Machines of Summer

Machines of Summer

The first time I drove the pickup was on my 8th birthday. This was a birthday present, and I ought to have been keen on it but I wasn’t quite. My father sat at my elbow, prepared to grab the wheel, but there was no danger whatsoever in that flat, dry pasture. The stuffing poking through the seat scratched my thighs and smelled almost like straw in the August heat.

By the time I was 10, I was driving the pickup, the truck and the small yellow tractor, a Minneapolis Moline, but with little confidence. I ran the truck into the combine. I knocked the garage off its foundation with the pickup. I got the tractor stuck in a muddy terrace and hooked the tow chain to the tie rod instead of the frame. The chain tightened, the steering wheel whirled out of my grasp as the front tires bowed to each other. My brother was choking, crowing what a dipshit I was. The tractor was hilarious, cross-eyed like that. And he was right; this time for sure Dad was going to kill me.

Some machines were magical, like Uncle Vic’s milk separator, but most had a feral streak, and you did your best not to show fear. Worse happened all the time. A baler minced a farmer in Utica. Uncle Ben was squashed by his John Deere. Uncle Fedail somersaulted his Thunderbird into a wheat field and himself into purgatory, at best. These events were talked about like weather, but storms weren’t mean, except for tornadoes, blizzards and hail, which were most of what we got.

Still, I cheered for storms. They were better than movies, featuring stupendous drama and a sensuality that made me prey to powerful urges, all of them mortal sins. Enough rain meant being off the tractor for a few days. I scanned the horizon and willed them to come bowling my way, aware, as lightning forked behind Quinter, my head was the highest point in a radius of five miles.

By August, rainstorms in western Kansas were about as likely as the Kansas City A’s winning two games in a row. Here they were, 17 games out of first, ahead of only the Senators, who else? Why wouldn’t the A’s stink? Every time they had a good player they gave him to the Yankees. What happened in May? Ralph Terry and Hector Lopez shipped off. Ralph Terry, who won 11 games for a seventh-place team. Worse, 10 times worse, Hector Lopez, who hit consistently and played good defense; a warrior in a lost cause, like his Trojan namesake. I prayed his .288-average would not arouse Yankee covetousness. They didn’t need him. They already had Bobby Richardson on second, and Clete Boyer on third (another steal from the A’s).

But no, last May, the week after school let out, right at the start of another boring summer, the inevitable: Hector gone. So much for prayer. It did as much good as begging the Trojans, don’t fall for that stupid horse. It’s obvious! They pulled it in, with fanfare, just when the Greeks were about to give up and go home. Who did the A’s get in return? Jerry Lumpe. A Lumpe for a warrior. That was it. No more baseball books, trading cards, ridiculous hopes.

But every day on the tractor radio, there it was, the game: an oasis at the end of worn-out thoughts, two hours in the cooling evening, beyond the onslaught of sow bellies, sales on eight-ounce cans of pork-and-beans, and Buck Owens. We still had Roger Maris. If they gave him away I’d kill myself.

I didn’t need a watch to tell me it was more than two hours before the pre-game show. I shifted to neutral, idled the tractor to a sputter, hooked a finger through the handle of the burlap-wrapped jug, and jumped down. The crusted earth scalded my feet, so I skipped behind the plow, to the slightly cool earth just exposed, where there was a whisper of dampness. I took a few swallows of the dead water, letting a hot stream run over my chin and chest.

Tonight’s game was the second of three against the Yanks. The A’s kept game one close for a few innings, then Kuchs (another Yankee reject) fell apart. Hector had a single and a double and played left. That maybe the trade was a good thing for him (Mickey Mantle was in center) was not acceptable. The son of Priam and Hecuba wouldn’t suit up with Achilles.

Four o’clock, the pit of the day, the earth pulsing from the sun’s pounding. Heading north I rode with the wind, too slow to outrun the dust and sweat-sucking bugs. They flitted into my eyes, up my nostrils, into my ear canals. I wanted to scream but they would have gone down my throat. On the brink of irreversible insanity, I turned eastward, and the wind pushed the bugs off course. Looking behind I saw a crooked furrow, a complete mockery of the ideal. I hoped no one would notice, but someone eventually would.

In the transit of the long eastward flank, in the infinity of clods streaming past, the engine droning, the left wheel hypnotized by the furrow, my mind tricked me into soporific considerations. If I fell off, how far would the plow drag my bloody corpse? Banner Road? Poor Hector, pulled through the dust behind Achilles’ chariot. “Three times he dragged Hector around the Trojan walls and Achilles sold the lifeless body for gold.” Probably I would be diced on the spot. I pictured the guy baled alive, I slapped myself, I jumped up and down, but inescapable as gravity, sleep overtook me, for how long? A second? A few seconds? The scare of that stirred me, but only a little. Behind me trailed another crooked swath.

I turned on the radio full blast to hear it over the engine, in time for the 10-past weather. The chance of rain: 20 percent in Western Kansas, 70 percent in the East. The game would get rained out and we would not get a drop.

Make it rain here, I prayed, I won’t hate my brother, I won’t look at dirty pictures. But who was I kidding? Same as the A’s, I didn’t have a chance, not even 20 percent.

Richard Schwarzenberger is a free-lance writer living in San Francisco. His work has appeared previously in The Monthly, as well as in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Utne Reader, and other publications.

Members Only
by Mike Rosen-Molina
A young man visits the Icelandic Penis Museum with his mom and younger sister and they all learn a little something about the male species.

Bird Every Bird
by Toni Martin
With her father on the verge of death in the hospital, she takes a trip to Africa and revels in the sights and smells of life.

Going Under
by Lisa Sadikman
The shot of anesthesia meant a loss of control that she welcomed as a break from the grind of being in charge.

The Last Car
by Megan Davis
The siblings always rode the last BART train from the East Bay to San Francisco, awaiting their father at the Powell station. On one trip, they lost something they could never get back.

Machines of Summer
by Richard Schwarzenberger
As a boy, he drove the Minneapolis Moline, a tractor that cut a crooked swath in his fields. He hated the heat, prayed for rain (except for at the baseball field where his beloved A’s played) and kept contemplating mortality.

A World Away
by Nan Johnsen Horton
Alameda might as well have been a planet away from San Francisco during the ‘70’s. But fortunately, her family befriended the off-beat art teacher and she got schooled in the ways of the counterculture.

Coming Home
by Ransom Stephens
Sick of the high cost of life in the Bay Area, he and his teenaged daughter picked up and moved to suburban Texas. They found space and a slower pace, but lost something they couldn’t live without.

Mona Lisa Does Africa
by Anna Edmondson
When Ugandan soldiers ordered all the men off the bus, she was left in terror to contemplate the tiny stash of marijuana hidden in her hiking boot.

Faces of the East Bay