Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

September 6, 2004. Family life, rural Michigan.

Barb’s extended family gets together every year at the Chippewa County Fair, in a neighborhood of campers that they call the ghetto. I had trouble keeping track of everyone there. Barb and her sister Sue and their brother Dave. Dave’s wife Marilyn, who I thought at first was a another sister of Barb and Sue. Sue’s son Jason, his wife Shelley, and their three children Jeremy, Lisa and Evan. Dave and Marilyn’s daughter Kerry and her son Jacob. After that it got confusing. Kerry was accompanied by her partner Jason and his daughters Brittany and Michaela. Her friend Melanie was there too, and Melanie’s daughter Autumn, son Tommy, and partner Tom. Plus Melanie’s friend Andrea, her husband, their two children, and a friend of one of the children – I never got their names. Then there was a family friend Amy, plus her husband, their children, her mother, and perhaps others there as well. Plus Marilyn’s friends Cookie and Becky and their husbands. And two dogs, Max, who came with Barb, and Coco, who came with Jason and Shelley’s family. Plus me, of course.

Someone counted fourteen children in the ghetto, but I’m not sure who the rest were. They were mostly very small, very blonde, and very grubby indeed, as they raced around in dust, fell in mud, dug holes, fell off bikes, sat on toboggans being pulled behind tractors, and generally got into close contact with mother earth at all possible opportunities. The first day I was a stranger, but by the second day six-year-old Lisa seemed to have decided I was okay, and she talked to me and posed for my camera. By the third day she and her little brother Evan climbed into my van to inspect everything they could reach. They wondered about my perfume, so I dabbed some on each of them. They pulled things out of every pocket in my fabric wall of pouches, wanting to know what hose clamps were, what kinds of pills I carry, what the different computer cables were for, why I had so many pairs of eyeglasses, what the straws and chopsticks in my silverware pocket were for. From then on Lisa kept track of my comings and goings, wanting to know why my hair was wet when I came back from swimming in the lake, wanting to come on a bike ride with me (her mother said no), and finally settling for going for a walk all around the fair with me on Sunday. Their parents tried to keep them from bothering me, but I was kind of flattered by their attention.

Barb’s family does tractor pulls. As you can imagine, if you have read much of this website, I had never heard of a tractor pull before I met Barb on the internet. Tractor pulls, for those of you who like me have never been near a tractor, are competitions to pull the heaviest weight the longest distance on a tractor. The very youngest children do this on pedal “tractors” – tricycles, really – but for everyone else the competition is about the horsepower of the machines, not the skill or strength of the operator. Or as Marilyn put it, “guys showing each other that mine is bigger than yours.” But this makes it a sport anyone can do, if they have the right gear. And tractor pullers are definitely gearheads. At this event the tractors were all antiques, none made more recently than the 1950s. (I don’t know if people pull with modern tractors as well.) If you’ve ever met (or if you are) a gearhead, you’ll see at once what a fabulous opportunity this provides for purchasing old vehicles, tinkering with engines and clutches and brakes, swapping parts, and restoring broken down equipment. All in the interest of dragging piles of weights down a dusty track for a few yards and amassing trophies for going further than the other guy did in his tractor.

Some of the women in the ghetto mocked the tractor pulls. Marilyn, Sue, and Barb had great time teasing Dave about having more tractors than he can count - twenty or so, according to Marilyn. But other women decided they might as well join in. Cookie pulls regularly, and Melanie tried it for the first time at the fair. Lisa pulled a few times on a garden tractor, though she didn’t seem to be too interested. Lots of girls entered the garden tractor competitions, though fewer women were driving the larger vehicles.

Some of these folks are actually farmers, and use their tractors to make their living. Dave has farmed on and off throughout his life. It was his first love, but one year a crop was wiped out, he lost $90,000, and had to take a job instead. Now retired, he grows soybeans, alfalfa, and other crops, but more for love of farming than for any income it might provide. He told me about farming technology – the size of the tractors, the width of the equipment they can pull, how many rows they can seed or harvest at once, and how that relates to the size of the fields. To farm more acres you need larger scale equipment, but that takes a lot of capital. With smaller tractors and narrower plows you need more staff and you consume far more gasoline, so the operating costs are too high to keep going. The current high gas prices make matters worse; not only do they raise the cost of running the equipment, but fertilizer is made from petroleum so it has gone up in price as well. But with a background as a farmer, and years of day jobs operating heavy equipment, playing with old tractors for the tractor pulls is a natural for Dave.

Monday morning I realized that I had missed out on a great opportunity – I should have entered the tractor pulls myself. It was too late, by then, but Dave was happy to give me a driving lesson. There’s no gas pedal on a tractor, at least not on the vintage one I was driving. Instead you shift a lever into a notch to give it gas. To go faster, you shift the lever out another notch. You can start in any gear you want, no need to climb the gears slowly. To stop you put one foot on two break pedals at once, one for each of the two big wheels. To turn the tractor off you shift the gas lever in to the closest notch. I wanted to move the gas lever as I drove, but I was afraid to go any faster than Dave had set it, lest I forget what to adjust to turn onto the road or avoid hitting the trees. So I chugged slowly around the path, up the pulling track, between the trees, and into the ghetto. Marilyn, Barb, and Sue grabbed cameras, laughing, and took pictures of the scared city girl driving a tractor.

Next year I’m going to practice driving from the start, so I can enter the pulls.

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