Tractors Drive Themselves: One Man’s Return to the Farm
2012 Column Contest Winner
Matthew James called his bank the other day. A woman answered and said, “Well hi, Matt. How’s your mom been?” This is both comforting and disconcerting. That is his life now. After 15 years away, a writer returns to the corn farm where he grew up and the small-town life that most of America left behind. He might be the only person with tickets to see Louis C.K. in San Francisco who doesn’t know how he’s getting there. And by “there,” he means an airport.
The Truck Stops Here.
A truck driver told me to leave his load a few hundred pounds light. “In case I decide to pick up a fat girl,” he said.
He was joking.
I think he was joking.
He was probably joking.
He had to be joking.
First off, this particular truck driver (who will go without a name for his personal safety and also because I can’t remember it) looked like a youth pastor. He looked like a man still married to the first girl he ever kissed, the one who’s been ignoring his jokes about other women for 40 years because she knows better. He had spectacles. If I had children and this man pulled up in an empty school bus, I’d put them on it. Even if it was Saturday, I’d think, “This will be fine.”
He wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, but in southwest Kansas that isn’t an indication of anything. Agriculture men don’t wear them much. They say it’s for safety, that you could get it caught on a piece of machinery and that would end in any number of gruesome scenarios, the least of which would be losing any chance at a professional accordion playing career. I’m sure there is truth there, but for my money, this is a fashion issue. A farmer’s hand is no place for jewelry. They’re thick and rough and usually the fingers have swollen into each other up to the first knuckle. A farmer’s hand is a boxer’s nose or an alcoholic’s liver, scarred by the years of abuse. A wedding ring just doesn’t fit—usually literally. As they say, you wouldn’t put a Lexus bow on a manure spreader, even if it was a gift. OK, no one says that. Not even truckers and they say a lot.
I’m getting used to trucker humor. Probably in the way crab fisherman get used to the taste of salt water. Their jokes and stories pound me in the face again and again but at least I know they’re coming. This summer, the farm sold grain to a company in Kansas City. The contracts said that company would provide the shipping, so most every truck that drove into the farm was a different driver from a different trucking company. Corn was sent to cows in Oklahoma. Wheat was sent to a mill in Texas. High-protein wheat went to elevators in eastern Kansas. Driver after driver came through, some with books on tape, others with small dogs that peed in the yard while his master rolled the tarp over the trailer. Frankly, it was a lot of entertainment. Every day has been an open mic and most every trucker brought what seemed to be ‘A’ material, a short set you can imagine him fine-tuning hour after hour on the road, building toward that rare, 10-minute interaction with another human being.
Let’s back up. For most of the summer, my job on the farm has been to sit in “the scale house,” a rectangular building that is 24 feet long and 8 feet wide. The back wall is entirely electrical boxes, dozens of buttons and knobs, red and green lights, buzzers and dials and safety switches, half of which I’ve never touched out of fear. (The electric bill for this little dorm-sized shed can easily break $2,000 a month.) This is the control center for a giant scale and the grain storage bins that surround it—silver structures that jut out of the flat plains—and here is where I fit in: A truck driver pulls his empty big-rig onto the scale. I push a button that weighs the truck. I push a button that fills his trailer with corn or wheat or whatever falls out of the big tube. I then push a button that weighs the loaded truck. The truck drives away.
If you’re thinking it must be more complicated than that, two of those buttons are the same button.
This was the perfect job for a guy who hadn’t worked on the family farm since he was home from college 15 summers ago, for several reasons. 1.) It was easy.1 2.) The training process was short.2 3.) The possibility of extensive damage was minimal.3 4.) No one else wanted to do it.4
The simplicity of the job, however, has been no match for my finely tuned ability to screw things up. Like the day I destroyed all three belts on one of the electric augers for reasons that I still do not understand, but could not be passed on to anyone else because no one else was around. Also, the day I loaded a truck from the wrong bin. And the day I accidentally dumped 3,800 pounds of wheat on the ground. Actually, it would have been on the ground if the scale wasn’t directly under the spout, which is how I know it was 3,800 pounds. A mountain of golden grain grinned and said, “Get a shovel, idiot.” Let’s see, I also told a truck driver his 13-year-old son/passenger could back his big-rig onto the scales. That actually went quite well. So easy, a 7th-grader could do it, is what my tiny bit of self-esteem has been reminding me ever since.
And the summer highlight: I sent two truckloads of wheat to a mill in Dawn, Texas, that had so much corn in them that they were rejected and shipped 180 miles back to Hooker, Okla. We pause for a bonus fact: The town of Hooker received some much-deserved national attention this August when it was named the fourth “most unfortunate” city name in the United States by a website called FindMyPast.com. Hooker (pop. 1,900) finished behind—or perhaps ahead—of Toad Suck, Ark. (1), Climax, Ga., (2) and Boring, Oregon (3). Now I think we can all agree Toad Suck is a pretty unfortunate name, but Boring? Worse than being called a prostitute? Who was on this voting panel? Danny Bonaduce and Charlie Sheen? Double-bonus fact: The mascot for the summer league baseball teams in Hooker, Okla., is the “Horny Toads.” In the early ‘90s, they used to beat my summer baseball teams a lot. It is not easy being a teenager. It is certainly not easy getting repeatedly pummeled by the Hooker Horny Toads. They had purple uniforms. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
By the way, if you are curious about the acceptable amount of corn in a truckload of wheat to a mill in Dawn, Texas, the answer is zero. There should be absolutely no corn in a load of wheat to a mill in Dawn, Texas. It seems harsh to me as well.
My other somewhat considerable screw-up was overloading the front of one trucker’s trailer, which resulted in him getting a $400 ticket at a weigh station. I heard from another driver with the same company that he was not pleased about that. The truck driving profession might seem like a fun way to making instant millions and spend countless, fun-filled hours away from your crying spouse and nagging baby, but according to my research it might not work that way. The open road apparently has a way of grinding at a man’s passion, and the paychecks are small, especially for a three-hour run through the Texas panhandle. In fact, it might pay less than a ticket if some know-nothing schmuck in a farm scale house unknowingly overloads your front axle. Can you believe there are laws about how much a truck trailer’s front axle can weigh? And back axle. And chassis. And total load. And ash tray. And lunch box. And driver’s mustache, when combed entirely to the left. And trucker hat, depending on whether it is an authentic trucker hat or ironic trucker hat like the kids buy at Urban Outfitters.
Not only are there extensive regulations, but they vary by state and by the size of your truck and probably a dozen more classifications of which I am thankfully unaware. Which is why the truck driver’s joke about leaving his load a few hundred pounds light in case he wanted to pick up a rotund female passenger is at least relevant, if also tasteless and sexist and not meant to leave a shack full of bright-colored buttons, two miles from a paved road. What the youth pastor-looking driver really meant was, “Leave it a few hundred pounds light because you look like you’re absolutely unqualified for this simple job, and if your scale hasn’t been calibrated in forever, I won’t get a ticket and can still afford to take my wife of 40 years to dinner this weekend.” You can see how that isn’t quite as much fun to say.
Speaking of human size, my favorite game to pass the time has been to calculate each truck driver’s weight by doing a little quick math after he steps off the scale. The largest driver I’ve ever met was a 485-pound, tenderhearted man named Johnny Hines, once one of the most recruited basketball players in the country. I wrote a few newspaper stories about Johnny years ago, back when the men at a weigh station in southern California said he was the biggest truck driver in that state. That was before he had gastric bypass surgery.
This summer, I may have met a bigger man, a driver out of Oklahoma who was allegedly over 500 pounds. I can’t confirm that because he didn’t get out of his truck. I pushed the buttons, handed him a ticket and he was off without touching land. A truck driver a few days later told me that big man has been trying to buy a motorcycle but can’t find one that will support him. Truck driving is a tough life and it must be even tougher when you’re that large. There is also the possibility that the big driver heard about the legend of me, the city-boy returning to the family farm, spilling grain and mixing up loads and over-filling trucks, and just figured it was safer to stay in the truck.
As they say, it’s important to know your audience.
1 When you can neither operate highly technical farm equipment nor lift more than 40 pounds without the sigh of a reality fashion show judge on Bravo, your job qualification list is short.
2 “This is the scale house. Sit here. Don’t touch stuff.”
4 Misleading. It wasn’t that no one WANTED to do it, so much as the job was not really a job. In what sense? The sense of reality. Before I moved to the farm in June, whomever was closest to the scale house when a truck drove up simply took care of it. Declaring it a position is somewhat laughable, the way you might give a child the distinction of being the official windshield cleaner when you stop for gas. The fact that no one on the farm has patted me on the head shows considerable restraint.
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