11 February 2007

A Steering Wheel as the Circle of Life

How did you get started with cars?” is a question I’m often asked. While I have been fortunate to have a variety of careers and occupational passions, cars and machinery came first.

My earliest memories of the mysteries of the internal combustion engine revolve around my grandfather, Thomas Lester McDowell, who, along with my grandmother, Dorel Evelyn, raised me.

Although our family home was in the Parkside district of San Francisco, Gramps, as the family called him, had what would now be referred to as a “gentleman’s farm” at 365 McClay Road, in the town of Novato, California, then a distant suburb 30 miles away.

He personally built the main and guest houses on a couple acres of land, put up the barn, dug the hole for the pool with a backhoe, and supervised the application of the gunite to the pool walls. The property was originally a Bartlett pear orchard, and Gramps added a variety of walnut, peach and apricot trees.

In the very early 1950s, he purchased a used Ford tractor, probably an 8N, to take care of the grounds. I recall him driving it eleven miles home from Petaluma, on the shoulder of what was then a two-lane US 101. The attachments included a plow, a disc (he taught me the difference), a scoop and a flat platform just perfect for three or four kids to ride on.

We had a routine. Friday night when he came home from his day job as assistant superintendent of the City and County of San Francisco Department of Building Repair (after all these years, I still remember his title exactly), my grandmother had our bumble-bee yellow and black 1956 Mercury Montclair coupe (license plate BYP 050) packed and ready to go for the trip to Novato.

Saturday, at the crack of dawn, he went to the barn to get the tractor. And from the age of three on, I was always with him. He would have me perch on the nose of the tractor, legs straddling the radiator shell, hands firmly gripping the radiator cap. And for the next couple of hours, he would plow or disc the fields.

I can still see the warmth radiating from the exposed engine below, and remember how it helped to break the chill of the morning air. I still recall the conversations we had—the way he answered my many questions about what kinds of trees there were on the farm, exactly how you went about digging an irrigation ditch with the scoop, or why the tractor had a foot brake on each side, while the Mercury only had one.

But above all I remember feeling a calmness and security from the pulsing and vibrating of the tractor’s engine. It had a low-rev, high-torque industrial purposefulness to it, and was nearly impossible to bog down. To my young mind, there wasn’t anything that Gramps – the best tractor-driver in the world, I knew for sure – couldn’t get it to do.  Even then, I recognized that the partnership of this most capable machine and this most capable man were wondrous things.

When I was five, Gramps decided it was my turn behind the wheel. At first I sat on his lap, and learned how to work the notched hand-operated throttle. Later came manipulating the hydraulic controls to raise and lower the attachments (always the platform, as the disc and plow were deemed too dangerous). And finally, a couple of years later, once my leg muscles were strong enough to press on the brakes, he sent me off on my own.

It was a perfect world. Using the platform, my assignment was to drag the ground flat beneath the walnut trees, which would make it easier to pick up the nuts we knocked loose from them with a long two-by-four. As you can imagine, I was always ready to take the tractor out “to go dragging.” An additional bonus was driving by the rear property line, taunting the older children who lived in the subdivision behind, because I was driving a tractor and they weren’t.

Gramps died, suddenly and unexpectedly, when I was 12. I never drove the tractor again. The family farm was put up for sale, and the proceeds sustained my grandmother during the difficult times that followed. Now, I drive by the farm once or twice a year when I am in the Bay Area. The same pear trees are still there, and in the summer, the walnut trees are still laden with their fruit. I always stop, get out, and recollect the brisk air of the mornings with my grandfather. I can hear the conversations we had about the mysteries of life while the tractor chugged along contentedly.

Nearly a half-century later, I am still inescapably drawn to the magic of the internal-combustion engine. Each car, especially those from before 1975, has its own emotional signature, written with the combination of its drivetrain, its coachwork, and the intent of the men who built it. Our 1963 Corvette has a raucous, Elvis Presley, cuffed-jeans, dark-glasses, “Jailhouse Rock” swagger to it. The 1965 Alfa Giulia Spider, a dolce vita, rev-me-til-the-end-of-time feeling. Even our recently departed 1965 two-stroke Saab had its sense of self, puffing out an “I’m Swedish and I’m different and I don’t care” message.

But my core feelings are still most easily tapped by a vintage Ford tractor. At the annual Steam-Up in Brooks, Oregon, last August, there were several 8Ns on display.

My daughter, Alex, was with me, and I had her sit on a couple of them. And for a brief moment, I thought about buying one, keeping it on a farm nearby, and letting Alex have her chance to live in the past I had once inhabited. But I realized that she is already making her own past, one that began with being strapped into a car seat in the Alfa Giulia Spider Veloce when she was just a few months old, learning to drive our VW Thing at the age of eleven, and setting her sights on a 911SC as a first car. As we drive to school each morning in that same Alfa, top-down this time of year, we plan out the road trips we’re going to take.

Gramps and the tractor were good to me. Now, it’s my turn to pass on that goodness to the next generation, and hope that Alex can find the same pleasure and passion, on her own terms, that I have.

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