It was June, the first of the three months of Summer, and I was as happy as a robin with a fat worm in his beak. I was thirteen. Eighth grade was only a memory and Ninth grade was far off in the future. Other than being roped into taking out the garbage and mowing the lawn now and then, I had few responsibilities. My friends and I were outdoor kids and we always could come up with something to do, whether it was playing with rubber band-powered balsawood airplanes, throwing a baseball around, or digging a hole in the vacant lot. If we wanted to go somewhere, the whole of Laramie was only a bike-ride away.
Then, at Dinner one night, the Old Man had an announcement. He had had a conversation with his rancher friend George, who owned a spread outside of Centennial, Wyoming, about 30 miles away, and they had decided that I was going to spend the summer working on the Red Ladder Ranch.
A few years before, George’s son Mick had needed a place to stay in town while he went to High School for his Senior year. My parents were happy to push another bed into my brother Chuck’s room for him. Chuck, being the same age as Mick, was fine with having a roommate. Fast forward to 1960 and the Old Man, worried that his third son was becoming a layabout and ne’er-do-well, called in the favor. My weak protests were pretty much ignored and two days later I was standing in the bunkhouse being introduced to Ray and Joe Bob, the two ranch hands.
I had never been required to sleep in the same room as a grown man before, let alone two. Suddenly I was three years old again, wanting desperately to hide behind my mother’s legs and peek out at these two aged and grizzled veterans. Actually, they were each about 19 and, in George’s eyes, mere boys not much older than I was. Ray and Joe Bob were nice enough to me then, smiling and shaking hands, but as soon as George left, they quickly let me know what was what and who was at the bottom of the totem pole. I was to haul water for them to wash up every morning and evening, make their beds after they had gone to work, and generally stay out of their way and do what I was told.
After a couple of days of being bodily hauled out of bed, having the water bucket shoved into my hands, and receiving a boot in the butt to send me on my way, I developed the habit of being the first one out of bed in the morning. I am not now, nor have I ever been a “morning person,” but there were some quiet rewards. Wyoming sunrises are consistently magnificent and at that time of day the sweet songs of the Western Meadowlark are always in the air. What the bird is actually saying is “This land, this grass, and these bugs are mine! Stay away or I’ll rip your wings off! Unless you’re a female, and in that case, sweet mama, just come on down and look me over!” What he says may not be gracious, but to human ears, the way he says it is absolutely breathtaking.
I spent a few days getting familiar with the ranch and running a few errands before George summoned me to the barn.
“I was going to have you muck out the stalls,” he said as he pointedly tapped the handle of a big scoop shovel hanging on the wall. “But I decided to get you started on digging the rocks out of the North pasture first . Come out here.”
I followed him out to a large corral made of hand-split wooden posts and rails. He pulled up a wooden latch, opened a gate, then closed and latched the gate behind us.
“First rule,” he said, “always shut the damned gate behind you. A cow can smell an open gate from a quarter of a mile away.”
Parked next to the corral fence was a rusty old tractor. Hitched up behind it was a trailer home-made from the back half of an even older and rustier pickup truck. A shovel, a pick, and a long, heavy steel bar that narrowed to a point at one end lay in the bed of the trailer next to a ragged pair of work gloves.
“I want you to drive this tractor up to the North pasture, remembering to close the damned gates behind you. You’ll see a lot of rocks – from the size of your head to the size of a watermelon. You’re gonna dig those up, one-by-one, and put ’em into this trailer. When you get a load take ’em down to the trout pond and dump ’em on the face of the dam. Got that?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “But I don’t know how to drive a tractor.”
“Well, there’s really not much to it Get up in the seat.”
He turned the key in its slot. The starter labored several times, then the engine caught and started to roar. Big clouds of black smoke belched out of the vertical exhaust pipe.
“Now push that pedal on the left down,” he shouted over the din. “Push the gear shift lever into the slot marked ‘1.’ Now let up slowly on the clutch – that’s the pedal you’re pushing down.”
I did so and the tractor heaved ahead a couple of neck-snapping times, then settled into steady, forward motion.
“Good,” he said, “the other pedal is the brake. The throttle is this lever on the steering column. Just drive it around the corral a few times to get the feel of it, then go on up there and start to work. Got it? Okay.”
George jumped off the tractor and whistled up Jigger, his Border Collie. He climbed into his Jeep and was gone.
Around and around the corral I drove, gaining confidence as I went. “Heck, driving isn’t that hard,” I said to myself. “What’s the big deal about it?”
I decided I was ready and steered toward the gate. I pushed on the brake and the machine slowed way down, then started bucking and choking horribly. Fear grabbed me and I pulled my foot off the brake and turned the wheel hard to the left. The tractor just missed crashing into the gate, came around, straightened out and was once more chugging around the corral. Every time I pushed on the brake, the same thing happened. George had showed me how to get the tractor going, but he hadn’t told me how to stop it. Rational thoughts started hurling themselves overboard leaving only panic to run the ship.
“Help!” I shouted. “Help! Please, somebody help me!”
Ray and Joe Bob, stacking bales in the barn loft, heard my cries and came running. When they got to the corral fence they saw only a red-faced kid with bulging eyes driving a tractor around and around.
“What’s the problem?” they yelled.
I shouted back, “I don’t know how to stop this thing!”
The two just looked at each other and laughed. They climbed up and sat on the top railing like two old crows cackling together. Every time I’d drive around in front of them, they’d yell advice.
“Try driving it through the fence and into the barn. That’ll stop it!”
“Just keep driving it around. It’ll run out of gas in a few more hours!”
They suddenly stopped laughing. A hand clapped down on one of my shoulders and I screamed and thrashed like a goldfish falling out of his bowl. An arm reached around me and turned the key. With a cough the engine died and the tractor lurched to a stop.
“How about you two yayhoos get back to work!” George yelled at Joe Bob and Ray and they went back to the barn stifling their giggles. He sat back against the big fender, crossed his arms, and gave me an appraising look.
“I’m sorry,” I said as I fought back tears, “I didn’t know how to stop it.”
“Aw, hell,” he said. “I’m the one who should apologize. Didn’t your father ever teach you how to drive?”
“No sir. I’m only thirteen.”
“Out here we teach a kid to drive as soon as he can reach the pedals and see over the dashboard. Now push in the clutch, turn the key to start it, and get it moving.”
Standing next to me on the rear axle housing, George coached me on the finer points of driving a tractor. In a short while i had the thing stopped and idling while I opened the gate.
“I think you’ll be okay now,” he called as he went back to the Jeep. “Just remember to close the God-damned gate behind you.”