Driving Tractor at Night

Working outdoors in the middle of the summer was brutal. People said that in the heat of the day you could bake an egg on the hood of a car, and at about noon every day it felt like it was hot enough to do this. I never tried. As the afternoon wore on, the heat continued to rise.

Our tractors did not have air conditioners and on one you sat in the open under the sun, and the other had a cab with windows that only opened a few inches and it worked like an oven, trapping the heat inside. Our job, when we were on the tractor, was to pull some type of plow through a field that would dig up the weeds and kill them. Most of the time we drove the tractor without the cab because it was more powerful. We would travel at four miles an hour around and around a field for 12 hours a day. The sun would beat on our bodies until we were soaked with sweat and the dust that was billowing around us from the plow would settle all over us and stick creating a thick film of dust. The exhaust for the engine was directly in front of us. It roared without a muffler and the sound was deafening. Black exhaust from the diesel engines blew into our faces.

In our family, I disliked driving the tractor the most and the heat seemed to affect me the worst, so I started driving the tractor during some nights. There was one field that I especially enjoyed driving in. We called it the Arriba land, because it was close to Arriba, a neighboring town. The closest house was about a mile away, but the field had some low spots where all of the surrounding farmhouses were hidden, and I would be totally alone and away from any manmade lights.

  I would start driving at about sundown when the earth was turning cool, and I would make the rounds. Occasionally, before it grew completely dark, I would spot coyotes out searching for food. Our dad was one of the few farmers who would not plow up lagoon bottoms or low draw areas in the fields and he would leave them so that native grasses would grow and support wildlife. On this patch of land there was a draw that ran the length of it, and we would see pheasants and coyotes come out of it. If I was lucky, a coyote would come out and follow the tractor just before sunset and he would look for mice or rabbits that would run from the tractor and he would hunt them.

Getting out of the heat was my magic. Nights went from the hell of day on the tractor to a time of wander and exploration. Every time I was out, I would wait until about 1:00 AM, when it was the middle of the night and the most mysterious. I would shut down the tractor and turn off the lights. Sometimes I’d lean back on the tractor seat and rest my feet on the fender and other times I would sit on the ground and lean against a tire. I would wait for the ringing in my ears to clear and for my eyes to adjust to the night.

I would stare at the sky and question what life was about, what I could do in the future, but mostly I wondered what was in space. I would daydream of the worlds out there. If there were a half moon, I would think it looked like a marble stuck into the dark fabric of the night. But I enjoyed the Milky Way the most. Few people in America have experienced the Milky Way the way we were able to on the farm. The man-made lights were gone, and the sky was dark blue/black and filled with thousands of pinholes of light. And then running from one edge of the horizon to the other was a path of golden stars packed on each other. Looking at that distance and the worlds out there was humbling and made me feel small, and yet it was some of the moments that I felt the most alive.

There was one night when I was sitting on the ground staring at the Milky Way, and I saw a shooting star streak across the sky. I sat there and thought, what if Milky Way was a golden road where old Roman soldiers went to race their chariots and they would thunder from one end of the horizon to the other and then the winner would shoot a flaming arrow across the sky to celebrate their victory. Now that I have moved away, I seldom see the Milky Way shine as brightly as I did in that field, but when I do, I always hope to see a victor shooting his arrow across the sky.