87: The Spirit of a Farmer

87: The Spirit of a Farmer

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

The Spirit of a Farmer

I take my vacation on the combine and tractor.

~John Tester

One summer evening we were invited to a tractor pull. We’d never been to one before, but I knew they were loud, so I poked flame orange earplugs into my nine-year-old’s ears.

“Is that really necessary?” a woman behind me asked, referring to my son’s brightly colored earplugs.

“Oh yes,” I replied. “I think so.”

The woman harrumphed and rolled her eyes at her friend as she shook her head. I surveyed the area. When I looked back, my son was gazing at the sky with the tangerine earplugs nicely wedged into his nostrils. The woman behind me gave me an “I told you so” look. I sighed and nudged my son. Ryan turned to look at me but continued wearing the plugs in his nose.

The earthy woman harrumphed again. She was tan, comfortably soft and had laugh lines etched around her eyes. I bet she had award-winning pies in the pie competition. She had a no-nonsense, practical look that inspired confidence and complete obedience in children and adults alike. Where did she get that quality of confidence? Did she get it through genetics… age… adversity?

We waited for the event to start. Young and old men crowded the rails of the fenced-in dirt strip that was the tractor pull arena. They slapped each other on the back and shook big, tan hands as they called out greetings. Smiles creased their faces, which had deep canyons from staring into the sun and working long hours outdoors.

They lined up, boot heels hooked on the bottom rung of the fence, tipping cold long-necks of Miller beer, cowboy hats and baseball caps tipped further back on their heads for a better view.

I pulled the earplugs out of my son’s nose and stuck them in his ears at the first roar of sound. He glared at me, took them out, and put them in his pocket.


Young men fired up their tractors, which had custom paint jobs and shiny chrome pipes jabbing out of the engine, shooting flames. As each custom built tractor pulled heavier loads the noise was almost deafening. Finally, it stopped.

Abruptly, the atmosphere changed. I looked around, trying to figure out what was happening.

My friend Bonnie appeared and sat down hard next to me. “Whew” she said, “I made it!” She handed me a soda.

“What’s going on now?” I asked.

“It’s the best part of the tractor pull,” she said.

Around me, smiles grew wider, more men clustered at the rail. The farmers in this competition drove tractors they’d used in the field all day. The engines weren’t huge chrome monsters that snaked out of the sides of the tractor. These were friendly-looking tractors, bigger versions of the toys my brothers played with when we were children. The large rear tires were old friends; I’d spent hours in tractor tire sandboxes.

Huge wheels churned through dirt as tiny front tires lifted into the air. The men driving were all middle-aged and it became clear that this was a test of knowledge, balance and driving experience.

As the tractors pulled increasingly heavier loads the front ends rose up, shifted, wavered and groaned. Everyone held a collective breath as each farmer shifted his weight in tiny increments on the springy seat to see if he could pull more weight without flipping the tractor. Sweat poured off each man as he concentrated.

I thought of farmers who have been killed in the field when their tractors rolled on to them. I remembered the farm teen who, when both of his arms were ripped off in a piece of farm machinery, ran into the house, dialed 911 with a pencil in his mouth, gave his location to rescue personnel then went and stood in the bathtub so he wouldn’t get blood all over his mother’s rug. These were the men and women who didn’t take vacations until their children were old enough to take over the farm.

I was moved to tears and glanced around self-consciously. I noticed other tears, smiles and hugs. As each farmer reached the limits of his tractor and let the front end sink slowly to the ground, the crowd went wild. With similar small self-deprecating grins each man touched the brim of his hat or gave a slight wave.

I realized that these families came together each year to give and get emotional support from others who suffered through this year’s flood, drought or bug infestation. They connected with each other before going back and starting all over again. They sowed, reaped, hoped and prayed. They gathered each year to celebrate the bounty, the trials and the spirit that was farming. I felt humbled.

The harrumphing woman who sat behind me stood behind the bleachers now. The winner of the tractor pull came up and slapped her ample bottom. She turned in mock threat, her face creased with smiles and pride.

“Well, old man, you’ve done it again. Where’s my money?” She held out her hand.

“What money?” He gave her an innocent look, palms turned heavenward.

“You’re just lucky. One of these days you are going to flip that tractor and then I’ll collect insurance and we’ll just see who has money.”

They both laughed and a tender look passed between them. Preoccupied with congratulations, they carried on separate conversations as their hands carried out a task of their own. He opened his wallet, took out a check and handed it to her without looking, busy talking and laughing. She looked down, took the check and put it into her purse, not pausing in conversation. She rubbed his upper arm and he moved off, talking to friends.

“Ah,” I thought. “She gets that quality through love.”

I put my arm around my son as we walked out. He smiled at me, his orange earplugs stuck between his teeth and upper lip like walrus tusks.

~Karen J. Olson

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