Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Tractor

It was Saturday morning, between the time that cartoons went off and Tarzan came on. Dad was working and Mom was finishing up some business at the monastery, leaving my older brothers, Steve and John, to care for me. That could only mean one thing: it was tractor time. The one time during the week when parental supervision was at its weakest, providing my brothers the opportunity to launch my tubby carcass down our fifty-five foot hardwood hallway at speeds that would make Jeff Gordon scream like a girl. The year was 1975 and I was the proud owner of a John Deere toy tractor. And it wasn’t some molded plastic pansy toy. It was metal, baby. And I didn’t wear a helmet or pads on my elbows or knees like these sissy kids today do. My accessories were simple—my father’s workshop goggles served as racing goggles and mom’s yellow dishwashing gloves were the perfect driving gloves. As I pushed the tractor to its starting position in front of the back door, my brothers readied the course, first running a dust mop along its length, then making sure that all bedroom doors were open. This would be important later.

I positioned the goggles on my face—they covered my entire face, not just my eyes—and slid the yellow latex gloves on my hands, snapping them for emphasis. My brothers stood behind me, each with a hand on the tractor’s rear frame. I grasped the steering wheel intently, adjusting my clumsy-looking yellow fingers to get the best grip. My feet would rest on the frame behind the front wheels, not on the pedals—at the speed I would soon be traveling, those pedals would be spinning like the blades of a wood chipper. I drew a deep breath and nodded; the signal that I was ready. In the next instant I was propelled forward, my speed quickly increasing. One final thrust meant that my brothers had given their final push and I was now on my own. The hallway blew past me, a blur of pictures and knick-knacks and light fixtures. My optimum speed had been reached; my next challenge would be to wait for my brothers’ command to turn into one of the bedrooms off the hallway. The object was to make the turn in such a way that no part of the tractor struck the doorway, as that would leave irrefutable evidence of our behavior, the punishment for which would be for Dad to either “knock a knot on our head” or the more-feared “jerk a knot in our tail”. The only thing I was allowed to hit was the bed, as any damage could be easily covered up by proper placement of a quilt or blanket.

As I flew along the hall, I neared my doorway and the command was given: “TURN!!” my brothers shouted in unison. I wrenched the wheel violently to the right and the tractor swerved and fishtailed through the doorway without a scratch. However, once I made it through the doorway, I got cocky and took one hand off the wheel. As soon as I realized what I had done, everything went into slow motion and it was as if I were watching myself from above. The tractor began to spin. I tried to turn out of it (or was it into it?) but I couldn’t control it. I was headed straight for the cedar chest. Dear God, not the cedar chest! That was Grandma’s cedar chest that she had given to Mom. If I put so much as a tire mark on it, there would be no knots knocked on my head or jerked in my tail. I would be sold to a gypsy family or a passing carnival and be forced to eat fire or dance for the entertainment of strangers and I didn’t know how to do either of those things. I remember thinking Dear Lord, if you will keep me from hitting the cedar chest, I’ll never do this again. I promise with all my heart, Lord, please just dont' let me hit the cedar chest. With one last effort, I yanked the wheel with such force that my goggles flew off. I remember my body being airborne for what seemed like a half hour—apparently it was only a second or two—and landing upside down in my closet in a tangle of clothes and wire hangers. The tractor lay on its side, one wheel still spinning, just inches from the cedar chest. Thank you, Lord. My brothers burst into the room a la Three Stooges and helped me out of the closet. Stumbling to my feet, I was still covered in the contents of the closet, making me look as if I had been attacked by a dry cleaner. We sat the tractor up and then inspected the cedar chest for damage. Not a scratch. We cheered and high-fived, exuberant in the triumph of a near-perfect execution. They asked if I was ready to do it again. Without a moment’s hesitation, I said, “Help me find my goggles.”