Monday, December 20, 2010

Tractor 101

I had a teacher in high school who believed so strongly in the importance of adults continuing to learn that she studied a new language, instrument or skill every year just so that she would never forget what it felt like to be a beginner. This month, I had my own opportunity to put into practice the belief that one should never stop developing new abilities when my father asked me if I’d be interested in learning to use the tractor.

It’s a small tractor that Dad uses to maintain the grading on our shared half-mile-long driveway and also to plow snow. I’d never so much as set a finger on any part of that tractor, and it was hard for me to imagine taking on something so mechanical, where I consider myself not at all a mechanical person by nature.

On the other hand, my father is in his seventies and it’s not a bad idea for him to offload some of the physical labor around the farm. So I agreed to try.

The first step, he told me, would be to read the manual before our first lesson, which we agreed would be the forthcoming Saturday. I pictured the instruction pamphlet that comes with most of my new electronic devices these days: an eight-panel folded sheet of paper, along with a card-sized “quick start” step-by-step guide for people who can’t be bothered to read all eight panels. I didn’t expect the manual to weigh as much as my children did at birth, but there it was: my reading material for the week.

The job of perusing it became a little less daunting when I realized that the manual was printed in three languages, so in fact I had to read only one-third of it. Not only that, but Dad told me I didn’t have to worry about the maintenance sections, since he takes care of that, and he also gave me the somewhat inscrutable pointer that I could ignore anything referring to “PTO’s.” There’s a section in the tractor manual devoted to parent-teacher organizations? I mused. Although that sounded a lot more like my domain than the maintenance part, I was grateful for any of the three hundred pages I wouldn’t have to read, so out went the PTO sections as well.

And I became even more confident when I saw that the very first instruction following the safety rules was how to “preheat” the tractor before starting the engine. Yes, the manual really did use the word preheat. I’ll be right at home in this world, I thought cheerfully.

Our first lesson was the first Saturday in December, and it went surprisingly well. I graded the entire driveway twice – which means pulling a scraper blade behind the tractor to even out the contours in the dirt and gravel – and then did the same thing the following Saturday. This past weekend was my third hour of tractor practice, and this time Dad wasn’t even home to oversee the start-up procedure.

Nonetheless, it went without a hitch. In fact, I discovered something useful on the third session: previously, when I thought I’d been switching into second gear, I’d actually been going into fourth, which explains why I thought the tractor had only two speeds: glacial and bat-out-of-hell. Turns out second gear is easy and comfortable, not quite so much like watching paint dry as first gear but not as heartstopping as fourth, so it was a discovery well worth making.

As I see it, having successfully completed my third session of tractor work, I’ve essentially completed Tractors 101. To draw upon an overused phrase, it’s not exactly rocket science. Although my dad has been highly complimentary of my ability to pick up this new skill, it’s not that different from driving a car, and fortunately I learned to use a standard shift back when I was sixteen. Speaking of those early driving days, my only regret so far is that never yet has one of my friends passed by and seen me while I was driving the tractor. Like a sixteen-year-old with a learner’s permit, I’d really like to get a little admiration from my non-tractor-driving peers for this new feat.

There are a lot of things I like about driving the tractor. I like proving to myself that I can learn something new, even as I acknowledge it’s something pretty easy. I like spending more time outdoors. I spend a lot of time already every week walking and running; even if I’m a little guilty about the pollution and fuel use associated with driving the tractor, I can’t help getting some enjoyment over the fact that this is a way to be outdoors without expending much physical exertion. And it’s just fun to perch high atop the tractor as it rumbles along.

The next step is to learn to plow snow with the tractor. That might turn out to be more of a challenge. But right now there’s no snow in the forecast and I’m just relishing my new Tractor 101 skills as I go up and down the driveway every Saturday. If you pass by and see me, be sure to wave, because I’d really like to show off a little. Being handed the keys is still a thrill, almost thirty years after I first took my parents’ car for a spin.

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