Memories · The Last Half Century

Action Movie Star

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be one of those tough guys in the movies. You know, the guy who wears mirrored aviator sunglasses and casually escapes the burning car before it explodes. Well, when I was 16, that dream came true. Unfortunately, there was no film in the movie cameras to record my debut. In fact, there were no cameras. To be honest, there wasn’t even a crew on site to record my daring exploit. Shoot, I wasn’t even wearing mirrored sunglasses when I escaped a burning vehicle. Let me explain.

Every spring on the farm where I grew up, it was my job to mow down the corn stubble left in the field from the fall harvest. I would drive our small Massey Ferguson 35 tractor, with a large rotary cutter attached to back end, across large fields, shredding the dry corn stalks into small pieces. This made sure that when the field was plowed, the equipment would not get clogged with large corn stalks.

It was a pretty straight forward job, but unfortunately I discovered it was also dangerous. In the process of shredding the corn stalks, small pieces of stalk would accumulate in a pile on top of the mower — dry pieces that made excellent kindling. Then there was the fact that this tractor had a muffler that went underneath the tractor — which is great if you’re driving it in a barn with a hay loft above, but not so great in a field with pieces of kindling flying all over.

So if this was a movie, this is where the dramatic music would start in anticipation of something horrible happening. The scene cuts to a closeup of a piece of corn stalk starting to burn on the muffler underneath the tractor. The piece falls to the ground and soon the field is on fire. Cut to the panicked look of the driver (without mirrored sunglasses) as he looks back and realizes the corn field full of dry corn kindling is now on fire. Of course I’ve already told you this was no movie, this was real life.

When I saw the burning field behind me, I immediately stopped the tractor, jumped off and ran to the burning stalks. I tried to stomp out the fire with my work boots, but the fire was spreading too fast. That’s when I thought of the tractor. I turned to see flames leaping up from the rotary cutter attached to the back of the tractor. This was my stuntman moment. I had only one thought, “Dad’s gonna kill me if that tractor burns!”

I sprinted back to the tractor and plopped myself on the driver’s seat. I slipped the transmission into high gear and drove away from the burning field. A second later I realized the breeze from the moving tractor was fanning the flames and the fire on the back of the tractor was growing larger. That’s when I noticed pieces of corn stalk kindling below the clutch, brake pedals and under the seat. I realized the flames would soon be under me if I didn’t do something fast. I had to make a split-second decision as I thought about the fuel tank mounted just ahead of the steering wheel.

If this was a movie, this is the part where I would calmly leap from the tractor a second before it explodes in a ball of fire. I would then roll on the ground and stand up without ever losing my mirrored sunglasses. But, as I already mentioned, this wasn’t a movie. In that split second where I had to decide whether to abandon the tractor, I spotted a huge pool of water that had collected in a low spot in the field. I immediately shifted the tractor into high gear and headed straight for the water.

I still wish there had been a camera there that day to film the tractor as it plunged into the pool of water drenching me with flying mud, cinders and water. The tractor stalled, coming to an abrupt stop in the middle of the pool of water. All I could hear was the sizzling of hot metal cooled by mud and water. I sat in the driver’s seat for a moment and let out a sigh of relief. “That was quite the stunt,” I told myself as I started the tractor, drove it out of the puddle and headed back to the farm.

As I pulled up the driveway and parked the tractor near the house, my mom and dad came running over to me. Apparently someone driving past the burning field drove to the house and told them the field was on fire and I was trying to stomp out the flames. They were about to go rescue me when I pulled up.

“Someone told us the field was on fire and you were trying to put it out,” my dad said as I climbed off the tractor. He paused a moment and looked at me all soaking wet covered in mud, corn stubble and cinders, standing next to the tractor. “What happened to you?” he exclaimed.

“The tractor caught fire so I drove it into the water in that low spot in the field,” I explained.

“You should’ve let the tractor burn,” my dad snapped back with a panicked expression. “And you should’ve just let the field burn.”

“I guess,” I nodded, realizing I wouldn’t have felt the heat from my dad for torching his tractor.

“But that was good thinking,” my dad smiled.

“Why don’t you go get cleaned up,” my mom said.

I nodded in agreement. As I walked to the house I thought, “Good thinking? Man I totally rocked that stunt scene!”

This post originally published April 15, 2020.

© 2020 CGThelen

The Massey Ferguson 35 tractor. Note there is no exhaust stack on top—the muffler runs underneath the tractor.

© 2020, CGThelen

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