Fred could have been singing about the 1935 my Uncle Con used to plant 240 acres of popcorn in Christian County clay and loam, halfway between Stonington and Taylorville, Illinois.
Don Walser sang:
I work an old John Deere Tractor ever-a-day
Plowin’ plantin’ crops and balin’ hay…
You know John Deere tractors break down from time to time
But Old Shade Tree Slim'd have her runnin’ just fine
Rest in Peace, Gentleman Don, aka “Pavarotti of the Plains”.
My dad started working in Kilborn’s John Deere implement dealership his junior year of high school, in 1952. He could have been Ole Shade Tree Slim. He tells stories of fetching tractors from the field and taking them back to the shop for service. There came a call for a ’37 John Deere A that didn’t sound right. The farmer drove it out of the field, rattlin’, back-fartin’ and blowing black smoke, onto the single axle trailer behind a 1-ton Chevy dually, with one bolt holding the carburetor, and one holding the cylinder head on the block.
Well there’s nothin’ like the smell of fresh plowed ground.
There was twice as much fresh plowed ground to be smelling at the end of every day when the 50s and 70s replaced the As and Bs a few years later. With 45 horsepower “at the drawbar”, they could handle a 4-bottom plow.
After sunset and a couple tablespoons of Talisker, Dad may tell you about going to Lake Shelbyville fishin’ with his cousin Jim. Three times. In a row. Show him a picture of an old car, truck, or tractor. He’ll tell the make and model and that it was made during the first shift, before noon. I’m not prone to challenge his rolling stock recollections, but I swear the first tractor I ever “drove” was a 4020. At 5 years and 50 pounds, I didn’t weigh enough to get on top of the clutch. My legs weren’t long enough to straddle the console, so all my toe could reach was the pedal for the inside wheel brake. We lurched, blew black smoke, and headed down the field road. The lugs slow-drummed over hard pack and crunched through gravel as the hundred-horse stalwart rolled with every rut. Leaning on Dad’s lap, it felt like I was nine feet in the air, going 50 miles an hour.
Dad swears it was one of Uncle Con’s B’s (Johnny Poppers) he used to run when he was home on leave from the Navy.
The “put-put” of the Johnny Poppers gets in your blood like the Pox virus. When the kids were young, a favorite feature of the early incarnations of Storkfest was a hayride through the backside of Wallace’s, all the way to the Muck Farm and back. Dave Strasburg was just on the other side of the alfalfa field and always happy to oblige, with an old Red or new Green tractor, but I figured I’d surprise the old man. I didn’t want to come right out and ask Ed Schulz, so I looked at my boots and kicked the gravel, “Y’all wouldn’t have an extra 2-cylinder we might borrow for an afternoon?”
The buzz was that he and his son had driven all the way to Canada, and traded a good start at an undergraduate education in American cash dollars for a 75-year-old, 15-horse tractor. They pulled it home behind a Chevy S10 that I wouldn’t take to Walgreens for a bottle of Pepto Bismol.
“Aw, heck, you’d be welcome to it,” his John Deere A, serial number 10, was hitched to a spreader in a corn crib, “but I got the PTO tore out of it.”
It’s probably best. Though he is famously collected, the old guy may have lost his mind right then and there. The rumor is the John Deere Pavilion has since offered “significantly” more than what he paid for it. Ed probably thanked ‘em for the offer, but he needed it to clean barn.
Michael Perry likens writing to pitching box stalls: “Just keep at it ‘til you got a big enough pile someone will notice,” says the poet laureate of flannel shirts and work boots. A charming metaphor, but by spring thaw we’ve got mounds of the real thing.
Though we all may be the same in the eyes of the Lord, all horse shit is not created equally. It gets sorted into three piles.
The hand-sorted pile mixed with pine-shavings that Sheila hauls out in muck buckets I call “garden gold”. It gets loaded on the trailer and meticulously distributed one wheelbarrow at a time to Jeff and Sharon, Mittsy and Barb, and Nancy and Matt. Sometime after spring showers and the summer solstice, bags of fresh tomatoes, peppers and sweet corn begin to appear on the passenger seat of my truck.
They’ve got five acres, but Santana and Boom Truck stand just outside the stalls. By spring the fence gets pretty short, and there is a mound of pure manure that gets spread four inches deep on a pumpkin patch across Hwy 18. By Halloween, Rich has Jack-O-Lanterns the size of a VW microbus.
The third mound is a nasty mat of wasted hay that gets spread on Ned’s corn stubble. Therein lies the fine art and timing of it all: I look for a day with a gentle breeze. Though we are not opposed to wafting a little country potpourri through the cul de sac, they are friends, potential clients, and Dr. Rob from the Jefferson Vet Clinic. A poorly timed gust of prevailing northwest wind as you lift the endgate and you’ve got Benny’s breakfast wedged behind your earlobes, and organic chunks the size of silly-putty cemented in the mesh of your Packers hat.
Not to mention, I don’t need hecklers. Seems every year I find an original and creative way to overload the spreader. At the first smell of burning clutch, I reach for the lever to disengage the PTO. Before turning around to face the inevitable, I’ll let fly with a colorful diatribe that’ll surely get me a couple extra Hail Marys and a chuckle from Father Bob, if I ever get back to confession. There will be 25 yards of naked stubble and the beaters swinging like Ernest T. Bass with Andy’s hand on his forehead. The apron will be stuck to the floor of the spreader, like a flip-flop in stale beer on Sunday morning.
In doing so, I earn an hour and a half’s worth of fork-handle-fitness and a bloody blister in my palm. “I can just use the broken-handled fork in the jack stand. It’d take too long to walk back to the barn, and all I have to throw off is just that little bit…"
For most, the International vs John Deere rivalry lies somewhere between Cardinals vs Cubs and Bears vs Packers in intensity. On this day, I had six hours before dark, 17 loads to haul, and Ned was planting corn on Monday. I didn’t care if it was Red, Green, or Orange, so long as it had four wheels and a PTO. Sheila’s dad usually sends me with the 4020, but the spreader was hooked on the 1937 International “M”.
I checked the fuel and oil and dropped ‘er into road gear. It’s eight miles from farm to farm. By way of Hwy J to Scheppert Road, you go left onto Perry at the Clampett farm, which will get you all the way to Hwy A. By taking Ripley Road you can avoid the traffic on State Hwy 18 and get to wave like Huck Finn at the flatlanders opening up their lake cottages, gawking awkwardly as you pull a manure spreader past.
I don’t fancy myself all that sensitive. Sheila has gone so far as to say oblivious. I only passed five cars, but three of them had noses pressed to the windshield. Another rolled down the window and pointed.
I started to get a little self-conscious.
Once home, I was able to get a notion what the spectacle may have been. I must have been in full-on git-er-done mode. I’m no Scott Clewis, but I fancy myself as fashion forward as a man in the country can be. I was still in Pella Green coveralls and yellow boots from the last farm call, driving a rust red International, while sporting a faded John Deere hat and black shirt. Sheila had forgotten a few things at the farm, so I had her dark brown leather purse, with silver and teal trim, flung over my shoulder.
Folks around Jefferson County, Wisconsin, are cordial toward ag vehicles, though you’ll occasionally have a Prius Pete. Apparently, however, when no two pieces of one’s ensemble match, folks are far less tolerant of slow-moving vehicles.
When Paige and Calvin were enrolled in the Cambridge School District, I launched a search for a permanent place to hang my coveralls. I hoped for a spot on the bus route, with a little elbow room. Stork Hollow is seven acres of mosquitoes, marsh grass, multiflower rose, and burdock. According to Google Maps, we are at the same elevation as New Orleans.
Sizing up the land restoration project that lay before us, Dad stood on Wolf Road and surveyed the property. “Son, I do believe a guy could walk through there in a brand new pair of Levis, and he’d be buck-nekkid ‘for he got to the other side.” Translated: better get some goats.
Aside from a patch of pasture big enough for pickup football or pond hockey, the only flat spot big enough for a pup tent is on the black top in front of the garage. After the first snow, the driveway is only slightly less treacherous than the Khumbu Ice Falls.
Paige had begged for a horse since she was five. Aunt Sarah said, “Wait until she’s eleven”. Just in case, we had four box stalls and a small arena. Her “horse fever” broke just days before her birthday, but we had plenty of room for four Nubian goats and Bambi the Jersey heifer.
"Family realignment" is a term coined by family practice lawyers. I abhor it, and explained that to my lawyer. We moved my press-board dressers and secondhand couches from the exclusive “St Vinny’s Collection” the day after Christmas 2005. Backing the 30’ Smith Racing Team car hauler down the bunny hill on solid ice was barely controlled free fall. By the time we unloaded the last box labeled “Blues CD’s/Bedroom”, the nausea of signing 200 pages obligating me to 30 years at 4.8% had not begun to relent. I kept a gallon of Kaolin Pectin in the truck.
No less prolific or profound, the only thing Mark Twain had on my dad was a measure of eloquence. Though I bet Sam Clemmons woulda laid claim to “Son, you can work hard enough to get over stupid; you can’t be smart enough to get past lazy” any day.
Dad was not opposed to the classics, “Son, that back of yours has got to last the rest of your life”, and “You know, son, you’re not getting any younger.”
Frugal to a fault, he was no less insistent: “You need to find yourself a little tractor”.
Dad had thankfully emerged from his period of P.O.A.D.S (Pubertal Offspring Associated Dementia Syndrome); I didn’t doubt him for a minute. I searched Craiglist and the Tractor Trader magazine from the wire rack by the diesel pump. As it turns out, good used utility tractors are harder to find than quinoa at a Kwik Trip, and cost twice as much as a signed copy of “Born to Run”.
Worse, they’re all orange. The Japanese mastered small-plot farming and have engineered amazing compact tractors to make them efficient. With all due respect, the only Kubotas in Stork Hollow will be borrowed, and as a last resort.
So, until my budget was stronger than my back, snow removal, fence building, and brush clearing would be accomplished by way of a shovel, post- hole digger, and the Stihl Super 028 (*diesel) chainsaw on long-term loan from Dad, fueled by cortisol, testosterone, and bachelor cooking.
A straw could have been when I was dragging brush and neighbor Wally brought over his Kubota.
When Sheila showed up with her flaming locks of auburn hair, razor wit, uncommon kindness, and a trailer full of Quarter Horses and a Clydesdale, well, Dad was not willing to bank his chance of scoring a dream DIL on his son’s wit, wisdom, and allure.
He made tracks to Sloan Implement in Assumption, Illinois.
“Sure, what d'you want for breakfast?" he asked, and “Make sure you bring the truck and trailer.”
I left the University of Illinois with a BS, a DVM, and not a nickel’s worth of debt. After Dick Bass and donuts at 6:00AM, I pitched box stalls and spent “Happy Hours” bleaching rat cages for a diminutive Korean named “Boon”. All of which barely paid for Sunday night pizza and a five-dollar pitcher of Budweiser at Mabel’s.
My college education was funded by sweat and sacrifice, and not all mine. Dad worked roughly 6000 hours of overtime, went on no vacations, and Mom pinched pennies into copper wire. They didn’t know “new car smell” from jasmine tea. The first thing with four wheels Dad ever made payments on was a 2011 John Deere 2520 with a hydraulic bucket, 6-foot mower deck, and four-wheel drive. He welded up a four- foot job box that mounted on the draw bar, and painted it JD Green to match the rest of the rig.
Blue collar dollars do not leave Bill Stork’s wallet without a hundred hours of hard thought.
The little diesel ground pounder that now sat in his garage was in hopes of preserving his son’s carcass, and a way for an old heavy equipment operator to get his “fix”.
“When my time comes, I hope they take me mid-stride.” The way it’s looking, that’s the way it’ll have to be. When Dad’s caught his last crappie, he’ll come to rest at the North Fork Cemetery in Decatur, next to Mom. In attendance there will be retired construction workers, machinists, carpenters, farmers, and at least one doctor, lawyer, and Chief Indian.
Long after the eulogy, communion, and Church Lady Food, I’ll think of Dad. Every time I clear snow or scrape shit, I’ll wing it wide and scrape it tight. Before I start it, I’ll check the oil. When the work’s done, I’ll idle-‘er-down, back it in the shed, grease it, scrape the bucket.
It’s just the way it’s done.
Our John Deere 2520 will be around long after Dad. ‘Little Johnny’ is his “Statue outside the Stadium”.
The third commandment is, “If you break it, you pay for it”. So, John, there begins what could become a fatal flaw in our relationship.
In medicine there are what we call nebulopathies. Nebulopathies are illnesses in which the clinical signs are infrequently seen, unpredictable, and can’t be reliably reproduced. They may be associated with multiple organ systems and etiologies, but are not directly attributable to a specific pathology. They drive us to spend countless hours cross-referencing cases in The Journals of Veterinary Medicine or the Veterinary Information Network, which is occasionally followed by a two-finger pour of Scotch, and Van Morrison.
We’ll hear, “he was limping all day yesterday, and now he’s running around”.
Some of our clients are accomplished actors and actresses. They’ll bring their hands to their throat, stretch their neck, and emit a guttural “hack”, then bend at the waist and spread their arms, connoting the phlegm on the floor that terminates the event. It could be kennel cough, heart failure, garbage toxicity, or hairballs.
Mechanics have it tougher.
“I swear the thing goes thucka-thucka-thucka every time I roll down the window,” Tom the Roofer tries to describe. Before he gets around to fixing stuff, Steve always has to grumble, “Schuman, you’ve fallen on your head too many times. Roll up your window and turn up the radio”.
We’ve all had that pickup truck that won’t start, dies unpredictably, or loses power when anyone drives it but an ASE certified mechanic.
In both veterinary and human medicine we have a distinct advantage: “Put two halves of a sick cat in the same room and they’ll get better”. The Father of Medicine is Hippocrates. His oath is long, confusing, and written in Greek, but roughly translated it says, “Stay out of the way and we’ll get better”.
Whether you believe in evolution, creation, or divine intervention, animals are of superior design (the M.S.R.P. of a new Mercedes would lead us to believe otherwise). We can become infected by and exposed to rogue viruses, bacteria, GMOs and MSG. Just imagine how many times each day we shake hands, share doorknobs, and use public restrooms, and how relatively infrequently we get sick.
The defense mechanism of the upper respiratory tract is just one example. It is a system of exquisite design involving fluid dynamics, mechanics, immunoglobulins M and G… and mucus. We can function on only 30% of our kidney and 25% of our liver function. The redundancy of the circulatory system to the brain is so complete and intricate that we can function perfectly normally with both carotid arteries ligated. Nerves can slowly regenerate and nearly aligned broken bones can heal!
Mechanics have no such luxury.
If it’s broken, it’ll stay that way until someone replaces the broken parts, sells it, or set it on fire.
One weekend a year we host a down-sized, southern Wisconsin “Woodstock”. The horse pasture becomes a parking lot. In anticipation of Storkfest 14, I climbed aboard Little Johnny to scrape a few months' worth of used hay. Our Chicago friend’s footwear is more suited for the sideline of a soccer game or the 18th green at Medinah; I actually saw a pair of Muck Boots in the tray next to the front door, of Kish’s house. A good tromp through Boomer and Benny’s paddock, and I guarantee Anita would relegate them to the garage.
I pulled the bucket-lever back and to my knees to lift and curl… nothing.
Brow creased, I reached for the three-point lever, and slid it back. The collection of T-posts, fencing pliers, and scrap wood in the job box just sat there. Thinking that Little John was one big hydraulic machine, I wiggled the steering wheel and touched the travel, and he did both.
Having an extensive understanding of hydraulics and a socket set, I took a drink of the afternoon iced coffee in the cup holder, and dismounted. I rubbed the dust off the little lens next to the PTO to check fluid levels, ran my hand through the sand searching for leaks, and checked couplers and fittings. Finally I remounted, revved the little Japanese diesel to 1800 rpm, and tried the levers again. Nothing.
I have a friend who is a Rolls Royce mechanic. He explained that a Rolls doesn’t break down. If ever it should not function, you just make a phone call. I didn’t read the fine print, but I suspect John Deere has no such language in the warranty.
Having exhausted my mechanical chops, I dumped down to Plan B: Denial.
After feeding the horses, filling the water tank, and digging the manure away from the posts where the tractor bucket won’t fit, I tried again. Success.
Having spent 23 years of practice chasing nebulopathies, I was not so delusional as to believe the problem would go away. Old Timers used to take a horse with colic on a therapeutic trailer ride. A couple miles bouncing over a broken down county blacktop and he’d let fly with enough methane to power Brookstone Meadows on Super Bowl Sunday, and a pile of manure.
I’d bet a broke-in pair of Redwings that Johnny could sit there w