Fishtown Local: A mighty beast turns 74

Forty years ago today marks the first time this old farmer tractor-mowed the two large, wild Audubon fields on Eastern Point.

My wife bought our tractor — a full size widow-maker Farmall H — from a sign set on the seat of the beast, on the side of Route 133. It was red with a spiral seat and huge, old-fashioned knobby tires as if it were out of a toddler’s old Golden Book on the farm with lots of smiling animals. She claimed it followed her home and lo and behold, it did. Ten minutes after she came around the corner by our barn, a Topsfield farmer was unchaining the thing off his industrial-strength trailer and driving it over two narrow planks back to earth. There it has remained for 40 seasons. This was 1979.

The Farmall H is a widow-maker because of the classic “trike” front tire set-up. This was changed in the 50s as they could tip over on a hill or if a big rear tire went in a hole or if it hit a rock at speed, bounced up in the air and flipped. (All tractor front wheels are now spread like a car’s.) On top of that, it has no fenders to keep the driver from getting sucked into the rotating tire if they lost their balance. Did I mention this Farmall was built in 1945 and sold in 1946, making it 74 years old, seven years older than me? The 1945 and ‘46 Farmalls were unique because the government asked International Harvester, McCormick and Farmall to combine its plants to gear up for wartime production. By 1946, they were supplying the Marshall Planners with tractors for Europe. Ours has all three logos on it still, somewhat of a rarity.

The darn thing still starts every time, although sometimes you hafta wait it out, battery wise. The charging magneto went long ago and the Farmall repair guy — from Townsend, Mass. — said it would be far cheaper to buy a new battery every four years than to fix it. Finding a replacement was like a magic trick, he said. So we keep the battery charged and muddle through. It has worked pretty well but often it is like a conjurer getting the snake to come out of the basket. Lotsa cajoling, some cursing, good luck rituals — sing to it, yell at it, plead with it — and it has always worked. More mysticism than mechanics but the darn dragon will eventually roar to life, sending bats and barn swallows fleeing from their corners and jolting the piggies from their naps. The donkey nearly always panics if he’s out in the field eating. It’s the only thing on the farm bigger than he is. He runs around in his pen to confuse the bellowing monster but by now he’s used to its leaving him alone.

Out in the long grass this year, the tractor surges and struggles as it hits patches choked by bittersweet and ground thorns mixed with the thickest long grass in years. So much rain produces so much grass. A wet year is a thickset mow year. The last seven years of relative drought made mowing in second gear routine. This year, it couldn’t get out of first gear or it began choking on the thick mix clogging its bush hog, towing along behind on the power takeoff. First gear takes twice as long, though.

Mowing is very satisfying because you get to watch the product of your work. It prizes patience — which can be good therapy — because you can see all the unmowed grass ahead of you. But time, one learns after 40 years, is on your side. Eventually, you finish. Working through the lanes and columns, trying to max the pattern so as to never waste the mower on previously mowed turf requires concentration and a certain vision for the most efficient pattern. Plus, rocks, trees, holes, poles and moles keep you honest (and awake) in fear of hitting them. Twice, over the years, me and tractor mowed over a hornets nest without ever seeing them in the deepest grass on the ground. All you can do is to shut off the tractor right then and there and run for it. They just swarm and follow if you attempt to outrun them on the tractor, stinging all the while. Coming back after dark allows cover to drive it off, bee-free.

Mowing both fields runs about eight to 10 hours. This year 10 because of the notable thickness of the undergrowth and the slower speed.

It is very poetic time spent — back to a simpler time — and is a fount for ideas as you gaze ahead. The problem is there’s no place to write them down. You must hold on with both hands — tightly. When something happens, it is never telegraphed, it is a lurch out of the blue. Especially when encountering stuff in the grass cover — rocks, branches, wire (!), glass, metal or logs. Hitting a ground rock will bounce your tire up in the air and if you’re not holding tight, you are gone. Often, the double-trike front tires hitting an object will spin the wheel suddenly, almost breaking your wrists if held casually, jamming them back into your forearm. Ouch!

But for all its foibles, lift a glass to celebrate my tractor turning 74. Hope to make it that long myself. In fact, I am hoping to outlive my tractor. But it has a big lead and at the rate it’s still going and mowing, they might put me out to pasture before the Big H.

My big red brother, darn showoff . . .

Gloucester resident Gordon Baird is an actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine and producer of “The Chicken Shack” community access TV show.