“Beth, I think it’s time that you learned to drive a tractor.”
At those words, I jerked my head up to stare at my dad. No one else reacted strangely; this was a typical rite of passage for a 12-year-old farm girl. My brother reached over one of my sisters to grab the jar of strawberry jam, and my younger sister slurped orange juice, earning her a reprimand from my mother. My dad had finished the morning milking already, but the summer sun was still low enough in the sky to stream in through the kitchen windows, illuminating the dust motes floating through our old farmhouse. It was just a typical farm morning for everyone else. For me, however, the world had suddenly shifted on its axis.
“What do you mean, drive the tractor?” I asked. The words were clear enough, and I wasn’t asking what they meant; it was the implication behind them that terrified me.
My mom jumped in. “We need everyone pitching in today. Everyone’s been assigned a different job – unloading the hay wagons, stacking bales inside the barn loft, or feeding the calves. Even Karianne is helping by taking care of Emily.” Emily was the daughter of our neighbours, and we provided daycare for her. She was like a little sister to us. “So you’ll be driving the tractor and baler,” my mom finished up.
I gulped. Once my mom made an announcement, it was as good as done. There was no arguing with her. That didn’t always stop me from actually arguing, but an argument never changed anything. A sudden sense of foreboding made my stomach clench, and I dropped my half-eaten toast onto my plate. I wasn’t hungry anymore.
Within twenty minutes my dad and I were outside standing at the tractor. Breakfast was finished, dishes were washed, and the workday was starting.
“Hop on up,” my dad instructed me.
The tractor loomed over me, and I reached to grab the steering wheel above to haul myself up, but then paused and turned. “Dad, wait,” I said. I knew it was my final chance to argue against this lesson since my mom wasn’t present. “I can’t drive the tractor. I’m… I’m too young for this.” My voice broke on the word young and tears began to fill my eyes, a show of emotion which only made me angry on top of already being upset. “I’m not old enough to drive yet, and I can’t… I can’t… I just can’t!” My last words came out in a sob; I was crying in earnest. I had a sense of terror about the tractor that I just couldn’t express, couldn’t define.
“Beth, this isn’t as scary as you’re making it out to be. The tractor is easy.” My dad was the calm voice of reason.
“But Dad.…” I couldn’t even argue back, just sort of sputter away, tears streaming down my face. My inability to argue for myself made me feel defeated.
“Beth, you’ve been driving the four-wheeler by yourself for years. Believe it or not, this is actually easier. Hop in, and I’ll show you.”
My dad’s quiet, steady voice calmed me enough to climb up in the tractor. I wiped away the tears from my cheeks and sniffled loudly, hoping against hope for a little last minute sympathy. None came. I settled into the worn seat, took a deep, shuddering breath to calm my nerves, and looked at my dad for my next instructions.
“Put your foot on the clutch here.” I had to slide forward in the seat to actually be able to reach the clutch. I balanced my arms around the steering wheel that was twice the size of a dinner plate.
My dad was continuing. “That’s both your brake and what you need to do when you shift. You’re going to push it all the way down, pull this gear lever here,” my dad was pointing beside the steering wheel, “and shift into the gear that you want. Then the tractor will start moving, and you’ll steer to where you want to go.”
“Where’s the gas?” I knew that on the four-wheeler I had to control the speed with my hand, using the throttle.
“Nope, there’s no gas here.” My dad was shaking his head. “You’re just going to shift into gear, and the tractor moves itself.”
“Just like the lawnmower?” I asked, perking up a little. I had been mowing the lawn with a riding mower for four years or so, and it felt easy. The difference with the tractor was the size and the scary equipment it was towing.
“Exactly,” my dad confirmed. “Let’s shift into first gear to start, but then you’ll actually use third when we’re out in the hay field.” He slipped around behind the giant tractor wheels, climbed up the hitch, and stood on the back of the tractor behind the seat.
Timidly I pressed my foot all the way down onto the clutch and kept it firmly planted while I pulled the gear shift down into first. Ever so slowly I decreased the pressure on the clutch until the tractor began to roll forward gently. We moved so sluggishly that I eventually lifted my foot all the way off, and we inched forward down the laneway.
“That’s all there is to it, Beth,” my dad said from behind me. “Push down on the clutch so I can hop off.” I did as he said, and he climbed down. “We’re heading into the field now, and we’re going to use third gear,” my dad reminded me. “When you get to the end of a row, look back at me, and I’ll point to the row you’re going to loop around to next. You’re going to keep your right tire aligned with the row of cut hay, and the baler will pick it up perfectly. I’ll let you know when the wagon is full and we’re heading out of the field to trade out wagons at the barn. Any questions?”
I shook my head. This really was easier than I had thought. My dad walked back behind the baler and hopped up onto the empty hay wagon. I shifted into third gear and lifted my foot from the clutch, and we lurched forward into the hay field.
An hour later, my dad was waving to me that we were finished. As we passed the house on the way to the barn where my older sisters were waiting to unload the wagon onto the hay elevator that would bring the bales up to the loft, my dad yelled at me to stop. He ran into the house and reappeared a few seconds later, camera in hand, trailed by my younger sister who was carrying Emily on her hip. I shifted into park and hopped out of the tractor to stand in front of the first wagon I had helped to bale.
“You know, Beth,” my dad said after he had snapped a picture, handing the camera to Karianne to take inside, “you’re stronger than you think.”
“Huh?” I had no idea what my dad was talking about.
Nodding his head toward the wagon, my dad said, “You don’t like trying new things. But you’re smart and strong and capable. So be brave. Life will require you to do lots of new things. And you might think they’re too hard, but you can do them. This was easier than you thought it would be, right?”
I was too stubborn to admit that yes, it was easier than I had thought it would be. But those words stuck with me as we climbed back onto the tractor and wagon to finish our chores.