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The red tractor was delivered to my property by Anderson Equipment. What's the point, I thought, of having a farm without the benefit of real traction?
When I had first moved to Prince Edward County, I'd resisted the switch to a half-ton truck, but a small tractor was a different matter – a necessity – because it gave me a bucket to dig out slabs of limestone and the power to disk the fields. The therapeutic value to a man of riding his tractor, moving around payloads of dirt and stone, should not be underestimated. It's as primal as the urge to create shelter.
I didn't go big. Nothing to induce tractor envy. I made a quick decision because I wanted to take advantage of the autumn financing package offered by the manufacturers. I liked the understated description of my choice: "An all-purpose compact tractor built for anything you can throw at it. And it still stores in your garage."
In November, 2006, I bought a Case DX25E with loader and cultivator for $19,800.
The machine deposited in the courtyard was intimidating – so many levers, knobs and gears. Since not all men are hard-wired to operate heavy equipment, I asked my handyman Aubrey to come over for the trial run.
"Break it in slowly, hydraulics have a mind of their own," Aubrey advised as I flicked impatiently through the manual. Men are impulsive because they think they know. Women take their time to know. Women tend to make slower and better decisions. But Joanie, my girlfriend, was not on hand to moderate the impulsive moment. A voice kept saying, "Just take her."
"I'm good to go, Aubrey," I declared as I sprang into the cockpit and flipped on the ignition. I raised the bucket, engaged the four wheels, pushed the throttle and pulled away. Twenty minutes of experimenting with the controls, and I was mock-cultivating the front field. "This is a breeze," I thought. Forward, backward, throttle up, throttle down.
My self-congratulatory monologue was interrupted by an exclamation of phone rings. I rarely answer the telephone. Ordinarily it would have been out of the question during my first spin on the red tractor, but Joanie was gesticulating from the kitchen. "It's Frank!" she called out. "He wants to know when to come over."
Frank Powers, the best farmer in the township, had promised to instruct me on operating the loader. So confident was I of my skill level that I wanted to move on to the operation of the bucket right away. "I'll speak to him." I put the tractor in neutral, cut the engine and went to the phone.
A minute later, my dog Roger was howling at the French doors overlooking the front lawn that sloped to the water. The din sounded like more than a plea to be let inside. "Frank, I'd better go. Roger's in trouble. Come over soon."
Hanging up and spinning around to deal with my dog, I observed through the window the DXE rolling backward toward the 30-foot-high escarpment at the water's edge. In the corner of my eye I caught Aubrey chasing the runaway tractor. I watched in paralysis as my $20,000 toy picked up speed and disappeared over the cliff. I subsequently learned from Frank that you only leave a tractor when it is anchored with the bucket on the ground.
I was flooded with images of my two-hour-old DXE upside down in five feet of water with several of its vital parts floating away. I hadn't had time to register it on my farm insurance policy. Total writeoff was the only phrase that came to mind.
But when we peered over the cliff, the tractor was not in the water or smashed on the stone beach. By some incredible good fortune the DXE had become lodged in a thicket of Manitoba maples protruding half-way down the cliff face. It lay there like a sailor in a hammock.
Frank came over right away after I sent out the alarm. He drove to the top of the escarpment in his rescue equipment – a full-bore Massey Ferguson 6400 with stabilizers. Frank is also a volunteer firefighter, legendary for his agility to manoeuvre the ladders. He operates his 25-foot tractor shovel with the finesse of an artist with a paintbrush.
Aubrey and I went down to the stone beach, clambered up the escarpment to the DXE and managed to secure it in a cradle of chains, which we linked to the extended shovel of the MF 6400. What a marvel to see this giant steel tentacle hoist its load clear of the cliff, pivot and land the 600-pound package on the safe terroir of the lawn.
Multiple inspections revealed no water damage, no dents, no missing knobs – not even bruising or chipped paint on the engine cover. The key remained in the ignition. "Give 'er a go," said Aubrey.
More cautious now, I fixed myself in the saddle and turned the key. The engine purred and I engaged the gears. Aubrey, Frank and Joanie gawked in amazement as the tractor moved forward. Roger started to bark and herd the machine away from the slope.
Aubrey shook his head and muttered to Frank, "That's what I call city boy's luck."
"Just what you need when you move to the county," Frank replied, punching Aubrey in the arm. "I hope it doesn't run out."
Alan Gratias lives in Toronto and Prince Edward County.