Time for the tale of how I earned a scar worthy of a champion.
In the early days, our lone piece of “heavy” equipment on the ranch was on old Ford tractor. I’m guessing that it was of a 1940s vintage, but without going to the trouble of emailing my sister for verification, I can’t be sure. So you’ll just have to take my word for it.
It wasn’t a big tractor, nor did it run very well, which meant that most time it had to be fixed before you could use it. That also meant that it fit right in with the rest of our rusty, crumbling, creaky equipment.
One of the tractor’s more entertaining traits was it complete and utter lack of functioning brakes. They were just useless metal appendages affixed down near your feet, fun to stomp on, but nothing else. If you wanted to stop, it was best to plan ahead. As in, Hey, there’s a gate coming up in about fifty yards. If I don’t want to crash through it, I better take action now. And, since the tractor had a top speed of about five miles an hour, fifty yards gave you plenty of time to take action.
What you wanted to do, then, was slow way down until you were just crawling and when you were ready to stop, drop the bucket, which worked pretty well but not real well.
Lack of brakes also meant lack of a parking brake. Thus, gates on hillsides were tricky. I was driving the tractor by the time I was nine or so and I quickly learned that the bucket was at best a marginal parking brake and at worst a dangerous illusion of a parking brake.
Right now you might be thinking, but why not just turn the tractor off and leave it in gear? If so, it means you haven’t been paying attention. This was Date Creek Ranch and things were never that simple. Turning off the tractor would have meant restarting it. Restarting requires a little thing known as a battery. Of which the tractor did not possess a working copy or even a reasonable facsimile.
Translation: No start without a jump start.
Gates on downhill slopes weren’t that bad. We had two kinds of roads on Date Creek, pretty bad and awful. It generally wasn’t that hard to find a rock sticking up out of the road and wedge the bucket against it.
Uphill slopes were more problematic. I found the best bet was to drive one of the big back wheels just up and over the biggest rock I could find, then take the tractor out of gear and let it ease back onto the rock, hoping it was large enough to serve as a chock. Then, if it seemed like it wasn’t going anywhere, I’d jump off and get that gate open really quickly. Speed was essential because more than once while I was wrestling with the gate, the tractor just decided to take off and go for a spin, you know, experience life as a free-range tractor.
I say wrestling with the gate because that’s what it took. You may be thinking we had actual gates, made of metal or wood, with hinges and such, but once again you, dear reader, are wrong.
Our gates were wire gates, made of a half-dozen strands of barbed wire strung between two largish sticks, which served as the ends of the gate (see the picture). To give the gate some structure and make it look somewhat like an actual gate, a handful of crooked smaller sticks were attached to the strands in the span between the larger sticks. (Did the smaller sticks have to be crooked? I don’t know. But ours always were. It’s probably a physics thing.)
The end of the gate that opened was attached to the fence post by a wire loop at the top and the bottom. To close the gate, you put the bottom end of the largish stick into the lower loop, then pull the top end closer to the fencepost until you can slip the top loop into place.
Not so hard for an adult. Very hard for a little kid. Generally, I had to get my arm around the gate post so it was tucked into my shoulder, then grab onto the fence post and hope I was strong enough to get it close, then hold it there long enough to drop the wire loop into place.
And all this while keeping an eye on the tractor that’s just waiting for an opportunity to flee the scene!
One more thing about that old Ford tractor before I get back to the story I promised you. Since it had no functioning battery, if I was working away from the house and the engine died, I was basically doomed. This happened one time when Dad took me out to the hill orchard. He started the tractor, gave me my orders, then drove away. Just about the time he was driving out of sight I got on the tractor, accidentally popped the clutch, and killed the engine.
There was no way in hell I was going to sit there all day and do nothing and explain to him at the end of the day why I’d done nothing, so there was nothing for it but to hop down and hot foot it back to the house, which was only a couple miles away. Mom kindly gave me a ride back out there and restarted the tractor for me. Of course, I didn’t get as much work done that day as Dad expected me to, but since none of us kids ever got as much work done as he expected, he was no madder than usual.
Anyway, back to that fateful day.
I was probably about seven or so when it happened. Dad and I were up the creek a mile or two, working in a big, sandy wash that drains down into Date Creek. The mouth of the wash was choked with a big mesquite thicket. Since we often drove cattle down that wash, the mesquite thicket was a problem. The cows liked to head on into its shady depths and then just stand there and hope those annoying people would go away. Fortunately for Dad, he had children, like me, who were perfect for the wonderful job of beating the bushes on foot to flush out the cows, but it did slow us down.
Dad was driving the tractor through the thicket, using the bucket to knock down and uproot as many of the smaller trees as possible. I was riding on the back, standing on a little wooden platform attached between the big rear wheels, holding onto the big, metal fenders for support.
As work days go, it was a pretty good one for me, all things considered. I wasn’t really doing much, just standing there, and I liked watching him knock the trees down.
However, as he drove over a smallish one, all snapping and crackling beneath me, suddenly I had a huge burst of pain in my left leg.
I squalled and went down. Dad stopped the tractor and looked back and all he could see was a lot of blood coming out of my boot.
God bless him, for once Dad was willing to stop work early to take me back to the house and see if we couldn’t do something about the blood I was getting all over his tractor. He put that tractor up to its top speed and we high-tailed it back to the house. (Low-tailed? Slow-tailed?)
Once we got there he put me in the back of the car and hollered for Mom to come take me to the hospital, which was only a half hour away if you hurried. At this point, still no one knew what had happened, only that I had a good flesh wound just above my ankle that was a little beyond what you could stick a bandage on.
It wasn’t until the surgery that the doctor discovered the wound had been made by a stick, about the size of a middle finger, that had gone into my leg and traveled under the skin up my leg, until it lodged against my knee and stopped.
Talk about your freak accidents. What must have happened is that one of those young mesquite trees sprang back as we drove over it, doing so with enough force that a piece broke off and shot upwards at a pretty good velocity. Fast enough to go through my boot, pant leg, and then up my leg itself.
What makes it even freakier is that if I’d been standing anyplace else on that wooden platform, I would have been okay. But there was a small hole right near where I was standing and that was where the piece of wood went through.
The result of all this is that I now have an awesome memento in the form of a piece of blood-stained wood. And, as a bonus, an impressive scar that has only once in my life lost to another scar in the traditional male game of “Who’s got the best scar?”
I still say Tom faked his heart surgery just to win.