I can still feel the cold cast iron in my right hand. My brain is still programmed to move my hand without thinking, making me one with a machine that is now long gone. I haven’t seen the machine in years, but it remains a frequent visitor to my nightly dreams. I spent almost as much time on the machine growing up as I spent in school. The seat was more comfortable than the chairs around our kitchen table. The machine’s instrument panel became simply an extension of the vast North Dakota horizon.
My father purchased the new International Harvester 766 Farmall tractor in 1972, along with a “Du-All” brand loader which was perfectly matched for the medium sized tractor. The set was delivered from a dealer in Benedict North Dakota; a town which like the tractor, is now just a memory. Every farm needed a good loader tractor to assist with its many chores, and the 766 was a dramatic upgrade from the old International Harvester Model “H” that Dad had been using. I remember watching with fascination as the dealer from Benedict loaded the rusty old “H” onto his flatbed truck with a winch.
Dad opted for the gasoline engine over the diesel because the 766 would need to start every day during the winter to feed cattle, and diesel engines had a bad reputation for not starting when it reached 40 below zero. The tractor also came with an extra long rear axle in case we wished to upgrade to duals at a later time. Dad never did add the extra tires, so the tractor always had two feet of steel sticking out of both sides, making it appear like the chariots in the movie “Ben Hur.”
While the 766 was purchased as a yard machine, the tractor did frequently get into the hay field during the summer powering both the sickle mower and wheel rake. It also pulled the rock picker, and later on, Dad’s first row crop planter. It was with this red machine that I learned how to back up a trailer: I spent over an hour one day attempting to get the rock picker backed up to a rock pile for dumping! The tractor’s power take off (PTO) turned grain augers and a feed grinder as well as powering a hydraulic pump which supplied oil pressure for the “Du-All” loader; the most important tool on our farm. This was the same PTO stub that caught and twisted my leather mitten in 1974; an accident which easily could have taken my arm or worse, but instead resulted in only three broken bones in my thumb and a dozen stitches.
The tractor and loader were most often used to deliver bales of hay to our cattle; its tires bouncing over frozen “cow pies” during the coldest days, and pushing through mud and thawed manure when the warmer days of spring finally arrived. We also used the loader for pulling out fence posts and tree stumps, pushing manure, clearing snow, and digging out rocks. What I enjoyed best was hauling hay bales from the field to the yard each day after school during October and November. Sitting out in the cool, crisp outdoor air while driving the tractor down the road at its top speed of 20 MPH is truly one of the things I miss most about farm work!
While the loader was the most important item on the farm, it wasn’t the most frequently used; that distinction belonged to the AM radio Dad bolted to the tractor’s right fender. The first thing Dad did each day when he opened the machine shed was turn on that radio. This little weather proof box, which filled the yard with the sound of country music, was as much a part of life as the farm itself; bringing us weather information, grain market reports, the latest news, and of course the Sunday afternoon “Polka Party!” Dad and I even listened to the first half of one of the Vikings Super Bowls on that radio while we cleaned manure out of the milking barn when we got home from church.
The tractor’s greatest moment, the one that still lives on in Lindlauf family legend, is the night Dad ventured out into a raging blizzard atop the 766 to rescue his family. Mom and all her children were stranded inside our big red station wagon, which was hopelessly stuck in a snow drift. Our prospects weren’t good when, like a guardian angel, Dad and the tractor’s lights appeared out of the darkness. Dad used a chain to pull us out and then escorted us safely home; much like a fearless knight leading the way to the safety of the castle upon his steadfast steed!
In 2004, Dad quit farming, and all of his equipment was sold at an auction sale. For me, every item that left the yard that day was accompanied by countless memories, but only one or two brought a tear to my eye: I kept telling myself that they were just things, after all!
The auctioneer announced that the next item up for bid was an International Harvester 766 Farmall tractor equipped with a “Du-Al” loader. I thought of how the weather cracked seat, control handles, and steering wheel where both familiar and loved, like the lines of a dear friend’s face. I stood nearby, a tear in my eye, as the auctioneer started the bidding: the memories linked to some of the dents and chips going through my head. I was startled out of my trance by an unfamiliar voice when one of the interested parties asked the auctioneer if the tractor still ran. I jumped forward and felt honored to be the one to climb up onto the platform and start the engine one last time. The 766 roared to life and as I looked around I noticed all eyes were on me so I took the opportunity to point out the tractor’s best feature. I pointed to my right, turned the knob, and proudly proclaimed: “And the radio still works!”
I kept telling myself that the tractor was just a pile of rusted steel as I watched a stranger drive it up the ramp, onto his truck. Somehow, my heart couldn’t quite accept the logic of it all. That tractor had been a part of daily farm life much like the house and barn, and watching it roll down the dusty road, out of my life, filled me with sadness. I guess I wasn’t just saying goodbye to a tractor, I was saying goodbye to a way of life; both of which, while long gone, will remain intertwined in this farm boy’s heart forever.