Being careless and being foolish are two different things, but both can land a farm kid in muddy water and deep trouble with his dad.
I think I only got in trouble with my dad once for actually being careless. I can’t count the number of times I got in trouble for being foolish. But whether I was just careless or aggressively foolish, the upshot of my action and behavior usually meant lost time at the business of farming while Dad helped me out of the mess I’d made of things.
I’m going to go ahead and guess that most farm kids at one time or another have been foolish. I’m guessing most of us have been careless, too. My dad didn’t like me being careless, but he absolutely hated it when I was foolish. The difference, it seems to me, was that being careless could be a moment of inattention, while being foolish implied some unnecessary risk or bit of bravado being taken.
In my young life, too many of the messes I created involved rain, runoff and standing water. Maybe that’s why I’ve been thinking about those days. We’ve actually had quite a bit of rain out in my part of South Dakota recently. Not so much that we’re ready to say “dry up,’’ you understand. It takes a lot of rain in dryland farming country to start singing that Creedence Clearwater Revival song, “Who’ll Stop the Rain.’’ But we’ve had enough moisture that when I turn over some earth near the house, the soil on the shovel is damp.
It was that sort of year when I committed what I consider an act of carelessness. We’d had plenty of rain. Although the packed-dirt township road was dry, water stood in the ditches almost to the narrow shoulder of the road. I was no more than 8 years old, just starting to be trusted with vehicles. Dad sent me to the field with sandwiches for my big brother. I was in the process of shifting gears (I don’t for the life of me know why) and I looked down to see why the shifter wasn’t engaging. Splash. There I was, up to the windows of the Jeep station wagon in the water-filled ditch. I crawled out the window onto the roof, leaped to the road and walked back to the place.
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It took a tractor and a logging chain to pull the Jeep to dry land. It took much longer to get the motor running again. Dad wasn’t that happy. Neither was my brother, Jim. His lunch sat on the seat of the Jeep most of the afternoon.
So that’s careless. I didn’t mean to do it.
Here’s foolish. I was working up the soil in a field that included a low spot, a lakebed, you know? Most years it was dry. This year, it had water standing all summer. Dad said to be sure to steer clear of the water, to just work the soil up, you know, as close as you can get. In my defense, he wasn’t as specific as he should have been about what constitutes “close as you can get.’’ I was 13 or so. A kid that age thinks he can get pretty close. And you show me a kid that doesn’t love to play in puddles of water. That’s why five-buckle overshoes were created.
If you’re a farm kid, for sure you’re way ahead of me right now. Yup. I cut it too close. On one pass, I got kind of near the wet area, but I pulled on through. That would have been a good time to stop, I realized two rounds later. The next pass, the tractor tires slipped and spun, just the tiniest bit. But we hauled on through. Foolishly, with that little tingle in the stomach that comes from knowing a guy is doing something that’s out on the edge, I tried one more pass. I don’t know if I broke through a crust or what, but before I knew what had happened, I was up to the rear axle and belly plate of the John Deere diesel.
It took two logging chains and a tractor - after I waded back in and unhitched the implement - to get the John Deere out. Dad didn’t say a word the rest of that long, long farming day. I wanted to tell him John Deere was doing false advertising about how powerful its diesel tractors were.
I didn’t. I wasn’t that foolish.
Terry is a well-known regional columnist who lives in Chamberlain, S.D.