Uncle John’s Hay Wagon (Or, Learning to Drive a Tractor the Hard Way)


Note: this post was written by Judith Costello’s husband, Jurgen F. Haver, and originally appeared in the Christian Science Monitor.

uncle johns hay wagon

There are things we don’t identify as stupid until after we’ve done them.  We blindly act with no idea that disaster is approaching us at warp speed.  I learned this on a humid, mid-August day in 1946.  I was a city kid spending a summer vacation on his Uncle John’s Nebraska farm.

Uncle John had just told me to get on the tractor.  “Drive the hay wagon up to the house.  I’ll take the truck and meet you there. We’ll have supper and then unload the bales. You do remember how to drive the tractor like I taught you, don’t you?”

Hey, does a 14-year-old know how to drive a tractor?  “You bet!  No problem!”

As often happens, arrogance precedes stupid mistakes.  Drive the tractor up to the house.  Simple request.  What could go wrong?  All I had to do was negotiate a few hundred feet of hay field and turn up the road.  Then, a half-mile drive and I’d be eating supper.  What I didn’t anticipate was the three hours of back-breaking work my future held.

We had just spent two-and-a-half sweaty hours loading bales of hay onto the wagon.  I was exhausted and glad to be going back to the house.  I savored the bitter bite of my Aunt Pauline’s homemade lemonade. I conjured up images of supper.

I put my uncle’s John Deere in gear and pointed it toward the road.  I loved that tractor.  Back then, even city kids knew the putt-sputter of those early John Deeres as they hiccupped their way through life.  It comforted me to hear that big green machine sounding like it was supposed to sound.  Still, my mouth was dry, my palms moist, and, to be honest, I was a little scared. I wasn’t as sure of my driving skills as I’d pretended.

At the road, I drove the tractor through the drainage ditch and made a sharp right.  The tractor shuddered.  I heard a sharp crack, like a big branch breaking off an oak tree in a wind storm.  I looked behind me. No wagon.

We have now arrived at my stupid mistake.  I had made the turn while the wagon’s front wheels were in the drainage ditch.  Physics , stress factors, and gravity took care of the rest.

I drove up to the house.  What else could I do?  Uncle John was on the porch in his three-generation-old rocker.  He said, “Where’s the wagon?”

“Capsized,” I said and explained what had happened.

He smiled, “No problem.  There’s new tongue in the barn. Get it.  Go back.  Put it on the wagon.  Set the wagon back on its wheels.  Hitch her to the tractor. Load those hay bales and come up to the house.  We’ll keep some supper warm for you.”  That’s where three hours of back-breaking misery came in.

When I finished I drove up to the house.  I’ll admit my aunt’s lemonade was the best ever.   Best because it brought an end to a painful August day.

So painful I vowed to anticipate all the “stupids” I might make during my life. And I vowed to learn Uncle John’s other two big lessons so they would be obvious to me in the future:

  • He thought anger was not productive so he didn’t get angry.  I’ve learned he was right.
  • He did think taking responsibility for and fixing your own mistakes was productive.  Right again!

Oh, almost forgot, I did learn to negotiate drainage ditches without tipping over the tractor or the wagon.  But, I did not manage to avoid all the “stupids” that have crept into my life.

Copyright 2013 Judith Costello


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