A New Arrival
by Stephen Bishop of Shelby, NC
Strange things happen when new equipment arrives on a farm. Feuding neighbors call a truce to hostilities. Bedridden old men suddenly find the strength to put on pants and comb their hair. Even cows gather along the fence to watch the arrival of a new piece of scenery. By new, I should specify “new to the farm.” In fact, rusty pieces of farm equipment draw the biggest crowds. Sometimes the crowds grow unruly as onlookers jockey for position to ogle the equipment, declare make and model, enumerate defects, and place odds on the piece ever running again. Illegal betting may occur, which is why a police escort of the equipment onto the premises is advisable. If a spontaneous parade forms behind the escort, no prouder moment occurs in a farmer’s life.
After many hours of ogling, crowds reluctantly disperse. The farmer is left to bask in the glow of the equipment alone. The full gravity of the purchase begins to sink in. A search of an old manual for diagrams and clues as to proper adjustments only reveals the critical page has been ripped out long ago by a farmer for easy access. For the first few weeks of ownership, the farmer hardly sleeps for fear of missing a grease fitting. Then signs of sleep deprivation begin to show. A farmer may pour coffee in his oil can or misplace a broken V-belt in his belt loops. Such acts are common among farmers with the new responsibility of old equipment.
People told me this would happen. To be honest, I underestimated the sacrifice involved when caring for a new arrival. I had heard tale of an old pull-type combine in a barn in the upper part of the county. Rumor was the combine was built in the 1940s and even ran when it was parked 20 years ago. Lowry, my wife’s poppaw, was an expert old equipment consultant, having cared for and raised to maturity many fine specimens himself. Although Lowry never declared a favorite, I suspected he secretly favored his John Deere 2010, which he confided to most. I took Lowry with me to scout the combine, hoping I was ready for ownership myself.
But I made rookie mistakes. Almost immediately, I was smitten by the beauty. It had a six-foot cutting head, a canvas draper, and a wooden reel (not a single piece of plastic, Lowry said admiringly). Its name was Allis, Allis Chalmers. I introduced myself by dusting off her draper and told her I would be glad to be her new owner, if the price was right. Thankfully, the current owner had lost affection for her.
“That old thing. You want to buy that?” the owner said.
“You’re right it’s not worth a thing,” Lowry replied trying to play it cool, but my enthusiasm ruined his cover.
“What?” I said. “You just whispered it was worth $400.”
“I can let it go for that,” the farmer said.
“You’ve got a deal.”
Lowry and I prepared a new home for Allis by widening a stall in the barn. Although it only had a six-foot cutting head, the machine itself was nearly 15 feet wide. I asked Lowry if I should paint the stall for Allis, to make the combine feel more welcomed, but he said it was questionable whether the combine would even notice the gesture, though he mentioned painting might be worthwhile to help calm my nerves.
To be honest, I was a nervous wreck, even after painting. Although Lowry and I went over delivery procedure, mapped out routes, and prepared toolboxes, I kept imagining the worst-case scenario. What if a tire blew out, the axle snapped, and the combine disintegrated into a million rusty pieces on the road? What if my neighbors saw it all happen? I told Lowry we would need a police escort to ensure safety. “About that,” he said. “I talked to a deputy at the Sheriff’s department. Because of budget cuts they no longer escort farm equipment unless it’s a matter of national security.”
“Is this a matter of National Security?” I asked.
“I argued that producing food was essential to national security, but the deputy said that it was doubtful whether this combine would ever harvest anything again. He said it was just a show piece.”
“Show piece? Has he seen it?”
“I argued that point too,” said Lowry. “But he said he was under pressure from the higher-ups. Don’t worry though, I’ve got a back-up plan.”
“Are you sure? What plan?” I asked.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll handle it.”
Knowing my propensity for worry, Lowry began telling me stories to distract from the stories I was telling myself. Unfortunately, his stories were little better than mine. He told me about the time he brought home a tractor stuck in first gear. He thought he set the record for the longest line of cars behind him, though another local farmer disputed that assertion on account of a technicality. The farmer said Lowry set the record for the most cars honking behind him. Lowry also described the time he drove a self-propelled combine home, but forgot to take the grain auger off, which jutted out to the side for filling grain carts. When he got home, the auger was missing, having been confiscated by a telephone pole a few miles back. Unfortunately, Lowry had many more stories such as these, which had the reverse effect of his intention. I also began to worry that Lowry’s consulting experience in smooth deliveries had been somewhat overstated. That night, I hardly slept at all. The next morning was the big day. Lowry, my wife, and I departed for the barn where Allis was located, each in separate vehicles. I would have the honor of towing the combine. My wife would follow with emergency flashers on. Lowry would act as pace car. On the grill of his Ford Bronco, Lowry had two red flags, made from t-shirts and tomato stakes, fastened in a crisscross pattern. Also attached to the grill was a piece of cardboard that read, “WIDE LOAD” in dripping red letters, as if a maniacal first grader had written it. Since the combine was so wide, it would extend into the other lane, which concerned me because it might harvest an oncoming car.
Furthermore, I felt Lowry’s backup plan was underwhelming. A piece of cardboard strapped to his Bronco was a grossly insufficient replacement for a police escort. As we started off in our three-car convoy, I even felt a little ridiculous. People staring at us had no respect – some even seemed perturbed by the fact I was proceeding carefully and slowly. I was beginning to doubt whether I was even ownership material. It wasn’t until a black vehicle zoomed past me and pulled in front of Lowry that I began to regain my confidence. As the vehicle passed, I caught a glimpse of the grinning driver. It was a local farming friend who was also a part-time mortician.
Suddenly, oncoming cars began paying proper respect, pulling off on the side of the road in advance. Some drivers even removed their caps as the convoy passed by. The cars behind us quit honking and put on their flashers. After a few miles of this, a deputy’s patrol car zoomed past and took the lead in front of the black car. The deputy turned on his blue flashing lights. When we came to intersections, other deputies were already there, blocking traffic. It wasn’t until we turned that I got a good glimpse of the situation: a patrol car, a black hearse, and Lowry’s Bronco were leading a processional a half-mile long.
When we got to the farm, Lowry, who had thought up the hearse backup plan, thanked the mortician for the escort. Meanwhile, a local preacher, who got caught in the processional midway, explained to onlookers that we weren’t burying anybody but celebrating a new arrival. Hymns broke out, people began ogling, and cows watched festivities from the fence. That night, the proud owner of an old combine, I watched as Allis slept safely in her freshly painted stall.