While I was growing up Grandma and Grandpa Purdy lived in the country. They lived on the Pennsylvania-New York border, and to reach their house you had to drive along a road titled—fittingly enough—“State Line Road.” Grandma and Grandpa’s old house stood at the end of a dead end road and their land butted up against a large tract of village owned forest. My Dad had fond memories of growing up there, but my feelings were more hesitant.
As a young child, I felt a certain air of mystery surrounded their property. It was all so different from my home, a world which had the comfort of familiarity. At Grandma and Grandpa’s a tiny creek ran behind the house, and on the other side of the creek was a stand of trees that seemed to me the beginning of a dark and forbidden forest. Neatly stacked heaps of dead wood and bramble cleaned up by Grandpa marked the edge of some ominous unknown. In the other direction, across the dead-end road, were the two small barns. If you went past them the world opened up to a distant unknown horizon. From there you could look out over a curiosity of forests and fields.
Where the dead end road stopped beyond the house the road became a forest trail that quickly disappeared under overhanging tree branches. To my child’s mind that trail led off to the place where people became lost, never to return. I could never convince myself that forests were a good place, because I felt certain anyone (and certainly me) was doomed to being lost if they stepped among the trees. Grim fairy-tales about being lost in the woods didn’t help. Much safer was the pond out behind the house. That was far enough away to hold a sense of adventure, and yet not too far. I could look at the water and frogs and try to comfort myself with the thought that if a bear appeared, or some other disaster occurred, I had a chance of making it to the house.
If you’re going to worry, you need to consider these things.
Timid and fretful, I saw hidden—or not so hidden—danger on every side, and failed to take advantage of all the interesting places I could have adventured if my sense of exploration had outweighed my sense of paranoia. But if my fears of the unknown kept me from experiencing many of the country pleasures, there was still one I could enjoy: Tractor rides.
Grandpa had at least two old tractors which he was constantly fighting to keep repaired and running. The smallest was probably a prehistoric incarnation of a lawn tractor, before anyone thought of inventing a mowing deck. What useful purpose it had served, or could still serve, I didn’t know. To my mind it existed to give tractor rides.
Grandpa wasn’t socially skilled, and entertaining grandchildren was no exception. Games were foolishness to him, and it was a rare event that he could be badgered into so much as a board game. But there were compensations. Whether Grandpa was working in the kitchen or in the garage, he let you watch, and sometimes help. And even if he didn’t play games, he would read you stories, and give tractor rides. Tractor rides were a rare treat—partly, I think, because it usually didn’t strike his fancy, and partly because a functioning tractor was often an uncertain and frustrating proposition. I remember hanging around the barn and inquiring if perhaps the tractor would be fixed soon, and would we be going on a tractor ride today. The answer was “Maybe” in the sort of why that spoke of patience strained by questioning little children, and uncooperative machinery.
But those tractor rides did come, and all the better when they came unexpectedly. The roar of a tractor pulling up to the house—or the announcement that Grandpa was giving rides—would send little children scrambling outside. It meant the day had a little excitement.
Grandpa had constructed his own sled to drag behind the tractor. It was a cobble-job based on I have no idea what. Perhaps the sled was based on nothing more than Grandpa’s own idea of what would best function as a sled–or (more likely) whatever scraps he had around. Tractor and sled would pull up, and at the command of, “Hop on,” we would all clamber on. Then it was off across the yard, around and back, and around again. It was a thrill—a taste of the country life, a chance to imagine oneself part of the rugged farm stock, and on a grand adventure. Then, all too soon, it was over and the tractor returned to the barn until next time.
We have a picture of Grandpa giving a tractor ride. A gaggle of cousins are crowded on the sled, grinning like fools. Grandpa rides up on the small tractor, staring intently ahead hands held at the ready, carefully nursing the fitful machine along. The image is memory frozen and preserved, summing up those visits to Grandma and Grandpa.