This story was written in 2004 and edited for Lambchow. This story is special because it weaves in some real life memories. – Dale
Johnny heard the rat-a tat’s coming, the unmistakable sound of multiple playing cards striking bicycle spokes. In this case, it was a red Schwinn stingray with a banana seat. David, who was soon to be ten years old, lived about a mile west of Johnny’s place on the blacktop road. “Helen, David’s coming. Better get some cookies out,” Johnny yelled through the screen door. He glanced up at the peak of the barn roof at the old weather vane. “Coming from the south, going to be a hot one today,” he thought to himself. Rat-a-tat tat tat. David was halfway up the long lane. Johnny put on his barn boots and grabbed an old pair of work gloves and one of his many seed corn hats.
“Hey Johnny,” David yelled as he parked his Schwinn under the maple tree.
“Well howdy David!, Heard you coming a mile away; Helen’s inside. I think she made some sugar cookies,” Johnny informed him.
“Hi Helen,” David said while opening up the screen door.
“Come on in, are your boots clean?” she asked.
“I haven’t been to the barn yet,” replied David.
“Then come on in and have a seat,” she said, handing him a plate of sugar cookies. A glass filled with fresh milk was already on the table. David’s family had moved into Uncle Howard’s north place about five years ago. His dad worked for Earthworm Tractor Company doing something with computers, and two days a week his mom worked in the office of a local farm implement dealer.
While David ate his cookies, he told Mrs. Darst all about the new kittens, how much the lambs had grown, and what his little sister Emily had been up to that morning. After finishing two cookies and draining his milk, he said thank you and ran out to find Johnny. He looked through the barn, saying hi to the cows while a barn swallow flew in one window, around his head, and out another window. Not finding Johnny in the barn he wandered over to the machine shed where David found him sharpening some cultivator blades.
“Can we start the B today?” David asked. The B was Johnny’s first tractor, a 1939 John Deere Model B. Johnny had bought it brand new, the only other tractor on the farm a 1948 Model A John Deere. Johnny wasn’t a big farmer by 1968 standards, but he had doubled the original 40 acres his dad had bought. While most farmers in the county only grew corn and soybeans, Johnny still used a four field crop rotation of corn, oats, hay, and pasture. Most of his crop went to feed his livestock: pigs, cows, and sheep. He didn’t use any fertilizer on his fields except what naturally came from the animals nor did he use any pesticide or herbicides. His corn field was unique. He didn’t plant his corn in rows but in an old-fashioned box pattern called check planting, which let him cultivate up, down, and diagonally. No one else in the county planted corn like Johnny.
Johnny looked up. “Sure let’s fire her up.” Johnny put down his work and walked over to the old tractor. “What do we do first?” he asked.
“Turn on the gas,” David replied while Johnny made the adjustment.
“Open the petcocks.”
“And what do those do?” Johnny asked.
“Makes it easier to turn over by releasing some of the cylinder pressure,” David answered proudly as they each opened a petcock.
“Now what?” Johnny asked
“Check that the brake is on, that it’s in neutral, and that the clutch is out”
“Set the choke and the throttle.”
“Spin the flywheel.”
Johnny grasped the flywheel that was on the left side of the tractor and gave it a turn. The B just gave a flit flit sound.
“Think I need your help,” Johnny said. David came around stood in front of Johnny. They both put their hands on the flywheel. “Ready?”
They both turned the wheel in unison as hard as they could. Popsh flit flit popsh flit popsh. Johnny adjusted the choke while David closed the petcocks. The B began to sing it’s happy tune. David jumped onto the tractor and sat in the seat. Johnny stood beside him with one hand on the fender. “Go ahead,” Johnny said. David released the brake, put the B into third gear, adjusted the throttle, and pushed in the hand clutch. They drove out of the shed and went around the corn crib. Chickens and kittens scrambled to get out of the way. “Pull up to the water tank,” Johnny told David. They hitched up the tank which Johnny had filled earlier that morning and pulled it out to the middle of the pasture and switched it with another tank that was almost empty. The tanks provided water for the animals that Johnny kept in the pasture. They drove back to the shed and Johnny carefully backed the B into its place.
“Thanks David! You earned your sugar cookies today,” Johnny said.
Helen poked her head out of the house “DAVID!” When she had his attention, she said, “Your mom called, time to go home for lunch.”
David thanked the Darsts, hopped on the Schwinn, and clacked down the lane. After lunch David asked his mom, “How come the Darsts don’t have more land like Grandpa and Uncle Howard?”
“I don’t know why exactly. Old Johnny is comfortable with what he has I guess. Johnny’s lived there his whole life; I think he was born there.”
“Did they ever have any kids?” he asked.
“There are two daughters,” she replied.
“Do they live around here?” David asked.
“No, if I remember right they both went off to college and got married. One is in California and the other is in Alabama,” she answered. “They have some grandkids your age, but they rarely see them. In a way I think that’s why they like your visits,” she added.
“Mrs. Darst gave me some sugar cookies and milk today.”
“That explains why you weren’t very hungry,” Mom said tousling his hair.
“And Johnny let me drive the B. Then we watered the hogs.”
“I figured as much, you smell like a pig.” Mom sat down next to David. “I want you to remember something. The Darsts are good people. They’d give the shirt off of their backs if you needed it, but remember this, don’t take advantage of their kindness, ok?”
“Sure mom, I understand.”
A few weeks later.. .
David had just finished feeding the sheep late one afternoon. The day had been hot. He’d been down to Johnny’s before lunch but didn’t stay very long. On his way back into the house he noticed that the sky to the west was very dark. A big storm was brewing. As they were eating supper, the sky grew darker and then into an eerie shade of green as the storm approached. Mom looked worried and was keeping an eye on the TV for weather warnings. Dad was out on the porch watching the sky, and Emily was oblivious to everything except her mashed potatoes.
Johnny watched the sky as well. There was thunder in the distance. The wind began to pick up, rain started to fall, and the lightning grew closer. Johnny watched the weather vane, for the most part it pointed to the west. A lighting strike hit close by made the animals in the barn restless. Johnny kept watching and noticed that the weather vane couldn’t make up its mind, radically shifting direction. Once it went completely around.
Johnny walked in the house. “Helen we’d better get to the storm cellar. I don’t’ like these winds.” As they went out the back door, they looked to the southwest and saw the funnel.
“Everyone get to the basement!” Dad yelled from the porch as he secured the doors. Mom grabbed Emily and David followed close behind. The wind got louder and louder. David thought he heard a train, and then Dad showed up. Mom’s lips were moving in prayer as the family huddled against the basement wail. Doors and windows began to shake; even the basement door was rattling. The lights flickered and then went out. Dad turned on a flashlight. The noise began to subside, and then it was over. Everything was still again. Dad told everyone to sit still while he went upstairs to check everything out. “It’s ok, come on up,” he said as he descended the stairs with an extra flashlight.
It was still raining when they came up out of the basement. To the west, the sun was shining in under the clouds. The tornado was gone, but it had left some damage behind. The garage roof was torn off and one tree was down. Dad sent David to check on the sheep while he looked the house over. On the way over to the barn David glanced over at the Darst place. What he saw made him stop. All but one of the trees was down. The barn roof was gone, and one section of the machine shed had collapsed under one of the trees. He couldn’t see if the house was ok because the corn crib was in the way. David ran back up to the house. “Looks like Darst got hit bad,” he yelled in the door. He was heading for his bike when his Dad grabbed him and threw him in the Buick. The Darst’s place was a mess with trees and debris everywhere. David looked in the house, which did survive the tornado, but the Darst’s were not there. Dad went around back and saw one of the oak trees had fallen over the entrance to the storm cellar.
“Helllooo.” Dad called. “Is everyone ok?”
Helen yelled back an answer, “Hello, Johnny got hit in the head, and the door is stuck. Can you get us out?”
“As soon as we can,” Dad replied.
David and Dad tried to move the tree, but it was too big. They couldn’t budge it. “Let’s see if we can find a chainsaw or something,” Dad suggested. They found a saw, a two man buck saw, but no chain saw.
“What about using one of the tractors and some chain to pull the tree away?” David suggested.
Dad relayed the plan to Helen and then they headed for the machine shed.
David almost cried; the B had been crushed by the tree that landed on the machine shed. Dad looked and then reminded David about the task at hand. They found some chain in the corner near the trip plow. Dad got up on the Model A, pushed the electric starter, and in a few seconds had it running. David threw the chain on the floor, hopped on, and sat on the fender. David was a little surprised; he didn’t know his dad knew how to start or even operate one of Johnny’s old tractors. He didn’t know that his dad had driven tractors just like the model A when he was a boy.
They backed the tractor up to the tree and wrapped the chain around the trunk. Dad connected the chain to the drawbar and told David to stand a good distance away. Mom and Emily pulled up in the blue Plymouth as dad pushed in the clutch.
Pop pop pop..pop.,..pop….pop. The Model A lugged down as it strained to pull the tree. Pop… pop,.. pop… pop..pop. The front wheels began to lift a little, and then the tree began to move. Dad shut the tractor down once the door was clear. David ran over and looked in the door. “He’s still out cold.” Helen said, “Can you get him out of here and over to the house?”
Dad retrieved a flashlight from the trunk of the Buick. He told David to stay out of the cellar until after he had investigated. A few moments later, Dad poked his head out. “Come on, I’m going to need your help.”
David entered the storm cellar; it was pretty dark except for where his dad’s flashlight shone. Johnny lay on the floor; a small moan escaped his lips. David took a good look and saw a gash above his right eye. Johnny began to sit up.
“Better take it easy,” Dad said. “You’ve been out for a while.”
“Helen ok?” Johnny asked.
“Helen’s fine. Your farm took a beating, but the house is ok.”
Johnny sat up a little more; Helen handed down a cold washcloth which dad placed on Johnny’s wound. They helped Johnny into the house and into his bed. The next morning Helen and Mom took Johnny into Madison’s hospital to get checked out. He complained the whole way. The Doctor admitted Johnny for observation; he really did it to keep Johnny from overdoing it while cleaning up from the storm.
David did the chores for both farms while Johnny was in the hospital. All the neighbors helped each other with the clean up, including the Darst place. By the time Johnny got home a few days later the only visible effects of the tornado was the damaged machine shed and the missing barn roof.
The day after Johnny got home from the hospital, David went over to see him. “Why don’t we see what’s left of the B,” Johnny suggested.
David was sad when he remembered the smashed tractor. “Ok,” he replied. They walked over to the machine shed. Johnny had pulled the wreckage out of the building. It was a total loss.
“Lights, battery..” Johnny began taking inventory of the salvageable items. “David, run and get my toolbox. I think that we can save a few things.” David walked over to where Johnny kept his tools and grabbed the toolbox. It was heavy and took both hands for him to carry it back. David put the toolbox down with a clunk. Johnny opened the box, chose a wrench, and started removing pieces from the B. David watched for a while and then decided to explore the damage to the machine shed. In the back corner next to a board and under a small limb was a piece of bent up green metal. David took a closer look and gave it a pull. To his surprise, it was the old weather vane from the barn roof. He took it out and showed it to Johnny.
“Well, I’ll be,” was about all Johnny could say. After a few moments Johnny said, “You know that thing is older than I am. Tell you what, I’ll trade you that weather vane for this tractor seat. What do ya say?”
“Ok,” David replied. And the trade was done. Both of them admired their treasure. Johnny examined his green patina copper weather vane with a crowing rooster on top. David looked over an old style pan tractor seat from the first tractor he ever drove.
“Why don’t we go eat some cookies?” Johnny suggested.
“Great,” David replied as they walked off towards the house, each carrying a treasure. Not a treasure of gold or jewels but a treasure more priceless – memories.