Monday, April 8, 2013

Spring Plowing

In the sloping field east of the house I was driving the Minneapolis tractor pulling a three bottom moldboard plow mounted on a three point hitch, going deep, turning over long ribbons of black dirt and making a furrow. The right tires of the tractor were in the furrow, tilting the tractor to one side. My Dad had gotten me started, “laying out the land” as he called it, by plowing the first two furrows side by side and straight. I continued by following those two furrows he’d laid down in the center of the field, raising the plow at the end before the fence, driving to the other furrow, lowering the plow, and heading back in the direction I came. Away from the house and toward the house, away from the house and towards the house, the patch of black plowed dirt getting wider and wider in the middle of the field, the unplowed field, corn stalks whitened and left over from the winter, getting narrower towards the edges. It was still cold in the spring of 1964 but the sun was out. As I drove back and forth I stared at the front tire of the Minnie turning in the furrow. No cabs on tractors then, I spent the day in open air. I liked the dirt smell. I loved the sameness of plowing, the simplicity. I was thirteen.

As I stared at the furrow I saw a mouse running furiously ahead of the turning tire. He would gain a little ground, slow down to negotiate a clod lying in the furrow, lose ground, and then speed ahead. If he would only go sideways, I thought, change course back into the stalks or into the plowed ground. But he didn’t. He couldn’t jump the straight dirt wall of the furrow back to the stalks, though he tried, and he ignored the open black dirt on the other side. Probably too foreign for him, I figured, fresh black dirt he’d maybe never seen or smelled. He looked to be wearing down. Before the tire reached him I hit the clutch and stopped. He ran on ahead and then stopped too, hunched and trembling.

“Dumb mouse,” I said to no one in particular. I throttled down and took the tractor out of gear. I started to set the brake and then remembered the plow behind me, its three slabs of curved steel buried in the ground, and knew it wasn’t going anywhere.
I’d been on the tractor all morning and it felt funny to walk. My heels sunk into the soft plowed ground. I walked down the furrow to where the mouse was still huddled.

“Get out of here,” I told him. He ran down the furrow.

“Go right you dumb mouse.” But he continued in a straight line ignoring the plowed ground. I could run him all the way to the end, I thought, and he could get out by the fence. But I had just made my turn. If I kept stopping like this it would take forever. He kept running and I got back on the tractor.

Starting from a dead stop with the plow fully in the ground was almost too much for the Minnie. I had to rev it up full and inch the plow higher with the three point lever to get going again. Once I was up to speed I sunk the plow back to the depth Dad wanted. As I did I heard the engine lug down to the sound I’d been listening to all morning. ‘I can’t be stopping and starting over and over’ I thought. Within seventy five yards I’d caught up to the moue again.

“Damn mouse,” I shouted.

I pushed in the clutch and stopped again. This time the mouse barely moved from in front of the tire. I walked around him in the plowed ground, going way ahead of him. With dirt from the plowed ground I made a wall, a sort of dam in the furrow. Then I walked back towards the tractor, shooed the mouse forward, and started up again. Black exhaust came out of the muffler straight ahead of me as the Minnie once more struggled to start from standing stop. I plowed up to the earthen dam I’d built in the furrow, leaving a gap of about two feet between it and the front tire of the tractor, and got off the tractor once more.

The mouse was trapped between the tire, the furrow barrier I’d built, and the fresh dirt. He looked defeated. I took off my cap, got down on my knees, chased him up against the tractor tire, threw my cap over him, grabbed him gently, and folded my cap so he was enclosed inside. I walked across the land I’d just plowed, across the stalks and up to the fence. I released the frightened mouse into the tall grass in the ditch by the road.

After chores my Mom, Dad and I had supper together. Lots of times we were quiet, busy eating, but this night Dad wanted to talk.

“So I couldn’t help but notice you were stopping and starting there for a while plowing. What were you doing?”

“There was a mouse in the furrow,” I said, a little sheepishly. “I didn’t want to run him over. But I finally got him out of there.”

“I thought that might be it,” my Dad said. He went back to eating.

Between bites of meatloaf he spoke up again. “When I plowed as a kid and saw those mice in the furrow I’d speed up and squash them. I don’t know how I got so lucky to have a son so kind as to want to spare the life of a lowly mouse.”

Mom looked at Dad and smiled. “Could be I had something to do with that Dad.” They always called each other Mom and Dad, rarely using their given names. I looked up from my plate. They were looking at me and smiling. I blushed. As a teen age boy in 1964 I felt kindness was better hidden.