Why I Write: Summer 1990, pt. 1

If you’ve ever had to unload a wagon full of freshly chopped grass into a concrete haylage bunker, you know there’s a trick to it.

To get a decent row of wet, green grass fed out along the open front of the bunker, you need to maneuver the tractor and the wagon behind it back and forth, letting the forage spill from the wagon’s guttered trough in an ever-widening line without making a mess of it. Of course, the wagon is connected to the tractor by both a drawbar and a power takeoff shaft (PTO). And much like backing up a trailer or a camper, you need to steer in the opposite direction that you want the attached piece to go when you’re in reverse. To head a bit to the left, you need to turn the steering wheel slightly to the right, and vice versa.

WIW1 bunker
The old haylage bunk at the farm I grew up on. It’s seen better days, but it remains a fateful spot in my writing career.

In the midst of this mechanical dance, the PTO spins above the drawbar, rotating furiously at 540 revolutions per minute in the open air. The PTO – connected to the tractor via a six-splined shaft – drives the small gutter system that spills the chopped grass onto the ground from the side of the wagon. In terms of machinery, you’d be hard-pressed to find something more dangerous than a PTO. While modern ones have plastic shields over them, the sort used back 20 or 30 years ago mostly did not. So a loose piece of clothing or an accidentally-too-close arm, leg, or hand could get caught in the clockwise churning, leading to major injury or death.

In the summer of 1990, I was learning the intricacies of unloading chopped grass and pondering my mortality as I sat in the cab of a Ford TW-10 tractor. It was the summer before my junior year of high school, my fourth summer working full-time on the farm my dad and grandfather managed in Johnson, VT. I had one hand on the big steering wheel in front of me, while the rest of my upper body was contorted to focus on everything going on behind me. As I carefully maneuvered the machinery, the radio blared over the whirring and roaring of it all.

The AM/FM radio was built into the ceiling of the tractor cab. Technically AM/FM, but it only picked up AM stations, and with one exception, its reception was frustratingly inconsistent. The only station that came in clear and uninterrupted was WDOT, a talk radio station based out of Burlington.

Back in those days, talk radio was not the beast that we know today. At least in the Green Mountain State, anyway. Shows were mostly produced locally and filled with regional content. Ads were still sometimes read by the hosts. And Rush Limbaugh was in the early stages of transforming the format into a stage for grandstanding political rhetoric. It was the tail end of a different era: calmer, more thought-provoking, pleasant.

WIW1 Jack Barry
Jack Barry (pic: Vt Assoc. of Broadcasters)

It was around 10:30 that morning, and “The Jack Barry Show” was on. Jack Barry ran a fairly old-school program that focused on all sorts of stuff. Vermont politics, sports, and entertainment were all within his reach. He’d been on the radio since 1931, when he read a poem on the air for WDEV at age 4, so he had some serious skills at the microphone.

Despite being 15 years old, I enjoyed listening to Jack Barry. Part of it was nostalgia, as I spent my pre-tractor driving years riding up in the cab with my dad as he mowed and chopped grass, baled hay, and planted corn. As I rode, I  half-listened to the show and my dad’s reactions to it while also daydreaming and staring out the back window at the ever-turning PTO.  That time in dad’s tractor with Barry nurtured a love of all things Vermont in me, so it was far from disappointing to spend my morning listening to Barry as I worked by myself.

I pulled up to the bunker to unload another wagon full of grass. I got out of the cab to connect the greasy PTO to the even greasier spline shaft, and then climbed back up the three steps and returned to my seat. Reaching to my right, I grabbed the long, blue lever, capped with a red “caution” knob, and slid it back. The PTO snapped into action, beginning the noisy unloading of grass. I reached up and cranked the radio to hear what Jack was talking about.

The PTO spun obsessively. The wagon moved back and to the left as I steered right. Barry introduced his next guest.

So far so good.

And then my life changed.

To be continued …

WIW1 wagon
This old International Harvester feed wagon is similar in concept to the wagons I used to unload at the old bunker, but the ones we hauled haylage in were quite a bit bigger.

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