Fall brings harvest, at least in theory — never mind frost, freeze, rain, monsoon and mechanical voodoo intercede on the theory.
Agriculture is classically attached to its humanity, attempting to offset the standard market disadvantage by pushing the crop to its bin-busting hypothetical, if yet to preclude the mean-spirited notions of Mother Nature and the mechanical Lucifers of the world. This to my experience is how American agriculture is practiced. To the end, the most cruel impact on crop value is our own exuberance, against which we secretly hope Mother Nature would express her wicked side on some other farmer.
The observer will perhaps notice here a certain irony of this ag-business. Where the curse of agriculture isn’t drought, disease and crop failure; the curse is crop success, to the consequence the core of our moral being, that family farm thing is steadily eroding. In its wake a farm identity with no blood bond, where land is just another factory, just another input.
The fall harvest of solarium tuberosa is accomplished by culmination of some divine acts of mechanical genius. Potato diggers the size of a house literally lift off the face of planet Earth to access the crop lying beneath. For every ton of potatoes lifted from its sanctuary, two tons of dirt, rocks and the occasional rabbit precede. These are the leviathans of agriculture with hundreds of gallons of diesel and hydraulic oil, tires the size of outhouses, for whatever purpose that reference might be worth. The trucks of the potato harvest are goliaths, double axle, triple axle, quads, automatic transmissions, air brakes, marvels of endurance, if mostly abuse.
Once it was otherwise. A potato truck was once decidedly uncertain locomotion, like as not second-hand if more probably a third-foot. Many were Lazarus trucks, raised from the dead, the signal of exquisite desperation. Everyone knows the potato economy, the one ordained by God, is fated to ever carry after the pungent odor of the Irish Potato Famine. If there is a year to raise all ships, there are five years to pierce all hulls. By conclusion and consequence a true and valiant potato farmer adjusts to economic risk by employing the homemade, the jury-rigged, the scrap-yard resurrection. Invention and minimum wage our esteemed allies, to the end a potato crew of misfits, deformations and classical oddities. A self-sustaining carnival aware its own survival is measured by endurance.
As for the potato truck, if it actually ran it qualified. Like engines that started, eventually. Tires as held some air, if sometimes this was dispensed with. Technically — meaning, according to the State Patrol — trucks were to have wipers, windows, headlights, mufflers. Amazing is the revelation, to know first-hand what a vehicle can do without, when the task at hand is to remove the surface of the earth, extract the potatoes, then put back the dirt. Most of it anyway.
My once favorite source of the draft-animal truck was the Chicago Grocers Association, and their truck yard, sometimes known as the open-pit burial. Trucks that had seen a dozen or more seasons of Chicago streets, Chicago salt, Chicago stop and go. Chicago collisions.
Potato trucks, contrary to Biblical bias, have souls the same as barns. When purchased from the Chicago Grocers Association these trucks were beat-up as they were used-up. They ran, mostly. Their price reflected this. Four hundred dollars each, circa 1973. A relationship likened to a used coal-cart horse, these trucks likewise were turned out to pasture to spend their last days. Trucks as were all but dead, but once beyond Hog-Town limits, once rid of their odious refrigerated box, once headed north into the woods, these trucks sensed their new chance for life. Engines about to die didn’t; transmissions beyond repair persisted.
I taught my wife early in our marriage to drive a potato truck. I said it was easy. I lied.
A potato truck is a precision thing, to keep the exacting pace of the potato digger, first gear, better yet creeper gear. The Chicago Grocers were 4-speed auto, fairly rare at this moment in potato history, with straight-8 engines. We believed removing the muffler helped an engine inhale. Stood to reason, noise is propulsion. Same as the Saturn B.
My wife did not at the onset understand the motive of the skull-crushing din inside the cab to the favor of locomotion, by my calculation about five extra horsepower.
Eventually she carried cotton for her ears. I thought she looked particularly cute, a baseball cap with cottontail ears.
One day coming home from the field, as she was to cross the state highway she realized she was coming on a little strong. She got hard on the brakes. Seems the brakes failed. Seems I never told her that truck was a trifle weak at brakes. A touch more than trifle. Besides, the reservoir was empty. I had of course acclimatized to this, drop into low range and use engine braking. If need be, shut off the engine. There was the emergency brake on a drive shaft that did nothing useful but it felt constructive.
Still closing on the state road she had to decide whether to take the ditch or risk the crossing. Wonderful thing is fast thinking, as you never know when you might need it. It’s a good thing to practice, what potato trucks are good for.
My wife crossed the highway unscathed, arrived at the shed intact, and was there waiting for me when I arrived with another truck, the one with brakes.
First thing out of her mouth was why hadn’t I told her the truck had no brakes?
This question in theory can be uttered calmly. It wasn’t. I could have lied and said I don’t know what happened to the brakes.
Never mind those brakes had been AWOL all season, I had just refined my technique, just another brakeless potato truck.
My wife doesn’t swear.
She said a famous two-word phrase, which technically isn’t swearing because God’s name isn’t involved.