Nonfiction Memoir

Are you comfortable driving a tractor?

The tale of a runaway tractor in Old Well, Virginia, starring Papa Pillow and his city slicker grandson

I read the following at my grandfather’s funeral today, not verbatim but a condensed version. I was with Papa shortly before he died on Thursday. After my mom and I left, a nurse went to check on him and he had passed. We hadn’t even yet made it to our car in the parking lot.

While death inevitably brings sadness, it can also bring great joy and laughter from the memories we have of the deceased. And I have one of those particular memories to share today.

I guess it would be appropriate to preface my story by saying that I can’t sit up here and say I had a great deal in common with Papa when it came to particular outdoor hobbies. My dad tried to groom me but it didn’t pan out too well.

I tried playing golf once but almost flipped the cart and drove into a pond at Hat Creek. I tried my hand at hunting but I ended up shooting a bird I mistakenly thought was a squirrel, which resulted in me wounding the bird, taking it home, trying to save its life, only to find out it had died by morning. I tried fishing but cast the hook on my reel into my dad’s eyebrow. Perhaps, you can imagine my dad and I sitting in a boat down by Great Granny Pillow’s house, my dad trying to direct me on how to pull a barbed fish hook out of his eye brow, all the while trying to stay calm doing so. I know, sounds hilarious. But trust me, be glad you weren’t there. I bear witness.

But I do think I have at least two things in common with Papa. He could tell a story, and he could make a dog laugh doing so.

Just please keep in mind, as I tell this story, I was not a country bumpkin. I was, as my dad called me, that lone year we tried to live in Old Well, a city slicker. That’s right. I yearned to move back to the big city of neighboring Phenix, Virginia, so I could ride my skateboard and play basketball on a blacktop court. I didn’t know anything about tractors except that they were green and had John Deere’s name on the side. I didn’t even know other companies made tractors except for John Deere.

This story is called: “Are You Comfortable Driving a Tractor: The Tale of a Runaway Tractor in Old Well, Virginia.”

“Are you comfortable driving a tractor?”

“Yes, definitely,” I replied.

I lied. I was 18, and so broke I couldn’t even afford the lint in my pocket; but I needed the job. Badly. The job was a landscaping position at Clover power plant. I would be maintaining the grounds all by my lonesome. Cutting grass, essentially, with a bush hog.

The credits were rolling, the VHS tape warm as my would-be supervisor returned, asking me the question as he walked toward the television.

Are you comfortable driving a tractor?

I had just watched a thirty minute tractor safety video. A video that was obviously born out of the early 1980s. There was a dummy. A rubber dummy. Driving a tractor. Everywhere the rubber dummy drove the tractor was danger. A hillside. A shallow pool of rainwater. A ditch alongside the edge of a field. And everywhere that dummy drove the tractor, death was certain — unless the dummy followed the proper safety precautions when operating the tractor.

When I got home from my interview, I told my mom I needed to call Papa Pillow. I needed him to teach me how to drive a tractor so that I would not end up like the rubber dummy in that instructional video. Face down in a six inch shallow pool of brown rainwater, drowning, with the weight of the tractor on my broken neck. So, I called up to Old Well store and my Papa answered and said, “Come on up. I’ll teach you.”

My mom and I got in the car and drove up to the store and went in, and there Granny was at the cash register, sitting on her wooden stool.

“Your Papa’s in the house. Go on over there. He’s waiting for you,” she said.

As we walked over to the house, Papa came out with his navy blue Old Well baseball cap already on his head, screen door shutting behind him.

“Go on over there to the barn next to your Great Granny’s house. I’ll meet you,” he said.

We walked over and Papa started up his old tractor. I don’t know what make or model it was but I believe it was a burnt orange color, though it may have been blue. My memory is a bit faulty as to the specifications. My mom and I walked down toward the pond and Papa drove the tractor up to me and stopped.

“Hop on up in the seat,” he said.

“Now, you’ll want to press the clutch down with your left foot,” touching my left pants leg as he said this, “and keep your right on the brake. Turn the key and when you hear the engine turn over, ease the throttle a bit and release the parking brake. Keep your foot on the clutch and ease it into first gear.”

I’m nodding my head, listening to his guidance, thinking this isn’t too hard and the job at Clover power plant is mine for the taking.

“Now lift your foot from the clutch and take your other foot off the brake. Take it for a spin,” he said, as if the tractor was some souped up hot rod going for a few laps around the racetrack in South Boston.

And off I went. I was driving a tractor. Eighteen years old, the grandson of a man who lived in a place called Old Well, Virginia, and I was finally driving a tractor. Bleach blonde hair, ripped jeans, and a tattered punk rock t-shirt.

I cruised down toward the pond, shifting gears and picking up speed. After a short time, I decided I had gotten the hang of it and could comfortably answer the question, “Are you comfortable driving a tractor?”

“Absolutely,” I would respond to my would-be supervisor at my next interview. “Absolutely.”

As I made my way up from the pond, inching my way closer to my mom and Papa I tapped on the brake lightly to slow the speed. But the speed remained the same. I pressed down a little harder and the tractor actually seemed to speed up. I don’t think it’s supposed to do that, I thought. While this was my first tractor driving experience, I was pretty sure that when you hit the brakes on any piece of machinery, you were supposed to slow down and then stop.

Visions of the rubber dummy from the tractor safety video danced in my head.

Problem was, Papa had showed me how to drive the tractor but not yet how to stop the tractor. Such is the dilemma when learning as you go.

“How do you stop this thing?” I yelled out to Papa over the hum of the tractor engine, passing by my mom and grandfather.

“What?” he replied.

I made a loop in the field and came back toward them.

“How do you stop this thing?” I yelled again as I passed them by once more.

Papa looked in my mom’s direction and I saw her mouth some words to him and as he responded, I saw my mom’s eyes get as big as saucers. Well, that doesn’t look good, I thought.

I drove through the field a ways and then made another loop and headed back in their direction and I could see Papa mouthing something while making hand gestures in the air and tapping his left leg.

“Brakes don’t really work that well,” I later learned he was saying.

Clutch. He’s talking about the clutch. And changing gears, I realized.

I drove by him, looking more foolish as each second ticked by in the tale of the runaway tractor.

“Neutral.” I read his lips. “Depress the clutch. Shift it into neutral.”

I fumbled about the gears and as the tractor came to a crawl, Papa walked alongside me.

“Brakes should work now,” he said, as I pressed down on the brake and the tractor came to a halt.

I turned off the ignition and hopped out of the driver’s seat as fast as my behind would let me, thankful to be alive, thankful not to have the fate of the rubber dummy in the tractor safety video.

“Do you want to take it for one more spin?” he asked, laughing.

* * *

As I stood in the room with Papa, I thought about this day — how he had offered to help me immediately in a time of need and the hilarity that ensued as a result. His breathing was deep and a bit rapid, but otherwise peaceful and calm. His hands rested underneath his blanket and his head was tilted back slightly. It reminded me of the last time I saw my dad alive and I knew then this would be the last time I saw my grandfather alive.

Papa’s left arm gently came out from underneath the cover and rested beside my own hand on his bed. I took his hand in mine and stroked the loose skin of his hand and told him I loved him. I whispered a prayer that he would be taken out of the pain of this world and for Granny to find peace after his departure.

“Tell my dad I said hello,” I said to him.

And then I left.