Becoming Mrs. Tractorman, Arlene Gould
When Bruce Flagler Simmons, a tall handsome choral music teacher, proposed to me during my 50th year, I was thrilled with the prospect of sharing a life of music-making and having a built-in accompanist. Now, 17 years later, the sounds that emit from our home are quite different from what I'd imagined.
Perhaps our trip to Vermont that first summer of our relationship should have given me a clue of things to come. When we visited the site of his Grandparents' dairy farm on the banks of Lake Champlain in the tiny hamlet of Shoreham, Bruce excitedly pointed out the barn, the fields, and the beautiful farmhouse. He explained that he'd learned to drive a tractor at age 10 at home in Dutchess County and was happy to be able to use his skill to help his grandfather at the farm during his summers and holidays between the ages of 14 and 17. Plowing, haying and milking cows were fondly remembered as good fun, not just hard work. After his Vermont days, Bruce went to college, became a music teacher, married, became a father and taught music for more than 30 years, including in Saudi Arabia. He had moved far from farming.
In 1998 Bruce and I moved to Benmarl Winery in Marlboro, NY to be of help to his Mom, Grace, and her third husband, the artist & New York Farm winery pioneer, Mark Miller, as both were nearing their 80's. It was there on the "farm" that Bruce became reunited with tractors, and the rest, as they say - is history!
While still teaching, there wasn't much time to get involved in workings of the vineyards. But after Bruce retired in 2000, the transformation from choral music teacher to Tractorman began in earnest. At first it was so gradual, I barely noticed.
Our dear Mark became more interested in exploring how the computer could help him preserve his old artwork, than in the hard physical work of maintaining the vineyards and making wine. Bruce, meanwhile, happy to be out of the classroom began exploring the tools and equipment in Benmarl's barn and shop located just below our living quarters. There were several aged and neglected tractors at the vineyard and it seems they called out to Bruce.
Soon he was figuring how to hook up the plows and mowers and would cheerfully ride out to the vineyards to drive up and down the rows doing whatever was needed for each season. Meanwhile, I was busily helping out with winery tastings, parties and art promotions, and commuting to my part-time job in New Jersey working for The Arnold P. Gold Foundation, fostering humanism in medicine.
In his quest for parts and repairs, Bruce made new friends with the local tractor dealers and others sharing a passion for old farm machinery. He joined a group associated with an antique farm equipment museum in Orange County. Soon he was getting advice and took on the task of putting Benmarl's old tractors and machines back into working order.
This turn of events greatly pleased Mark who was most impressed with Bruce's ability and his willingness to actually go out into the vineyards and do the often backbreaking work. Before we realized it, Mark had hooked Bruce and me, as he had so many others before us, to become involved in the inner workings of Benmarl.
Each Fall Bruce borrowed a wagon from a fellow farmer he'd met among the tractor mavens and his tractor driven wagon ride became a must-do activity at Benmarl's annual October harvest festival. As the unofficial festival photographer, I helped people aboard and clicked away. When the vines became dormant in the dead of winter, it was time to begin pruning. The spring required plowing to ready the vines. The most unpleasant of tasks, spraying the vines to keep away nasty critters, had to be conducted before the wind picked up, usually at dawn or dusk. Spraying involved countless trips back and forth to and from the vineyards. One had to rinse the sprayer after each trip, then mix in a concoction of chemicals, quite a dangerous enterprise that needed full concentration, and to be repeated endlessly.
Soon Bruce was cultivating nearly nine acres of vines single handedly. Inevitably some tractor part or other would break and he would have to problem solve and figure out how to finish the job somehow. He persevered despite lousy weather, pesky insects, bunnies, deer, foxes and gopher holes. There was no shortage of challenges awaiting him while aboard the tractor.
One day Bruce came back from the tractor repair place with a big old red tractor. It was even named - Earlene! I wasn't sure whether to be insulted or not! This 1937 Farmall F20, which reminded him of his Grandfather's tractor, had been restored, but needed some additional work. Thence began what has grown into an impressive collection, a consuming passion (or obsession?) and an adventure.
Bruce found a rare bucket-loader for sale which fit Earlene perfectly and she began to be of good use in the vineyards - and since in removing large amounts of snow from our driveway. I'm not always sure which one of us is the target of his complaints since both Earlene and Arlene are both getting on in years, though I AM younger! However, I am a witness to the strength and continuing dependability of Earlene and her heavy lifting bucket loader.
Soon after acquiring Earlene, Bruce told me he'd found out about another really rare tractor. Wondering what he meant, I went with him in 1999 to a jungle-like back lot of a mechanic he'd met. There in the bushes I saw a huge hulk of rust -in his eyes - a prized F30. To my eyes, it was a large dead machine. "Oh boy," said I, "And what are you going to do with THAT?" It was then that I realized - I'd married Tractorman. He was smitten with this machine and had this ugly ancient carcass hauled to Benmarl.
For about a year it just sat in the grasses behind the barn. But finally the refurbishing process began. I took photos of every step and over the course of the next two years that hulk of rust became a true work of art. What emerged in 2002 was a bright red shiny giant machine we dubbed Cranky, both because it is started with a crank and because sometime it balks. Cranky really belongs on the prairie and what it is doing up here in the Catskills illustrates the serendipity of life.
This big red tractor continues to command the attention of curious on-lookers whenever Bruce takes it out to an event. Today Cranky is the largest of a family of, count 'em, SEVEN Farmall tractors. Each of Bruce's machines has a distinct personality and I must admit I'm always amazed that he can actually get these things to run. While the large, noisy, old and smelly beasts are definitely not environmentally sensitive, they do embody an important history of food production and have a certain fascination.