Thursday, May 24, 2007

Learning to drive?

I grew up on a farm in eastern Washington, on the foothills of Mt. Spokane. When I was 7 years old, my parents traded a house in town for a tractor. It was a small house, in a bad part of town, that my parents bought as an investment. The rental fee wasn't covering the maintenance on the house, so they put it on the market. The buyer traded us a tractor as part of the sale price.

"D7 Caterpillar Tractor"

As it happens, this is the first vehicle I ever drove all by myself. My father taught me how to go, and turn, and stop, then turned me loose in the field. Of course, this was all in 1st gear, very low throttle setting, so a person could easily walk faster than the tractor was moving. In fact, that's how dad got on and off when I was driving -- he simply stepped up onto the shaft that held up the blade, then stepped onto the track and walked back to the cab.

But, remember, I was driving that Cat all by myself -- at 7 years old. That's incredibly empowering, and I've felt at home in every vehicle I've driven since. The Cat was relatively easy to drive. There was the throttle, which was a lever one set at the desired power level, then pretty much left alone; the gear selector; the forward/ reverse lever, which determined which direction you were going, including nowhere; then separate clutches and brakes for each tread, one of each per side. There were also two levers that projected over one's shoulder that controlled the two cable winches. One winch controlled the blade up/ down, the other was just a winch.

To drive, you had to set the throttle, then select a gear. The forward/ reverse lever also acted as a clutch, but was usually insufficient by itself to allow the gear to be changed. You also had to push the clutch pedals for both treads. These were equipped with locking levers, IIRC, to facilitate this maneuver. Once you had the gear selected, then you released the tread clutches, and pushed the forward/ reverse lever forward (or pulled it for reverse). You were now moving! Yay! To turn you had several options. You could press the clutch pedal on the side you wanted to turn toward. This caused that side to freewheel. This would cause the other side to be moving faster, as it was powered. The effect was heightened while going uphill, and reversed when going downhill. There was also a brake for each tread, which allowed you to turn even faster. You could even turn in a complete circle within the length of the vehicle.

Starting that beast was a rite unto itself. No electric start for this old antique, no. It had a separate gasoline engine that was strictly used as a starter motor. This was known as the 'pony motor', and was hand-cranked, like an old Model T. The crank was at the top of the engine, so you stood on the tread and rotated this crank around. You had to push the crank down while rotating it to keep it engaged. How my father swore at that thing! Eventually, one would get the pony motor started. The exhaust from this motor warmed up the heads of the diesel, and the two motors shared the coolant. You'd run the pony motor for a while, then release the compression on the diesel engine. The next step was to 'bump' the pony motor's clutch to just slightly move the diesel. 'Break the sticktion' in the cylinders, as it were. Once that was done, you could engage the pony motor in it's low gear to slowly turn the diesel over. When you were ready to actually fire up the diesel, you shifted the pony motor into it's high gear, then opened up the throttle of the diesel, and lastly closed the compression valve. There would be a puff of white smoke, a puff of black smoke, and the diesel would start. At that point, you quickly released the pony motor and shut it down. Now you were ready for a days work.

We mostly used the Cat to clear land, but also used it to dig a daylight basement when we built a new home. We moved earth around to create a large, level parking pad, and expand the driveway to the new house. The most fun was clearing rocks from the field. The area where we lived had both rocky volcanic soil, which spawned new rocks every winter from frost heaving, and many glacial erratics.

"Glacial Erratic"There were areas in the fields which were just weeds. Years ago someone had determined that there was a large, hidden, tool-breaking rock just under the surface, usually by breaking a tool. Some of these were made into large rock piles, by "Rockpicking". Every year frost heaves would raise more rocks up, and one would eventually pick them all up and move them to a pile. Some of these piles were huge! I've marked the rock piles with green pins on the photo above. The red pins are marking some hidden rocks.

Others were not covered with rock piles yet -- those are the ones we concentrated on. With the Cat, we could dig those huge rocks right out of the ground. My mother always wanted a rock garden. Well, what she got was giant rocks. Dozens of them. Some were as big as the tractor! Most were just large -- say 4' x 6'. Great fun.

Farming isn't the same on Whidbey Island as it was back home.

What was the first vehicle you drove? Certainly you remember. . .


ms. kitty said...

I was twelve, Dan, and I learned to drive a large, open-cab hydraulic dump truck full of pea vines.

David said...

Well, my first experience was the drivers ed car. You see, my parents never let me drive their cars until I enrolled in drivers ed my senior year of high school. 17 years old. Of course, I was a natural behind the wheel, so I've had no problems since.

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