Tractors drive themselves.
You can talk about obesity or gay marriage or the lack of old-fashioned ass-whoopin’s or that scene in The Notebook when Allie’s mom takes her to a construction site and shows her the blue collar man she had loved and you realize this overbearing, stiff woman was once young and passionate and you start pondering all those decisions that changed your own life and suddenly you’re choked up like some maid of honor in allergy season and thinking, “Damn that Nicholas Sparks and his sensitive character development. Although now that I think about it, I wonder if this part is even in the book. This might not be Nick at all. I should probably watch less TV and read more”—where was I going with this?—ah yes, all that is fine, but if you truly want to illustrate the softening of America, it’s these three words: Tractors drive themselves.
My grandpa showed me how to drive a tractor when I was 11. It was a John Deere, because we weren’t Communists. He let me sit on his lap and hold the steering wheel by myself and I remember nerves hijacking my hands and arms because my grandpa drove a tractor straighter than any man in Southwest Kansas. Probably straighter than any man in history. My grandpa drove a tractor straighter than Nicklaus hit a golf ball. Straighter than Tom Selleck made love. Maybe Tom still makes love. I don’t know. Point is, what if I drove crooked? I did, of course. A drunk driver in a police chase couldn’t have done worse. I know our neighbors could see those meandering plow marks for weeks. I wanted to put a sign at the end of the field that read, "I swear my grandpa didn’t do this. He hasn’t lost his gift. He was teaching me. I was nervous. I couldn’t reach the pedals. I barely know my times tables. I’m starting to notice that girls look and smell nice. I’m distracted easily. In my opinion, my grandpa still should be ranked No. 1 nationally for straight tractor driving.
It would have been a big sign.
He died back in 1989. I saw him having the heart attack in his chair. His name was Claude. That’s a farmer’s name, not Trent or Dax, but Claude. A hunk of dirt with a few extra vowels. He was a short man with Popeye forearms and a great laugh that made his shoulders and belly shake. They say he could hit baseballs into the sunset. He worked at a gas station and he ruined his back unloading railroad cars at night and he started a farm by answering the classified ad of a woman who had only one field to rent. My grandpa borrowed a tractor. If the corn wasn’t so tall, I could see that original field from where I sit now.
This summer, I moved back to the farm where I grew up. I am a laid-off newspaper columnist who lives in his childhood room and that should probably be embarrassing but it isn’t. Every day is bring-your-kid-to-work day and I’m the kid. I’m hitting things with hammers. I have cracks in my fingers and those cracks have motor oil stains in them. For the last dozen years I’ve been paid to think of things and type them into stories. What a gig, huh? I was paid to talk to interesting people, paid to bounce around the country, paid to hike through California, paid to fly with the Blue Angels, paid to watch college football games with 50,000 folks who considered it the highlight of their week to be doing exactly what I was doing. It was great. It felt easy. Manual labor is exhilarating in an entirely different way. It’s refreshing, creek water to the face, birthday cake at the end of an Atkins Diet.
Driving a tractor, however, should not qualify as manual labor. Even when I was a kid they had FM radios and air conditioners, but today’s tractors are day spas on giant wheels. You push a button on a screen and it gets a signal from outer space or Alec Baldwin’s rec room or wherever they keep GPS, and the tractor drives itself. The steering wheel turns on its own. It can drive in a straight line or in a circle, aligning perfectly with the last row so there’s no skips or overlap. If you didn’t have to worry about it plowing across a road or into the unsuspecting state of Colorado, you wouldn’t even need to be there to watch it work. Just slap it on the plastic green fender and say, “Go get ‘em. Supper’s at 7.” It’s why you’ll occasionally drive by a field and see a farmer with his seat spun around, facing the opposite direction of where the tractor is going. They’ll tell you it’s so they can watch the equipment and make sure everything’s working right, but I think they’re just showing off their 30,000-pound hands-free device.
It gets better. Let’s say you’re driving through a field, putting on fertilizer (because in southwest Kansas “organic” is not a product, it’s a punch line) and you notice a hole. A low spot. Better yet, let’s say you don’t see the low spot and you drive over it, jostling the tractor, spilling your half-caff, low-foam cappuccino and the small Asian woman nearly takes off too much of your pinky cuticle. Do not fret. You simply push a button on the GPS computer screen and it places an indicator flag. Every tractor on the farm is instantly equipped with that information. Future generations have been warned: Ah, an indicator flag. A bump must be approaching. You half expect a flight attendant to saunter by with a pillow.
But that’s just an appetizer. Every pass over every acre is automatically downloaded and recorded to a computer back at the farm. See that spot where you’re standing? A farmer can tell you how much phosphorus went right there the last five years and how many bushels per acre of soybeans it produced. Farmers aren’t grinning because the price of corn is $8, it’s because they play video games for a living. The days of overalls and straw hats are long gone because the growers are all techy nerds. The seed meetings look like BlizzCon. Of course I’d heard about GPS in tractors years ago. Hell, I have a GPS watch. But I also know of childbirth, the planet Neptune, and that Kirstie Alley wears bikinis. A general awareness doesn’t necessarily lessen the first-hand shock. I’ve seen it with these eyes. Tractors that drive themselves. The bread basket has gone sourdough soft.
Every day I put on my work clothes, which are not work clothes at all but my least favorite jeans and ironic T-shirts and I try not to injure myself or anyone else and I marvel at this place. Everything is bigger than when I was a boy, feeding the pigs after school. I probably slopped them even though I have no idea what that means. I will google it. There is probably an app for slopping hogs. Everything is more powerful, more expensive now. My dad is a great farmer, advanced, savvy, has an accounting degree, pokes at his new iPhone. My brother farms with him. He has a teaching degree and carpenter’s hands. He built a baby bed for his newborn son this summer that should keep him out of the wife’s doghouse for a decade, minimum. He gets updates about the weather, natural and man-made, directly to his smart phone. An irrigation sprinkler 10 miles away is stopped. The sprinkler sends a signal to an antenna that sends another to his phone. It says the sprinkler is stopped. He is on the way. It’s a flat tire. He makes a call. Two farm hands are on the way. (Are they even called farm hands any more?) The tire is changed in minutes. They are watering the corn again. They are efficient. They are a pit crew. They are Seal Team Six. They are a fire department, on call, sliding down poles—GO! GO! GO!—maximizing yields, identifying bugs, fungus, moisture depth, writing reports, leaving notes for an independent agronomist who checks the fields once a week. Colombia can barely produce enough coffee to keep us all going.
The coffee is not the only thing imported. The farm’s employees are mostly from Eastern Europe or South Africa, in the United States on temporary work visas because there aren’t enough young Americans who want to live in places like this. My Starbucks app tells me the nearest store is 80 miles away, but I’ve heard it’s not really a store, but a glorified counter in a Target store. The free coffee vouchers that I earned in California come in the mail and then expire. It’s difficult not to miss that stuff. Teenagers graduate from little Kansas schools and want to live in big cities, near Irish pubs and theaters and lofts and women that didn’t see them play clarinet in high school. Most of them move away. Like I did.
It’s hard not to feel guilty about that. Except for Christmases and the occasional 4th of July, I’ve ignored this farm, my home, this place that gave me so many experiences so early in life. Who gets to operate heavy machinery before he has chin hairs? I did. For no reason other than I was lucky enough not to be born into a migrating Mongolian tribe, or worse, some nauseating housing development where there’s no room for trees and people leave passive-aggressive notes on each other’s windshields. No, I was driving a tractor with my grandpa at age 11. And I just drove away.
Well the farm certainly didn’t slow down without me. Like most things involving agriculture, it had to grow to survive. The little family farms are mostly gone. This place booms and expands every day. Go! Go! Go! I wonder what my grandpa would think of all this. I don’t know if he’d be proud or overwhelmed or right there marketing December futures from his laptop. It’s a funny visual. Mostly I like to picture him unplugging the GPS, pointing his tractor at the horizon, and at the end of the day nobody being able to tell the difference.