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Chains

Bill Church

I stomped the clutch pedal to the floor and killed the engine and glared through the slushy rain turning to blobs of snow that streaked like tears down the windshield. The wind whipped them wickedly sideways across the fogged glass and made room for more. Outside my pickup cab, the March norther howled, and the gaunt hungry cows bawled and strained against the fence holding them from the hay on the back of my truck.

I cussed and beat on the steering wheel and dash and blamed everything but myself until I finally accepted the ugly truth that I’d wallowed my way into a bad fix, which summed up not just the moment but my life. This was the mid‑80s, a time of farm bankruptcies in numbers unheard of since the Great Depression. Cattle prices had bottomed. Land prices had bottomed. Dreams were dying. But dreams, I’d come to discover, refused to die alone. They demanded other things die with them, things like land holdings, marriages, traditions.

I’d seen such things happen to my neighbors, had read their names in the “Bankrupt” columns of area newspapers, had gone to their forced sales. A friend of mine often translated complex economic terminology into layman’s terms: “A recession is when the bank sells your neighbor’s cows,” he’d say. “A depression is when it sells yours.” All of these ideas swirled in my mind as cold and fast as the mix of rain and sleet and snow blasting sideways across the bleak brown earth that morning.

I’d rocked the truck forward, backward, and sideways, slamming gears and flooring the gas pedal with a brutal, mudslinging fury that had amounted to nothing except ruts, squiggly rows of long, narrow lakes spilling brown water from one into another.

My truck’s frame was sucked into the bottomless black mud that only yesterday had served as a crude but passable road to get feed to my cows. That was before the night’s cold, slow, heavy rain. I’d lain awake a good part of the night and listened to the rain pelt my windowpanes while the wind pummeled my house, and I’d endured premonitions of the exact predicament that had come to be.

My choices were limited. I could lug the expensive sixty‑pound alfalfa bales one at a time from the truck to the fence thirty feet away and hurl them over and watch them stomped into the soup before the cows got a good taste. Or I could walk to the closest neighbor’s place and use a phone to call somebody with a tractor big enough to drag my truck the half a quarter uphill to the gate and the feed racks. But I had no money to pay anybody for the tow and no way to get it. Or I could walk to my folks’ place two miles away and ask if my old man could spare a couple of big bales and loan me his tractor to haul them. It’d just be a loan—’til I could get back on my feet. I thought of Robert Frost’s line, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” I was counting on his being right.

 

*    *    *

 

“I hate to admit it,” my old man said when he saw it was me at his front door, “but you really ain’t got the sense to get outta the rain.” If he seemed surprised at all, it was only that it had taken me so long to show up, and that simple sentiment pretty much described our relationship. Rain spilled from my hat brim and coat sleeves and splattered the old newspaper sheets my mother kept scattered on the kitchen floor from October until April.

“How bad ya in?” he asked, closing the kitchen door. My mother was visible behind him, wrapped in a sweater, scurrying to get a coffee cup for me. “The 720 drag ya out?”

I stepped inside and thanked Mother for the coffee and told him it was going to take a way bigger tractor than he had to pull me.

“Bullshit,” he said. He’d already started wrestling his tall rubber boots onto his feet. His loss of flexibility was physical and psychological. Then he realized and seized the parental moment I’d granted him. “What in the hell was ya thinkin’, anyway.”

“Cows are out of feed,” I mumbled.

“Told ya to move ’em outta that hole last week,” he said. “Why the hell didn’t ya at least fill the bunks yesterday? They been forecastin’ this storm fer days.”

“They’re always forecastin’ a storm in Missouri in March,” I said. “But I didn’t come to argue about the weather. I came to bum a couple of big bales and borrow your tractor to haul them. That’d get me by.”

The old man looked up and shook his head. “It’s gonna freeze harder’n ol’ billyhell tonight, boy. You leave your truck planted in that mud, it’s liable to be froze in fer a month.”

“Don’t have a lot of choice,” I said. “I’m really in too deep for your tractor.”

I didn’t mean it as the challenge he took it to be. The whole time I’d trudged through the storm, I’d practiced saying it a dozen different ways so he’d believe me. But I’d known how it’d turn out. Still, I didn’t want it on my conscience that a man past seventy took the pneumonia that killed him while trying to help his bone‑headed boy out of a fix the idiot should never have been in. I knew with grim assuredness that my family and neighbors would recount my idiocy as the cause of my father’s death until it became lore. So I had tried, really tried, to think of a wording that would give me a way around having him pull on his boots and coveralls and raincoat as he was doing that very instant.

“You wanna get some dry clothes?” he asked, snapping his raincoat closed.

“No point,” I said. I gulped the last of my coffee and looked at my mother, who’d stayed out of the whole business and who knew the myriad meanings those two words carried.

“Log chain’s behind the seat in the truck,” he barked as we went outside.

The wind knifed around the house, stinging our faces with rain now mixed with sleet that sailed flat and fast at our eyes. I hustled toward his pickup for the tow chains while he lumbered stiff as a mummy in his layers of clothes toward the tractor shed. I snatched the chains while he rolled the heavy door open on its creaky rollers. As I leaned into the wind with the cold chains slung over my shoulder, I heard the gas‑powered pony engine cough and sputter to life, then whir as it gained momentum like a lawn-mower engine gone berserk. Next came the grinding of gears when the old man engaged the lever that locked the pony engine into the stiff flywheel of the big diesel engine that huffed coldly and defiantly several times before exploding to life with the inimitable put‑put‑put‑put‑put‑put that belongs only to two‑lung John Deere tractors.

In my old man’s vocabulary, John Deere meant tractor, and tractor meant John Deere. And not just any kind of John Deere, but the one and only holy John Deere, the twin cylinder that had decades ago been discontinued in favor of racier four‑cylinders and six‑cylinders that the old man distrusted like he distrusted seat belts, cordless phones, and all other newfangled contraptions. It is no exaggeration to say my old man would bleed green paint if you cut him.

Throughout my boyhood I believed that other breeds of tractors had been invented solely to provide my old man with cussing practice. Of Massey Fergusons, he’d snarl, “Couldn’t pull a sick whore off the pot.” Of Allis Chalmers, “The man what owns a goddamn Allis ain’t never gonna get skin cancer,” meaning the owner would spend his days repairing the tractor under shade trees. If the old man ever felt kindness toward any tractor other than a John Deere, it had been a momentary lapse he’d kept to himself, the way a man might choose not to reveal thoughts of infidelity with a friend’s wife.

Sometime late in my teenage years, I decided his devotion to John Deeres must have evolved from his boyhood during the Great Depression, when he trailed my grandfather’s mighty teams of horses and mules down endless dusty rows of open‑pollinated corn. There must have been something about the symmetry of two animals straining in tandem that forged all his future thoughts about the nature of horsepower as it would come to be defined. And, to his credit, the two‑cylinder John Deere tractors did have their own personalities, their obstinance, their steely willingness to lug at rpms far slower than other tractors would ever attempt.

The old man always said a Johnny popper would “lug ’til you can count the fan blades, boy,” a quality he revered in the same tone normally reserved for the incredible feats of lathered, heaving, straining horse and mule teams that clawed themselves belly deep into the earth as they pulled against supposedly unmovable mechanical wonders such as threshing machines that inevitably inched forward and elevated the exhausted, trembling brutes to immortal and mythical status forever in the stories of my old man and all old men who had witnessed such feats or else convinced themselves they had done so.

That was why I had unwillingly issued the ultimate challenge when I told him I was in too deep for a 720 John Deere to move me. Part of his motive, I knew, was to prove me wrong for the sheer joy of doing it because that fit his loose job description for the infinitive “to father.” But I knew the greater joy would come if—not when—the old two‑lunger snaked me from my quagmire and gave the old man coffee-shop bragging rights. Of course, to be fair I must say that part of the joy would simply be helping his knuckled‑headed boy out of a jam. But there had never been any shortage of opportunities to do that. It was just that so few of them afforded an old man and old tractor, two relics of days now relegated to the past, an opportunity for a shining moment of heroics, even if it meant driving into a bone‑chilling wind and sleet now mixing with slushy snowflakes as big as maple leaves.

The old man eased the transmission into gear, inched the hand clutch forward, and set the tractor in motion without a word or even a glance back to see if I’d made it onto the drawbar where I’d have to stand while clinging with one soaked glove to the back of his seat and with the other glove to the chains draped over my shoulder. We swung out of the barn lot and down the short driveway and north onto the highway, where the tractor’s tire chains began to jangle on the pavement in a loose, smooth rhythm as the tractor rolled steadily north into the storm.

I was shivering, aching cold just hanging onto the seat and shifting my weight from foot to foot on the drawbar. The old man had to be at least as cold as I was. When he turned away from the wind, I saw it was squeezing tears down his cheeks and snot down his upper lip, but he sat as straight‑backed and grim and stoic as any knight sent to defend his honor.

A little farther we drove from the pavement into the lane and felt the weight of the tractor settle into the mud that was starting to thicken like fudge. The first long grade toward my truck was all downhill, and the old man geared down, but still the tire chains slung mud on me as we rolled along, adding to the weight of my drenched clothes and the cold that had begun to shake me.

When we came to my truck the old man snapped the hand clutch back to disengage it, puzzled over my truck, and shook his head and rested his soaked gloves on the top of the steering wheel, which pulsed in time with the two idling cylinders of the steaming diesel engine. Water dripped from his cap brim onto the sleeves of his raincoat and down his arms and then from his bent elbows to the deck of the tractor at his boots. Without waiting to see me step clear, he threw the tractor into a lower gear and set it forward into the flooded grader ditch. I fought through the thickening goo around the other side of my truck and looked for a sturdy place to hook the log chain, but only the top of the bumper was visible. It would never do.

The 720 came sliding around the other corner of my truck and clawed back into the road ahead of me. I dropped to my knees and burrowed into the mud with both hands until I’d dug a channel wide enough to let me thread the chain around a pull hook bolted to the truck frame. The old man wrestled his tractor into position, cranking the steering wheel to and fro as he launched the tractor forward and backward in the slime until he was near enough and aligned enough with the ruts to lean into the first pull.

“Hold your clutch in until I start ya!” he yelled above the wind and bawling cows. The fact that we both knew he didn’t need to say it had no bearing on his saying it.

My truck didn’t want to start, likely because the oil and steel had chilled throughout. But after a little cranking, the engine finally fired. I turned on the wipers and watched the old man ease the tractor into the load. The tire chains were now invisible, just strings of muck encircling the tall tires.

I shifted into low gear, double checked the four‑wheel‑drive shifter, and waited cynically for an unlikely chance to dump the clutch and roar ahead. Gradually the chain tightened between us until I felt a light tug, then a tiny motion, enough for me to spin my wheels until the old man raised his arm without looking back, a signal for me to quit. The tractor was spun down and in danger of being stuck itself. For a second I thought it was stuck. But somehow the tire chains caught enough traction to bring the 720 backwards.

This time the old man rocked his steed back and forth until he’d straddled the ruts and, in an uncharacteristic move, he slid the transmission into third gear, a fast speed for him under these conditions. He neither looked back nor shouted a word nor offered a gesture before he launched his tractor forward and hit the end of the chain with enough force to nudge my high‑centered truck from its muddy perch. All four of my tires slung mud when I dumped my clutch and mashed the gas pedal, pelting the old man’s back and head with chunks of clay.

But the motion stopped and the tractor spun down until again it looked as if it was buried, too. Yet again he rocked it and cranked the steering wheel and somehow got enough slack to let me unhook the chain from his drawbar as he’d motioned for me to do. He idled the engine and twisted stiffly on the seat until he could face me and called above the wind, “Moved ya, didn’t I?”

I held up my mud‑caked thumb and fingers to indicate maybe two inches.

“It’ll come,” he said, and he turned forward as stiffly as he’d turned backward and surveyed the rutted brown road now turning to white as if he thought it might tell him something. I stood clinging to the cold and muddy end of the heavy chain and wondered why I hadn’t gone to some other neighbor’s house, someplace where no sense of obligation would have forced an old man from his warm recliner and into a drenching flurry of rain and sleet and snow only to be humiliated because he would see his failure not as failure of physics and energy and motion but as failure of time, as the failure of a tractor and a man whose days had passed and whose heroic deeds were the domain of memories long made with no more to come.

These were the philosophical things I was thinking when the old man rammed the throttle and the clutch forward in one unexpected motion and without the slightest warning tried to run me over in reverse. I tripped backward and landed on my butt in the slop, then rolled and scrambled on all fours down the weedy road bank. I heard the tractor idle down again and looked up to see the old man craning his neck and staring at me.

“Fall down?” he yelled. The wind packed his voice away. I nodded that I had and pulled myself back up the greasy slope. The old man twisted stiffly in the seat again and looked at me.

“Ya gotta be careful!” he yelled. “Ya coulda fell under one of the wheels, boy.”

I nodded again and wove the chain through the clevis and sloshed back toward my truck.

“Wait ’til I tighten the chain ‘fore ya spin,” the old man yelled. Again he launched the tractor forward, this time in a higher gear than I’d ever seen him use except for travel between jobs. I was barely under my steering wheel when the chain popped tight and my truck lurched ahead. I crammed my transmission in gear and laid into the gas and sawed my steering wheel side to side, launching a flurry of flying mud into the swirling white mix.

The old man must have felt the forward motion or at least felt that the motion hadn’t stopped. But I got a sick feeling when his big old gloved right hand shot for the clutch knob. Then I saw he wasn’t going for the clutch, but for the throttle, which he rammed forward to its limit and ignited a furious stream of heavy black diesel smoke that fogged around him in the swirl of sleet and snow. And even above my screaming engine and the ceaseless clunking of mud against metal and glass I heard those two mighty cylinders leaning into the load and driving their muscle into two huge brown tires that squatted like horses straining on their haunches. The old tractor lugged harder and harder and lost rpms until it bellowed its slow, throaty,putta‑putta putta‑putta putta‑putta putta‑putta, but the power was pure and steady and fierce and determined, and the old man hunched over the steering wheel as if that simple act could will the cylinders to keep hammering and the tires to keep turning. And maybe it did. Something did. Because I was moving again. I was moving again and knew this time that I would keep moving. I would keep moving because my old man didn’t know how to say no to his boy. Didn’t know how to say “I give up,” which would have meant “I give up on you.”

As we inched steadily forward into the storm and slime, I felt a sense of supreme elation at a time when such feelings came at a premium. Something mythical had happened. He knew it. I knew it. And we each knew the other knew. But we never said a word about it.

 

*    *    *

 

I’ve thought of that moment from time to time and tried to decide what it meant, after having convinced myself it meant something. Most of the time I take the obvious interpretation that it was an act of fatherhood, of a hard‑nosed father convincing his ne’er‑do‑well son that love and paternal obligations are natural and undeniable and eternal.

Other times I’ve thought of it as a defining moment in which I understood the difference between mothers and fathers and their relationships with their offspring. Mothers have the umbilical cord advantage, the natural, life‑sustaining bond denied to fathers who must, in their own way, create their own. For some, the bonds never form. For others, they are forged one link at a time from some rare ore that is mined and fired and cast and cooled and tempered in remote hunting camps and sweltering hay barns and frozen calving pastures. When I accept this meaning, I interpret the chain as the symbol of a man’s determination to create from his own acts that which was not natural at all and which has greater meaning because it was an exercise of free will.

But in the intervening two decades between act and interpretation I have considered a new possibility:  that myths are magical and immortal and that we are but their agents. My old man could not have refused me, and his effort could not have failed because either act would have denied our role in perpetuating the myth, and without new actors the drama dies.

Finally, I consider this simple meaning. On a bleak day when I could go no farther on my own, when I had begun to question the essence of existence and the value of life itself, an old man on an old tractor chained himself to me and made me move again. That is enough to know.

 

© Bill Church