by Jane Erickson
The years following World War II brought about incredible change in the lives of Americans, both young and old. The industrial revolution had been massively intensified by the war of the world and modern conveniences continued to abound inside households, businesses, and within the farming community. The work of the farmer was transformed from intense drudgery to a labor made steadily easier by modern machinery and equipment. Tractors, combines, threshing machines, and electric milkers made the farmer's life easier and more lucrative. It was a whirlwind time of change. The Twentieth century was more fascinating than it had ever been.
Somehow this time of mechanical change and ease of labor bypassed my grandfather. It was not that he was unaware. That would have been impossible, for his neighbors and friends, even his own father, had succumbed to the glory of modern conveniences. The more that became available, the more they hurried to purchase. Life was good, money was plentiful, and they worked hard not only at their labor, but at decreasing the difficulties of that same work. But for some reason never understood by my family, and never explained by my grandfather, he kept to the old ways. He was not captivated by modern technology. His family had farmed in the same way for the past one hundred years. And he saw no reason to change.
Grandpa loved the old ways, he loved old things, and he loved the way he and his ancestors had toiled in the fields and barns for generations. His house and buildings were filled with ancient tools and hand-held machinery, all lovingly cared for and used with skill by the man who still revered the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. The modernity of the present day held no charm for him. He was inexplicably tied to the past.
There were two horses on the farm, huge animals with rippling muscles and flaring nostrils. As a child I should have been terrified of these beasts. They could have trampled my small body under one hoof, but sensing the innocence of my juvenile touch, they allowed me to pat their sides and noses and feed them sugar lumps with my tiny hands.
While the rest of the farming community was using high-powered tractors and attachments to attend to their fields, my grandfather was using these staunch beasts to break up the fertile earth in order to plant and harvest his crops. Constantly in the company of adults, I was ever watchful of the signals people consciously and unconsciously sent out to and about others. The sidelong looks about my grandpa's eccentricities were not unnoticed by me, and I was perpetually justifying his use of horses over modern machinery not only to others but also to myself. It was his life; it was how he believed it should be done. No one had the right to criticize his motives.
Hitching up the horses was a memory from the past for my grandfather and an educational experience for me. They would patiently stand while he threw the leather collars over their colossal necks, run the bridle and bits through and then hook on the plow. He never spoke to them. Communication was by touch and they instantly responded to the gentleness of his hand. One movement and they would be off, straining to pull the plow through the hard earth the man who controlled them, following behind, feeling and loving the earth with each step.
There was a natural beauty to this rite of Spring. It was a duty which every farmer must perform, but watching my grandfather was to watch a man at one with his land. The feel of the soil on his feet brought him in touch with the earth as nothing else could. I understood then why he worked this way. For him it was the ritual of opening the land for the birth of the new crop.
For years I watched Grandpa prepare his fields and harvest his crops with his team of horses. It was as natural to me as milking cows twice a day and gathering blackberries in August. Never did I question his reasoning. He was my grandpa, and I loved him for everything he was.
One day, sitting on the green expanse that was my grandparent's farm yard, I heard the putt-putt of a tractor coming down the road. I paid little attention to this everyday sound for all the neighbors drove these vehicles back and forth, helping each other during the busy harvest time. As the sound grew nearer, something prompted my head to rise and peer down the road. My mouth dropped as I hopped to my feet. There, driving down that black-topped country road, was my grandfather, on a shiny new green and yellow tractor. The sun glinted off its huge tires which were shimmering in their newness on that hot summer day. I ran down the drive to see more clearly what I could not believe, and Grandpa stopped the tractor. I will never forget the grin on his face, partly caused by the fact that he had at last purchased something brand new and modern, and partly caused by the look of astonishment on my five-year old face.
He held out a hand, I grabbed it and he hauled me up onto the seat, settled me between his knees, and away we went. Tractors are not the most smooth riding vehicles, and we jumped and lurched down the rutted driveway heading for the barn. I loved every bump we hit and every hole we drove through. I was with my grandfather, who loved me with all his heart. and he had brought home a surprise.
That first ride was the outset of a ritual which became a part of our day. No matter where I was, playing in the fields, roaming the woods, gathering eggs or helping my grandmother in the house, when I heard the chugging of that tractor as it came down the road or over the fields toward the house, I stopped whatever I was doing and raced toward the familiar sound which contained the loving arms of my grandpa in its vibrating grip. We never spoke a word. We just smiled at each other as he pulled me up onto the seat and allowed me to shift and pretend to drive.
Why did he finally buy this vehicle which he had disdained for so long? I never asked and he felt no need to explain his actions to me or to anyone else. Maybe it was age creeping up on him, or maybe he just decided that making life a little easier for himself was acceptable. Whatever his reasons, for me it is a simple yet marvelous memory.
The horses stayed on in the field by the house for several more years. I visited them everyday, bringing them treats from the garden and from Grandma's silver sugar bowl. They bowed their huge necks down to my level, nuzzling my sticky hand for the lump of sweetness nestled there. They showed no signs of sadness at having been released from their burden of toil. The love and care lavished on them during their years of work was not withdrawn in their retirement.
Grandpa hated to part with them but their use was past, and one day a truck pulled up to the house, hauling a horse trailer. My grandfather and I stood hand in hand at the fence watching the beasts of burden, who had been our friends for so long, being loaded into the trailer. The tears rolled down our faces as we silently said good bye.
My grandfather lost a part of his heritage that day. He had fought to keep it alive for more years than most men would, his reasons logical in his own mind. His love of the past made him what he was— a kind, gentle, loving spirit— forever in touch with the land of his forbears.