Stuck in L1
Updated: Oct 18, 2019
I was taught that practical experience is the best way to learn but wondered about the wisdom of this while sitting behind the wheel of a NY Yankee's tractor at the age of 12, having never driven more than a go-cart.
It was a hot Oklahoma summer day when former New York Yankee, Cliff Mapes, who played in a lineup that included Joe DiMaggio called a friend’s father looking for some boys to do some physical labor. Mapes was part of the 1949 and 1950 World Series Championship teams. Baseball enthusiasts remember Mapes mainly for having worn both Babe Ruth’s(3) and Mickey Mantle’s(7) numbers. I remember him as a man of few words and too much trust in an ignorant 12-year-old boy.
Mapes requested the services of Eric Gruver and me to do some physical labor on his property and Eric’s dad took us in the back of his red, 65 Chevy pickup. We had been commissioned to fill holes between a cattle guard and the driveway. I spent most of my time sitting stationary on a red Massy Ferguson tractor while Eric probably did the bulk of the work. Mr. Mapes home sat at the top of a rolling hill maybe a ½ - mile from the gate to the property. The property was fenced with typical rusty 9-gauge barbed wire and a cattle guard across the open gate. It was this area in which we were supposed to do some work.
Back at the house as we were getting underway, Mr. Mapes looked at us and asked which one of us knew how to drive a tractor. We looked at each other and back at him with blank stares and empty nods indicating that neither of us knew how to drive a tractor. I expect I projected a more sheepish and less confident face although I can still see Eric’s eyes that seemed to have grown bug-eyed in that moment. He had just been stung by a wasp and wasn’t in the mood to do much of anything at the moment.
“You, get on the tractor and meet us at the cattle guard” Mapes said, pointing to me. I had seen my father drive a tractor when I was five and was a close observer of him driving his manual Ford pickup truck, but had little idea what to do. I knew there were gears of some sort. I knew there was something called a clutch that was required to engage the gears. I understood the function of the brake but didn’t understand how it all worked together, much less other levers for operating other implements that thankfully were not attached. I reminded Mr. Mapes that I hadn’t driven a tractor and he responded, “you’ll figure it out.”
As Mr. Mapes and Eric pulled away in a pickup I yelled into the dust of the dry Oklahoma summer, “aren’t you going to show me anything?” Much of what followed is a blur. I sat on that tractor for what must have been a half-hour trying to get it to work like a clutch and gears in a car. Where was the accelerator? What was this H/L and 1/2/3? Why did it keep lurching? I was so confused but eventually had it moving in L(low)1(slowest speed) at what must have been 1 mile an hour. I remember thinking that whatever was to be done was likely already done. I had managed to do nothing toward the job, but had managed new confidence that I could handle a piece of farm equipment however minimally that was at 12-years-old.
It was at this point that Mr. Mapes briefly explained H/L (high/low) and 1/2/3. I drove the tractor back up to the house in H3. I might as well have been an Indy Car driver at this newly discovered speed of 20-25 MPH. Little did I know then how this experience would propel me to a job over the next couple of years at the Throneberry’s Thoroughbred stud farm.