Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Tale of the Massey Ferguson 165 and the Missing Dipstick

When I was lad of about 11 or 12, I was already driving the tractors around the farm fields doing simple tasks like topping thistles. The public roads were however, off limits. Not so much due to traffic (there was none, aside from the postman) but for an inexperienced driver, the margin for error was almost zero. The roads were narrow and winding, and there were ditches and drains and dogs. No place for a novice - as I soon discovered.

During the summer months, every morning around 10am we dropped off a 150 gallon stainless steel milk tank out on the "New Road", which was about a mile distant. From there Sharkey transferred the milk into a bigger tanker truck. Our mobile tank was practically full after the previous evening and this mornings milking. Each afternoon around 3.30pm, Fergus would head back out on the Massey-Ferguson 165 tractor to get the empty milk tank. Now this was the kid of job I thought I could handle and I begged my father over and over until he agreed to let me drive the tractor and retrieve the tank. Therein lies the problem with youthful exuberance and adult acquiescence.

I loved driving the 165 because of the big tires, the commanding view, the foot throttle... There were no problems making the drive to the rendezvous point. But when I got there, I realized the task was not so straight forward. There were several large bags of calf feed that had been delivered to us and needed to be brought home. The smart thing to do would be to make two trips but being a cocky 12 yr old, I figured I could pull off the same balancing act as my older brother. I hitched up the tank and heaved the bags of feed on top of it. A precarious balancing act ensued. I let the clutch out slowly and managed to not jerk the bags off the tank. I turned up Connor's Hill in second gear, already feeling proud and giving the tractor plenty of throttle. About halfway up the hill, I looked over my right shoulder to make sure the bags were not slipping - and in the ensuing seconds, disaster struck. The tractor veered ever so slightly to the right on the narrow road and the front wheels caught and started to climb the 70 degree embankment. An experienced driver would have immediately eased off the throttle, depreesed the clutch and pulled the steering hard to the left. I did nothing - instead I panicked and froze.

In seconds the tractor had tried to scale the steep embankment but reaching a point where it could no longer climb, it sort of skidded out sideways and with its center of gravity all askew, the 165 toppled over on its side and stalled out. It happened in slow motion and I remember being thrown around the cab a bit and having sore elbows and shoulders but otherwise I was fine. Thank goodness for the heavy duty safety cab. The 165 lay on its side, silent in the middle of the road and looking very unorthodox and sort of pitiful with its wheels horizontal. Not a soul had witnessed my collision with calamity. I was convinced the tractor was totaled and while I was able to run home unscathed, my ego was truly bruised and I was wondering where on earth would I find the thousands of pounds needed to buy a new tractor.

I arrived breathless and faced my father and brother eating at the kitchen table. I blubbered out my misfortune. Daddy said very little as he finished his meal but he was not what you would call pleased. Fergus and himself made their way out to the accident scene by way of the smaller tractor - the 65, which had a front loader. I was left to run along behind. Now I was some sort of stray - no longer trusted near valuable machinery. I did not think there was any way the 65 could right the much bigger and heavier 165 but I discounted the grown-up's ingenuity. First they unhitched the milk tank (which curiously had remained right side up) and through a series of maneuvers involving wire cables, Daddy and Fergus managed to drag the 165 into a position where they could lift it off its side using the 65's loader and then back on to four wheels. It settled on terra firma with a jolt and looked none the worse for wear, despite having spilt some oil and fuel on the road.

Fergus put diesel in the 165's tank from a five gallon drum and climbed into the cab. He engaged the brake and placed it in neutral and gave me a glare. The moment of truth was here: had I managed to crack the engine block, destroy the gearbox and ruin the main workhorse of the farm? I think I would have run away to Dublin (or at least Longford) if it did not start... but Fergus got it going on the first turn of the key. Needless to say, he drove it home and as I sat alongside him, the humiliated passenger. I silently absorbed the tongue lashing I had coming to me. The 165 sounded the same as it always did, which was a comfort. I would not after all, be foreced into becoming a dock worker in Dublin , sending home shillings as a means for a new tractor. My father followed on the 65, probably realizing his youngest son was not cut out for the farming life.

When we reached home I expected Mícheál to (rightfully) chew me out but all he said was "May that be a lesson to you". And it was - for a while anyway. Later in the evening after milking, Fergus and I surveyed the damage to the 165, There really wasn't any aside from some chipped paint - and a missing dipstick. Necessity being the mother of invention, he replaced the dipstick with a fat six inch nail. Weeks later as I biked home from Killina school, I would walk slowly up Connor's Hill, kicking aside leaves and looking for the elusive dipstick. It never showed up. Many years later and thousands of miles away from Connor's Hill, I often inquired about the 165, always happy to hear that it was still in service.

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