Learning to Back

Last month I was in the equipment rental place when I ran into Chip. Chip, who is in his early 60s, used to manage the area’s largest farm, a 1450-acre gentleman’s estate. (It belonged to wealthy people from away, of course.) When I was running the school farm Chip helped me out with my questions and let me run the school’s cow with his farm’s beef herd to get her bred. In return, I gave Chip some hens when coyotes wiped out his farm flock and let him borrow the school’s horse trailer. Now the ranch had passed into new hands and Chip was managing another farm estate, twenty minutes down the mountain. I hadn’t seen him in five years. We spent some time catching up.

Damon, who works at the rental place, came over to needle us both. (Damon believes the words “farmer” and “dumb” go together — and here were two farmers, boring on about sheep and cows!) Chip laughed at the teasing, raising his eyebrows at me, and I explained I knew Damon because I had frequently hired his father, Allen, to run an excavator.

Oh! Allen running an excavator! Had I ever stopped to watch Allen work the bucket? Chip was lyrical. “The excavator arm is like an extension of—”

“His fingers,” I finished for him, smiling.

“—his hand! It’s unbelievable how skilled he is! I would just stand and stare. It’s amazing! He really is —”

“A genius,” I supplied, grinning.

“— an artist! And have you ever seen him working with Damon?  Unbelievable! They communicate by the tiniest, almost invisible —”

“Hand signals,” we said together. We both were laughing now. It was like stumbling on someone else who knew and appreciated a rare work of art.

I told Allen about the conversation one day. He seemed unsurprised. He is a modest man of few words but he knows how good he is. He told me about the job he had done for Chip. (Allen remembers all his jobs. Once we were driving down a road and he recalled the day he had cleared for the road, decades earlier. “It was rainin’.”) I mentioned the tiny hand signals.

“Don’t even need hand signals most the time. Work with someone enough, you can read their mind.”

You can read their mind. Over the last two weeks this phrase kept recurring to me as I struggled with the manure spreader — and I realized with chagrin that I can’t even read my own mind.

My manure spreader is hitched to my old truck. Of course, the spreader pivots independently of the truck when backing up. As I have explained in these pages many times, I have never been able to back anything on a hitch. Invariably I pinch the axles and get stuck. Tommy tried to teach me. Mike tried to teach me. Allen tried to teach me. Something in my brain just won’t make the connection. Allen couldn’t understand it. “Just look in your mirrors!” he would say. However the best I’d ever been able to manage is to follow someone else’s directions — “Straighten your wheels! Now cut ’em the other way!” — while sitting completely turned around in the driver’s seat, staring worriedly out the back window.

When Larry and I moved manure from his farm to mine, there was no question. He drove my truck and backed the trailer while I rode shotgun.

Now, though, I had to move the first twenty tons of manure by myself and I had to back the manure spreader to maneuver around the barnyard and position the spreader properly for loading.

Last summer Dean — who spent his youth backing gigantic boat trailers — suggested to me that I spend some hours practicing, but I was always too busy. Obviously, those hours of practice had now arrived.

To increase the challenge, the large tank that I use to water the summer pastures blocks the truck’s rear window, making me entirely dependent on my side mirrors.

It was very, very frustrating. I was extremely grateful that no one was around to watch, because an observer would have been in stitches. For days it took me fifteen minutes just to back the spreader to the manure pile. It was a toss-up which was more challenging — filling the spreader with heavy manure by hand, or struggling to turn the spreader around.

I had to break down the mechanical problem for myself as if I were solving a difficult math problem or translating a foreign language. Step by step. Then I had to use both hand and voice signals. To talk to myself! I’d look in my side mirrors and say out loud, “OK, I want the spreader to go that way” — I’d jerk my thumb in the proper direction — “so the wheel needs to go this way” — pointing in the other direction. And I’d wrench the wheel around.

For hours at a time over the past two weeks, I’ve sat in that old truck, staring in mirrors, muttering, pointing, turning the wheels, pressing the gas. Oops, wrong way. Stopping, straightening my wheels, trying again. I explained this laborious process to Larry and he smiled sympathetically. “You’ll get it eventually.”

It’s true that I’ve improved. Now I talk to the spreader. “You have to go that way” — point — “so I want to turn this way” — pull the wheel, step on the gas. This is exactly how I managed to trailer the sheep last week. Very slowly, with voice-over and hand signals.

Occasionally, in moments of daring, I have tried to back without speaking or pointing the way for myself, but when not held on a firm leash my brain instantly stops following.

I tell myself I have about 200 tons of manure still to spread on the back acres, and the whole summer to practice. I don’t aspire to be an artist or a genius. I know I’ll never be able to read anyone’s mind.

I’ll be satisfied if by fall I’ve learned to read my own mind!

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3 Responses to Learning to Back

  1. Noodles says:

    Happy Birthday, Farmer Sel! I send my love and thanks for every way you have enriched my life, starting that June day when I looked out on the green lawn and thought with amazement, I have a sister.

    Love,
    N.

  2. Jody HB says:

    Happy Birthday Selden! Hope you have a great day

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Thank you, Jody, Noodles, and Jeeber for your lovely birthday wishes. This is always a hectic time at school (graduation week) so my birthday tends to go by the wayside. We’ll celebrate it sometime next week. However I have received numerous small gifts. While I was sorting the recycling a robin brought her single fledgling into the backyard and hopped around under my appreciative eye. For another, while making beds and cleaning bathrooms I heard a cacophony that sounded like a convention of R2-D2s from Star Wars. I crept to the window, peeped through the wooden blinds, and discovered… a flock of cedar waxwings in my hazelnut bushes! Here’s a link to these birds, which are seasonal here. From now on, if I ever hear R2-D2, I will know I am listening to a cedar waxwing. I thought immediately and lovingly of Mom and how happy she would have been. Now there’s a gift!

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