I wish I could say that growing up on a dairy and (occasionally) working alongside my dairy farmer dad was where I developed my solid work ethic, never-give-up attitude and strong drive to succeed. It would probably be more accurate to say that those instances of father-daughter employment were more effective in developing my dad’s patience, restraint and gray hairs. I was the worst worker. Ever.
I was given very few chores. Feeding calves, running some basic farm equipment and moving manure pipe were among the usual tasks I was trusted with every now and again. Feeding calves was kind of difficult to mess up and I only caused minimal damage to a few structures while in control of a tractor. Why do they make those attachments so wide? I will be forever grateful to the summer helper who patched up the loafing sheds after a minor incident involving a scraper blade and a very narrow area of the corral. One would think with that many acres of farmland they could have spared a few more feet on either side of the troughs, buildings and barns!
The job that was loathed the most, by my mother and me alike, was the ever-not-so-popular role of “Lead Man on the Tractor.” This dreaded job usually took place in the corral just outside the field where fresh cut grass was hauled in on a regular basis. The grass was cut into a giant mixer wagon and distributed into the feeding troughs in the corral for the cows after milking. During the rainy season, as well as the not-so-rainy season when there was an underground water leak, a giant mud pit developed in front of the gate between the field and the paved corral. As you can imagine, the 2-ton tractor pulling the 7-ton wagon full of wet grass would sink into the mud, just like in the “Oregon Trail” computer game. This would require a second tractor outfitted with towing chains and, you guessed it, another driver. In the event that my brother/grandpa/neighbor Gil/any warm body was not available, I had to suffice for the spot in the driver’s seat. I would sulk up into the saddle of that big International and prepare for what was to come next.
This job required being fluent in a language like no other, where directions were communicated with a series of whistles, hollers and hand gestures. After being given the appropriate combination of the aforementioned language components, the “Lead Man on the Tractor” would put the towing tractor in gear and pull on the throttle. Next thing you know, the slack in the chain connecting the two tractors was gone and the front wheels were rearing up in the air like the Black Stallion. Only not as majestic. At all. Lots of engine noise, spinning back tires and cow poop shrapnel would ensue. Sometimes the rear tractor in the train would leap out of the muddy pit and both tractors would slide across the slick corral toward the holding pen like a carnival ride gone awry, one still towing a large wagon full of wet grass. Other times, another series of whistles, hollers and hand gestures was necessary to reverse, reposition and retry.
After the task at hand was complete, I would dismount that tractor wearing a number of sullen looks, dots of dried manure spray and uttering plenty of under-my-breath comments about how terrible my life was. Unfortunately, I was unable to tweet a snarky comment or update my Facebook status to tell everyone how my carefully curled big bangs were ruined, because Mark Zuckerberg was still learning to read. I had to walk all the way to the house and complain to my mom. In person. At great length.
It’s been nearly 20 years since I’ve been asked to serve as “Lead Man on the Tractor,” but it is a position that left a lasting impression on this farmer’s daughter. Thankfully, with exposure to other job experiences, educational opportunities and consistent parenting from two people who deserve more recognition than they will ever get, I finally developed into functioning, pleasant member of the workforce. I pursued a nice, indoor profession that didn’t involve operating heavy equipment or machinery more complicated than a color copier. My parents, on the other hand, pursued blood pressure medication, prayer and lord knows what else to survive my teenage years. If you happen to run into to either of them at the pharmacy or Safeway, feel free to give them hug, handshake or high five for making it out alive. They deserve it.