The dust was flying all around me as I held the tractor on the dirt road in between the ditches. The pop, pop, and clank of the engine was loud in my ears, and the puffs of smoke from the stack up front were catching in the wind and blowing back in my face. We were going much too fast. Even though my opponent had passed me, I refused to give up and was still full throttle, head down, and holding on to my cowboy hat. The old John Deere tractor was giving it’s all as I raced on, the second machine kicking up dust ahead of me as my friend looked back over his shoulder with a wide grin. Through the dust and clatter we raced on towards the field we would soon be working in followed by the flatbed truck on which we would later load bales of hay.
It was the summer of ’68 or ’69, and I was only 10 or so. I was spending a couple of weeks at my “Uncle Bill’s” farm. Which means I was staying at the home of my mom’s high school English teacher, Lib, and her husband, Bill Hackett, who lived in a large, beautiful old farm house on 300 acres of dirt and sand in the eastern part of North Carolina. Uncle Bill ran a “Green Sea Farm”, as I recall, and had more than three hundred head of Hereford cattle. He was a jolly, fun-loving, foul-mouthed, Southern Democrat who hated Jesse Helms and had a ready opinion about everything. I don’t think my Dad ever really liked him much, but he was kind to me. After raising a son who was probably off at college by then, he welcomed me to his farm life for two weeks for a couple of summers in a row.
That farm impacted me in so many ways it’s hard to know where to begin. It was there that I met and befriended two young black boys about my age named Elvis and Ray. Their dad, Johnny, worked for Uncle Bill as the foreman on the farm. This kind of friendship was new to me since I was from the segregated south. In fact, in my elementary school in Wilmington, NC, there had only been two black girls, and they were identical twins. After we moved to High Point, North Carolina, I was in an integrated 5th grade class, but still Elvis and Ray were my first black friends. And we had a blast together! When the adults weren’t working us to death with the farm chores, we would meet up after “dinner”, which was lunch on the farm. Then, they would show me what life on a farm was all about. We built “forts” in the hay barn playing hide’n’seek on the bales – sometimes as high as mountains to me – and laying around on those bales, they would ask me about my world and teach me about theirs.
They showed me the water boatman (Corixidae) that lived in the watering troughs where the cows drank. These little multi-legged bugs would hang around the bottom of the tanks, feeding on the plant life and algae, and then swim up to the surface to grab a bubble of air and take it back down to the bottom like tiny divers with their own makeshift air tanks. We would watch them and “bet” on which one would head to the surface next to snag some more air. They showed me the other barns and all the places to explore and hide. They showed me where NOT to stand when cattle were in the back of a truck. (Apparently at least one of them had taken a “cow shower” of urine or worse before.) Together with their Dad, I learned how to make a cow, who just had a calf, come out of the pasture and up to the barn. We put the calf on the tailgate of the pickup truck, so the cow would follow. I can still see her wide-eyed concern as she bellowed at us and walked along behind the truck, trying to make sure her new little one would be okay, while, to my horror, the huge, wet, afterbirth sac swung back and forth between her legs.
What about danger? I’m glad you asked – Elvis and Ray introduced me to the many dangers of farm life. We had tractor races, grain shovel accidents (I have a scar in one of my eyebrows where I was hit by the sharp edge of a grain shovel while we were “grab-assing”, as my father would say, one afternoon in the barn – it bled like crazy). Even neck injuries – I’m pretty sure I injured some vertebrae in my neck while diving off a stack of hay bales as if I was invincible and could fly. One day Uncle Bill put all three of us up into a grain silo so that we could help empty the corn because he had sold the silo. This is called “walking the corn”, and even though I sensed that what we were doing was dangerous, I had no idea how many young people had died over the years doing exactly what we were doing. In fact, I’m pretty sure my father-in-law had a cousin who died in a grain accident. I’m not saying that Uncle Bill was being irresponsible, he was simply doing what most farmers have done for years by using the smallest or youngest “ranch hands” to do work that would be difficult for an adult – but the danger was real.
Back on the tractor, almost lost in Elvis’s dust, I was beginning to plan my next move, which was slowing that tractor down and making a left turn across a “pathway”, over the ditch, through the gate and into the field. All that sounds pretty simple except for one thing, I couldn’t get the clutch to disengage when I pulled back on the “stick.” On an old tractor you can push that clutch forward and lock it so that all you have to do is push the throttle lever up or down to control your speed and steer. The only way to stop, however, is to pull back hard on the clutch lever to “pop it out of gear.” I had pulled back at least three times trying to disengage that clutch, but that tractor kept moving inexorably towards that small “hole” of a turn. At the last minute, I reduced my throttle speed, turned left, going way too fast, and jerked that clutch lever one last time with all my might. To my immense relief, the gears disengaged, and the two front tires ran right up to the edge of the ditch and stopped. I pulled hard on the steering wheel and pushed the clutch bar forward slightly, engaging the gears moving me through the gate and into the field. Then I killed the engine, plopped back in the seat nonchalantly and pushed my cowboy hat back off my forehead hoping that no one noticed how close to death I had just been, and how scared I still was. It was a lot for an elementary schooler’s heart.
Over the years we visited Uncle Bill and Aunt Lib less frequently. They sold the farm and moved up the road to a small rancher. I lost contact with Elvis and Ray, and we all went on with our lives. I will never forget, however, the impact those four weeks over two summers had on me. Those times broadened my horizons and gave this city boy some amazing experiences and great memories.
(See In Times of Danger – Go Big! for another story from my time on the farm.)
Photo Credits – Photos by my friend Tom Brennan, of Chowan University. My favorite Eastern North Carolina Photographer.