The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Great Tractor Race

By Wm. Axley Allen © 1984-2012

Issue: July, 1984

“Billy, come here. I want you to help me awhile”, yelled my cousin Gene Gates. I headed over to where he was standing beside the huge old antique tractor and said, "What can I do for you, Gene?"

The above conversation took place when I was about 14 years old and innocent as it sounds, it nearly brought disaster. We lived in an old cinderblock house on my Aunt Dosha Gate's farm in the country between Lincolnton and Gastonia, North Carolina. It was my responsibility to help out around the farm, and on this particular occasion, I'm afraid I wasn't much help.

Gene, who was 20 years older than I had decided to lay off rows for planting a two or three acre field that had already been plowed and disked. He had an old tractor, turning plow and a disc, but no layoff plow so he decided that I would drive the tractor and he'd lay off the rows with an old one horse layoff plow hooked up to the tractor with a ten or fifteen foot chain. I'd never driven before, but Gene said there was nothing to it and he’d show me how.

He drove the tractor up to the edge field and hooked up the plow. Then he told me how to give it gas and change the gears and we were off. It was a long field and the noise of the tractor drowned out Gene's screams for me to slow down, as I headed out across it for the first time. The unfamiliar feel of a steering wheel and the bumpy field ahead were taxing my concentration and thoughts of Gene came last.

Finally I managed to get the tractor slowed down so Gene’s feet could touch the ground now and then, but by that point a new problem loomed ahead. We were nearing the end of the field and I didn't know how to stop. Hollering back over my shoulder I managed to communicate the problem to Gene who in between gallops rallied his hoarse vocal cords for what they thought were one final effort, to scream breaking instructions to me. As the road bank ahead got too close for comfort, I finally managed to stop the tractor just in the nick of time.

When things came to a halt, Gene leaned on the plow handles and panted like a locomotive while I was busy shaking like a leaf. It was the first time I had ever driven anything and believe it or not, I'm sure Gene wouldn't, the experience was about as bad for me as it was for him.

After he'd regained his speech, Gene, who wasn’t one to give up, told me to back up the tractor and turn around so we could lay off another row. After grinding my way back and forth through the tractor’s transmission, I finally found backwards, but unfortunately, I didn't find slow.

For those of you whose lives are lacking the experience of going backward on an out-of-control tractor, let me assure you, it is not fun. However, Gene probably would have been glad to change places with me. As I frantically searched for a way to slow down the tractor, cousin Gene was busy running for his life. By himself, he could have out run the tractor with no problem and perhaps his reaction was a testimony to his frugal nature, but for whatever reason, he was attempting to save the plow as well as himself. Over my shoulder I caught glimpses of Gene half carrying, half dragging the old one horse plow backwards as he attempted to outrun the reverse runaway. At least I managed to do the right thing, but only moments before it would have been too late for Gene or the plow.

For a man that scared, pale and out of breath, I'll have to hand it to Gene. He quickly regained control. Without saying a word (he probably wasn't able after all that screaming) he walked up to the tractor, cut it off, asked me to get down and when I was out of reach of the controls, he carefully unhooked the plow and decided that one row would be a plenty.