takes the next three months—as well as the enamel off your teeth and a decade off your life—and harvesting your first high-quality grapes takes three years. But there are some rather pleasant stops along the way.
One is learning how to drive a tractor. Our tractor is tiny so it can fit our narrow rows of vines. It has caterpillar tracks, which makes it strong and stable for hard work like plowing, tilling and hauling, but the problem is that instead of the simple steering wheel and gas pedal of a normal tractor, this little bugger has levers. Lots of levers. Enough to drive someone like me out of the remnants of his mind. Now, I know you have about as much interest in how a crawler tractor works as you have in the digestive system of a Madagascar fruit bat, but I’m going to tell you anyway.
            First off, the tractor is a Fiat, made in Italy, which means years of engineering have made it as complicated and uncomfortable as possible. It is only 24 inches wide not counting the tracks. So your first realization as you get in, is that you might never get out. Second, as you sit there in a position normally reserved for women in the final throes of giving birth, is that between your contorted legs you have more levers than all of the slot machines in Vegas.
            But this is no time for cold sweats. You take a deep breath, wipe away anxious tears and move on confidently to step one: choosing 1 of 8 possible fixed speeds with 1 of 2 levers. Then you choose forward or reverse with, yep, another lever. Now, you give it some gas, not with a pedal, but with—you guessed it—a lever! Does this lever work like a gas pedal on a car? Hell, no! That would be common sense. To speed up, you pull the lever, and to slow down, you push it. To get the damned thing moving, you have to engage the clutch (again, not a pedal, Elmer, a lever). To steer the tractor—hold on to your hat—you step on a foot brake: left foot brake to turn left, right foot brake to turn right, but to make small adjustments you have to manipulate yet another lever. For a hard turn, you engage one of two long levers. And to raise or lower the plough, you tinker with another lever. In case you’ve lost count, you have so far engaged exactly four hundred and ninety-seven levers.
All this might sound easy if you are lying on a sofa reading sipping a glass of Merlot, and admittedly it is a low-intensity challenge if you’re plowing a wheat field in Kansas where the nearest vertical impediment is a 4-inch tall gopher 50 miles away, but it’s a whole other story in our vineyard—a jungle of wood columns and wire.
            Now, I’m no fool. I didn’t begin yanking a maze of levers in the middle of our vineyard. No, sir. First, I practiced in a small field, bare but for a few trees, some shrubs, an old stone wall, a chicken coop, and a fence.
            I turned the key and the engine sputtered. I gave it gas so it wouldn’t stall, pulled the right lever, but in the wrong direction—bam. Stalled. Calmly, I started over and went to pick a gear. Now, the two gear levers of the Fiat are made to get a laugh: aside from a few numbers, one has a drawing of a bunny, the other of a turtle. Well, you know and I know that no male with a drop of testosterone in his body would ever pick the turtle. So I picked the bunny and the number 4—my lucky number—then pulled the accelerator lever while I slipped in the clutch lever, and pushed a brake lever. The engine roared. The tractor surged and did a wheelie—impressive, considering it has no wheels—then it took off like a bat out of hell, right for the chicken coop. Smiling self-contentedly, I calmly yanked—one by one—11 adjoining levers, and after only a little bucking and three donuts I had her serene and docile, running at just a hair over 80 miles an hour straight at the old stone wall.
            This was not the time to pick and choose a lever so I pulled back all the levers as far as they would go. But the Fiat was no horse. Instead of slowing as I’d hoped, it sped up, running in the same general direction but with the added attraction of doing so in slalom, to the profound disappointment of a handful of small shrubs, which had, no doubt, been counting on a somewhat longer life. Inches from the stone wall I remembered the footbrakes. I jammed on the left—my lucky foot—and the beast spun away, free from calamity, but pulling seven Gs so all the blood in my body ran into my right knee. When I regained consciousness, we were mowing down some trees. That was when I remembered that I actually like turtles. But this was no time for musings, for the chicken coop now loomed dead ahead. I pulled a lever I hadn’t tried before, which resulted in lowering the plow, so we no longer merely mowed down trees ahead, but also churned up the ground right behind.
            The chicken coop was a breeze. Made of soft sandstone blocks, I had no problem converting it to a much-needed pile of sand. The chicken wire fence admittedly gave me some trouble. With a bit of swerving, I managed to avoid it until one of the tracks nicked a single link, at which point the fence rose en masse and, in three seconds, wound itself completely around the track.
            Candace stood on the sidelines with her arms crossed, surveying the field. “Finally,” she said, trying desperately to smile. “We can plant some alfalfa.” 

1 comment:

  1. this is ,perhaps, my favorite chapter of anything i have ever read.....i can still read it and fall into giggle fits with tears streaming down my cheeks