Just the other day I discovered an old photograph of me and a friend that dates back to 1973. That photograph is forty one years old, and at first glimpse it is hard to believe that the figure seated on a tractor stuck in a sea of mud with a beer in his hand and more hair than I have had in a good many decades is me. As I look more closely however I can see more clearly a guy whom I used to know pretty well. A friend of mine saw that photograph and asked if I was responsible for that tractor being stuck in the mud or had climbed upon the vehicle once it was already immobilized in the mire. What follows is the story of me and that tractor.
After the first semester of my college days at Sonoma State College (now ‘University’) near Santa Rosa, California, my two roommates Walter and Arlen moved away from the zoo that was the apartment complex where we lived near the school. It’s not that my friends were committed students seeking serenity so that they could pour unbroken hours into their studies in order to go on and cure cancer or develop a way to produce energy by cold fusion and thereby make mama proud. They had no such idea. They found an old, square, brown stucco house in a field outside of the city limits of Santa Rosa where we rocked out many of the days and nights of the week. The advantage to my old roommates was that they each had their own bedroom, and that when their guests left or passed out in the living room they did enjoy enough peace and quiet to allow them to study just enough to pass their classes. This house sat next to an open expanse of land which I believe was used to grow some sort of feed, or to pasture animals when the grasses were high. I really don’t know, because Walt and Arlen moved out at the end of the second semester, before summer and its agricultural rhythms had fully kicked in.
One day in the late winter or early spring of a wet year I drove out to the house in order to hang with my friends. We smoked a few joints and drank what little beer was to be found in the fridge while discussing Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn and other Russian writers and the hyper-introspection of their style. They’re all so excitable and moody in my opinion; very childlike Perhaps that is why I love them so much. Anyway, when the beer was gone and we were in need of further lubrication to ease our progression from “Crime and Punishment” to “One Day in the Life of ivan Denisovich”, I shared the news that upon checking the mail before I came over that day I received a small, rectangular piece of plastic which the Bank of America assured me would serve in place of cash at any store which announced its acceptance of said card by a sign in the window.
“No shit. Really?” said Walter. “That’s what they tell me” was my reply. “That’s crazy” added Arlen. “They don’t give those things to students, do they?” “They gave one to me. Wanna go see if it works?” Approval was instantaneous and the three of us piled into Walt’s Land Rover and drove to the nearest liquor store, which was a mile or two from the house. Upon arrival we went to the cooler to secure a cold six-pack, but as we stood in front of the glass doors it struck me that we were setting the bar of this experience far too low.
“Grab a sixer” I said to Arlen, and then made my way to a shelf in the back of the store where serious quantities of beer were to be found. I returned to where my two friends were standing with their paltry six-pack carrying a whole case of the precious 12 ounce cans. Walt and Arlen stared at me with amazement and admiration as I confidently sashayed past them and plopped the case on the counter. I motioned for them to bring the cold six-pack, which they set on top of the case, and I turned to settle up with the clerk.
The clerk, who was probably also the owner, was old school. Medium height and overweight, he was wearing khakis and an off-white button down shirt, a little bit frayed at the seams. His large face housed beady, suspicious eyes which seemed to be seeking out evidence that he was being somehow swindled every time that we entered that store. Perhaps he had been robbed or shoplifted too many times, or maybe his friends were named Mugsy and Clubber. At any rate, he squinted at me and my two friends as if we were making him the butt of a joke or distracting him while some unseen accomplice relieved him of more precious merchandise in the liquor area of his store. He had never seen us buy more than a quart or a six pack, and then count out nickels and pennies The probability of us having the capital to secure an entire case seemed to him to be pushing the envelope of credulity. It was into that gale of doubt and disbelief that I reached for my wallet, extracted, and then flipped onto the counter with a nonchalance that I nowhere near really felt, The Card.
It worked! The clerk ran a roller device over a carbon paper receipt placed over the plastic card and imprinted the necessary numbers to conclude the transaction. The clerk was slightly more cordial as I signed the receipt, accepted my copy, returned the card to my wallet and began to carry the case of beer towards Walt’s car. We laughed and whooped with joy all the way back to the house, and upon arrival cracked open three cold ones as other six-packs were placed into the fridge to await their turns.
I don’t know how much of that case we drank that day – probably all of it, knowing us – but at one point we grew tired of listening to music and discussing Russian literature. Walt was very proud of his four wheel drive Land Rover, the type of vehicle one would see in documentaries of work on the plains and in the jungles of Africa, and began to brag about it once again. We had all heard this many times, and Arlen began to tease him, saying that the car really wasn’t all of that. Walt swore that he was telling the truth and then told us to climb in; he would drive out into the muddy field and prove the limitless worth of his extraordinary ride. We all did as requested and Walt fired up the Land Rover, engaged the four wheel drive, and pushed the gearshift into first, and then we nosed out into the field. All went well for a couple of minutes but soon, inevitably, the vehicle sank down into the mud up to its hubs.
We had a good laugh at Walt’s expense and then got out to see how we would go about extracting the entrapped Land Rover from the muddy field. I had once rescued my father’s car from beach sand by jacking up the car and placing rocks under the drive wheels, but here the jack would only sink into the mud, and there were no rocks on this Russian River floodplain to be found. We did find some short pieces of lumber, and Arlen and I would try to wedge them under any wheel that we could as Walt would rock the vehicle back and forth. This produced nothing but splinters and a bit of mud splashed into Arlen’s face. It soon became obvious that some other method would be needed to enable the Land Rover’s escape from the muddy clutches of the soggy field. We began to look around, and all of our eyes fell one by one onto the neighbor’s tractor.
We knew that enlisting the neighbor’s help was a long shot. That worthy farmer was not at all pleased with his new noisy neighbors and had done little to disguise his displeasure. Still he looked like our only hope, so Walt walked over to the front door and rang the bell. No answer. Walt rang again two or three times, just in case the neighbor was laying low, hoping that we would go away. Still no answer. Walt walked back glumly and said “No dice. He isn’t home”. We were about to call for some friends to come over and get their car stuck in the mud too by trying to get Walt’s car out when Walt said “Wait a minute. Let’s hot wire the tractor and pull it out ourselves.” “You’re crazy,” said Arlen. “He’ll have us arrested.” “He won’t ever know” Walt replied. “We’ll pull out the car, wash down the tractor and replace it where we got it.” We briefly debated the insanity of this plan and insanity won. We agreed that it was the best plan that we had, and so Walt walked over to the tractor, climbed into the seat, fiddled with a few wires, and the iron beast roared into life.
With a broad grin, Walt drove the tractor over to our field and with Arlen and I walking alongside, the mud sucking at our boots, we made our way to the entrapped Land Rover. Walt turned the tractor around and backed up to the front end of his car. We then attached a tow rope from the back end of the tractor to some point underneath the front of the Land Rover. Arlen climbed into the Land Rover, started it up, and prepared to drive out of the mud once the tractor had broken it free. Walt put the tractor into gear and began slowly to strain forward. The Land Rover budged, lurched, and seemed like it was about to pull free. Then it fell back into the deep pits its wheels had dug. The tractor, straining to pull the car out of its muddy prison, had begun to bog down into the mud as well.
This was a serious problem, and we all knew it. There was no way on earth that the owner of that tractor would be amused to find it stuck in the mud, courtesy of the pack of stoned slackers living next to him in rural Sonoma County. We began to work furiously to dig the tractor out, get lumber under one of ITs wheels, do ANYTHING! No luck We were in it and we knew it. There was nothing that we could think of besides wait for the neighbor to return home and face the music. Being who we were, the only thing left to do was to roll another joint, open three more cans of beer, and enjoy what was otherwise a very pleasant, sunny, almost warm Northern California afternoon.
So there I am in a photograph which was clicked by Arlen as Walt and I sat in the seat of that tractor with it’s wheels entombed in a sarcophagus of mud. I had not yet learned how to truly worry, and the implications of the situation soon rolled off of my back as we smoked and joked and generally had a pretty good rest of the day. You can see in that photo that life was still my playground, no matter the circumstances that I found myself in.
I returned to the apartment that afternoon before the neighbor returned, and it was a day or two later that I saw Walt and Arlen again. On that occasion I asked them how it all worked out. “He laughed” said Walt. “He just laughed. Then he drove over to a larger building and came out with a tractor twice as big. With that he pulled the other two vehicles out like they were nothing. We asked him how we could repay his kindness and he told us to wash off both of the tractors and keep the noise down after 9:00 at night”.
They did keep the noise down after that, and washed up the tractors real good as well. For the remaining months that Walt and Arlen lived at that house they were on pretty good terms with their now-respected neighbor.