Learning To Drive The Spiked-Wheel Tractor

short stories

Doug Alt


Learning to Drive the Tractor

As I grew big enough (about age 11 or 12) Dad allowed me to start learning how to drive the Farmall F-12 tractor. This tractor had all-metal wheels, with big spikes that stuck into the ground for traction. Although there were actually functional brakes on the machine, they were hardly ever used. There were two separate brake pedals, one for the right rear wheel and one for the left rear wheel. They were extremely hard to depress, and had only marginal braking effect. There were also hand brake levers on the left and right sides, which, due to the increased leverage, had a little more effect. The hand levers’ intended function was for only one side be used at a time as an aid to making sharp turns at the end of a row in soft soil. It wouldn’t normally be practical to pull both hand levers at the same time for straight-line stopping, since you would have to let go of the steering wheel. In an emergency, however, a two-handed technique might be the last resort if stopping was more important than steering. The normal procedure for stopping, since the tractor was almost always operated on soft or fresh-plowed ground, into which the wheels sank very easily, was to just push in the clutch to disconnect the engine and let the soft earth bring the tractor to a halt, which it would do within only a few feet or so of rolling distance. If any kind of farm implement with drag, such as disc, harrow or plow was being pulled, the drag of the earth would stop the whole rig in what seemed to be only inches.

In my case, the braking mechanisms were moot, I was barely big enough to reach the clutch pedal; the brake controls were beyond my reach. The “soft earth with dragged implements” was the only method available to me for stopping. This is the main method that the adult drivers of this particular tractor also used.

While driving the tractor, I was never on my own. Dad was always standing on the tractor right behind the driver’s seat so he was poised and ready to seize the controls and take over at a moment’s notice.

I think I only drove the tractor all by myself once or twice, and those events were relatively brief. There were several reasons for this. By the time I reached high school age and was growing large enough to be able to be physically in command of the machine, we had moved off the farm to our own house on Tennent Rd. and I just wasn’t around the old farm  environment very much any more. Also, starting the tractor’s motor involved use of a very difficult, and dangerous, hand crank, which was best left to adults. If an adult had to be around to start up the tractor, then they might just as well go ahead and drive the thing now that they were there anyway. The final factor was that my Dad was no longer on the farm anymore either, and since he had been doing the bulk of the tractor maintenance and repairs, it fell into disuse after we moved away, and that tractor eventually rusted away into history.

The Disc

One of the implements that was pulled regularly by the tractor was a “disc”. This wasn’t just a singular metal disc, this was two horizontal rows of metal discs that were arranged to roll along, one behind the other. The purpose of this implement was to chop up the clods that had recently been turned up by the plow, in order to make the soil more even and workable.

For times when the newly-plowed earth might be extra dry and hard, thereby making it difficult for the discs to cut through the clods, two big metal trays were mounted on top of the framework for the purpose of filling with rocks in order to provide extra weight for cutting into the ground.

Normally, rocks were not needed and the trays were left empty.

Well, these trays were large enough that, when empty, they made great little platforms for children of the tractor driver to sit on and ride around the field on a nice sunny day keeping Dad company and “helping” with the farming! We kids looked forward to this treat whenever the opportunity arose.

The Disc Incident

Pulling the disc around a field does not require as much accurate driving skill as other tasks such as plowing or tilling, so discing the field is a good activity for a novice tractor driver.

So, one day the time arrives when Doug-the-novice-tractor-driver is going to have the opportunity to disc a whole field, with Dad standing right behind the driver’s seat and hovering over me for instructional and safety purposes. The tractor and disc were hooked up together near the barn by Dad and were then turned around and lined up aiming towards the freshly plowed field. Dad then let me take the driver’s seat and command of the controls. Everything was ready for a typical session of discing the field, including my 8 year old brother Ted and my 6 year old sister Toni sitting happily on the rock trays ready to “help with the farming”.

I started the whole rig up smoothly enough, having recently mastered the clutch technique well enough not to have popped a wheelie, which would have dumped Ted and Toni off the back.

As we traversed from the turf area surrounding the field onto the freshly plowed field itself we crossed a sharp edge where the very first plow cut had been made. This edge had no effect on the heavy tractor itself, so I paid no attention to it. However, as we were getting far enough into the plowed area that the complete rig was now on plowed earth, I heard some kind of loud vocal noise from my Dad. I wasn’t sure what he meant to convey, but it sounded serious. My only thought was that I had better stop to see what the matter was, so I stomped on the clutch pedal as quickly as I could. Due to the very soft soil, the tractor stopped within a few inches.

As I turned back to look, Dad was no longer behind me and he had apparently leaped back onto the disc. The reason was serious: when the disc went across the edge of the turf into the plowed section it had jostled Toni off the rock tray and she had fallen in between the two rows of metal discs. She was now lying on the ground, with the rear row of metal discs pressing her firmly into the earth. Dad was able to pull her out without too much effort, and everyone was more than relieved to see that Toni was uninjured!

If the rig had traveled 3 or 4 inches farther before stopping, Toni would have had very serious injuries. If it had traveled 12-15 inches farther… well, “egg-slicer” comes to mind.

Needless to say, no kids ever rode in the rock trays again.