Mary Lou and I bought a piece of Arizona desert in 2004 and shortly after began building our dream home there. There was a road maintained by the state leading to our land, and there was a road from it to where our house would be -- a road that was mine to improve and maintain.
I owned a Ford 8N, which was inadequate to the challenge. So, I traded it in for a 1984 Ford 340N -- a diesel brute with a Gannon box on the rear for “dragging” (i.e., smoothing the road) a bucket up front for scooping things up. I soon developed a personal relationship with these features specifically, the whole tractor more generally.
I’m sorry if this sounds strange -- that’s what I’d have thought if anyone asked me about man-tractor relationships back then -- but it’s true. While I’d heard diesel trucks on the highway, I’d never thought much about them. But now I owned a 340A and began understanding things about them I’d never imagined.
First, the tractor always greeted me with a grumbling sound that was not discontent, but personal and affectionate. One turn of the key, no hesitation, and a small puff of pungent blue smoke appeared along with an engine growl, declaring “glad you’re back behind the wheel, Hank.” The tractor always called me by my first name.
Growing up in a post-WWII housing development on Chicago’s south side, I only knew that tractors were used to dig holes and move earth. It never occurred to me that a man could develop a personal relationship with one.
The 340A was also loved by my extended family. Our youngest granddaughter, for example, at age two, would run past her Nana and me in a rush to get to the tractor, climb into its seat and stretch forward to grasp the steering wheel in anticipation. She also provided the sound effects to accompany her efforts with the steering wheel.
There were countless manly men, who, (except on Sundays) often had a day or two worth of stubble on their faces and ate their lunches out of lunch pails. These were guys who saw themselves as partners with their tractors, since if one or the other of them wasn’t at the top of their game, the other wasn’t either. I soon began sharing a man-machine relationship of this sort with my 340A.
Thus, I came to look forward to topping off fluid levels and changing the oil because, by golly, that’s what men who love tractors do. Indeed, these things reaffirmed mine and the machine’s relationship.
I loved digging gravel from our gravel pit, ferrying the full bucket to my dump truck, and decanting it’s contents into the dump box. Returning to the digging site for the next load filled my heart with joyful anticipation.
Grading our roads was a similar pleasure. I’d line the tractor up, drop the Gannon box to the road, set the angle on the box, put the vehicle in four-wheel-drive, and begin smoothing out the route from the county road to the house. The tractor and I would stop regularly so the full box could be emptied. I’d empty the box, turn the tractor around, and return to where we left off so we could scrape another bit of road. Sometimes, though, we’d take a break from this routine and shift the gravel in the Gannon box to the front bucket in anticipation of taking the loaded bucket to wherever a pothole awaited filling. Indeed, the tractor and I did all manner of fun things.
I’m sure, my reader, you’re beginning to see how such a personal collaboration of man and machine soon resulted in shared satisfaction and ultimately mutual admiration.
We enjoyed a decade long relationship but, as always happens, it came to an end. Mary Lou and I reached the age requiring progressively more frequent trips to doctors in town—a 50-minute haul from our home. And so we sold our dream on the desert and moved into town.
I brought my tractor with me, but only because I didn’t have time to sell it. And once settled into Pima, I moved it to an empty spot adjacent to Highway 70, east of Pima, and put a for sale sign on it. I sold it to the first man who called for the asking price. And so my daily interaction with the tractor shrunk to a set of fond memories. Recalling them is always a pleasure.
Hank Slotnick is a retired UND professor who, with his wife, winters in Pima, Ariz., and summers in Debs.