The Poppin’ John

It seems as though one spring, I suddenly jumped out of my baby shoes, tossed away my Tinker Toys and climbed onto a farm tractor. Actually, I was almost 10 at the time but from that point on, I spent every summer with my skinny little rear end planted on one.

I broke in on a 1929 McCormick Deering model 15-30 (15 horsepower on the drawbar and 30 on the power take-off, in case you are interested). It was a rather sweet old brute with iron wheels all around where today there’s rubber, always started after a few minutes of winding it up like a clock with the crank and, properly fed and watered, just kept right on running. But speed was not one of its features and in low gear, it was hard to tell if you were really moving. So I could jump off, chase a baby rabbit or a field mouse, then catch up and climb back aboard until something else interesting came along.

One afternoon, with my timing off a bit, the old 15-30 came to the end of the field with nobody at the helm, decided it was supposed to just go straight ahead and chugged out onto the prairie dragging a quarter mile of barbed wire fence before I could catch up with it. That night during dessert, Dad said, “Son, jumping off a tractor in front of a disk plow is not the smartest stunt in the world. First of all, if you stubbed your toe, the whole rig could end up in Dugout Coulee and I don’t have the cash right now for a new one. But worst of all, we might have to spend a lot of time lookin’ around in the field for body parts so we could have a decent funeral before the coyotes got to ’em.” Then he grinned, squeezed my knee under the table and said, “Just think about it.” So I looked down at my half-eaten cherry pie with the crimson juices trickling out on the plate and thought about it. And passed out cold with my face in the pie.

Later from upstairs I heard Mom say, “That was a pretty harsh way to handle a problem. You know what a vivid imagination he has and now he might have nightmares for a week.”

“Jennie, don’t worry about it. He’ll be fine in the morning. And I’ll bet you the price of a movie in town against your butter and egg money that he won’t do it again.”

I don’t know whether Dad ever collected on that bet but I never again jumped off a moving tractor.

A year later, Dad presented me with a tractor of my own, the contrary and capricious 1930 John Deere model “D.” Home from school one afternoon, I found it crouching in the yard like a giant green cast iron grasshopper resting up after lunch and as I started toward the thing, Dad put his arm around me and said, “Bob, last week the Fairchild place cleared escrow so now it’s ours but the sod needs busting and I figure you and this tractor are just right for the job.”

“OK,” I said, “but this darn thing doesn’t even have a crank on it. How in hell do you get it started?”

“Well,” he said, “the delivery guy left some instructions. You can probably figure ’em out.” Then he handed me a hunk of paper covered with oily fingerprints, whistled to the dog and headed for the barn and the milk cows. But he turned around long enough to remind me not to swear in front of Mom.

What the “instructions” lacked in detail, they made up for in brevity. Printed by hand in block letters, they were barely legible but I finally read: “First put everything in nootal. Set throtel halfway and advance spark lever. Squirt some gas in pet cok on both cylinder. Grab flywheel on top and pull toard front of engine. Should start on second pull. Will mebbie take more in cold weather.”

So I circled the beast warily, took a good look at it and made sure it had a good look at me, checked the oil, fuel and water, re-read the starting instructions, then grabbed the top of the flywheel, put my whole 110 pounds into it and pulled. And I’ll be danged if it didn’t start on the first try! But its voice was that of a breed apart because the engine was an exquisitely simple device comprised mainly of two big horizontal cylinders and instead of the usual roar, rumble or drone, it went “Poom-poom, poom-poom, poom-poom” like a couple of cannons firing slightly out of sync. And that is why it became lovingly known as the “Poppin’ Johnny.”

The mild warning about cold weather turned out to be an understatement and one brisk morning with a cramp in my arm from yanking on the flywheel, I stood back mad and frustrated and yelled, “You fud-plucking’, egg-suckin’, devil-lovin’ pile of iron! If you don’t start next pull, I’m gonna take an axe and chop off both your spark plugs!”

Unfortunately, Mom happened to be passing by on her way from the hen house and she marched up, shook her finger at me and said, “Bobby Brust, I don’t care how old you are. I should give your mouth a good washing out with soap for swearing like that!”

“But Mom,” I said. “I wasn’t swearing and you know I never use dirty words.”

She thought a moment, sniffed and said, “Well, it sure sounded like it.” Then went in with her eggs.

I broke in the John Deere and myself with a little light work for a week or so and it turned out to have a lot of character for a tractor. If I chose a gear normally appropriate for the 15-30, the Poppin’ Johnny’s engine would rev up uncomfortably as if to say, “Hey, pal, we can go faster than this.” Then after I shifted up one gear, it would settle down to a steady beat like a bass drum doing double time in a marching band. That old tractor just loved hard work but there was one minor problem: it sprayed oil like a cat in heat. A small trickle of oil seeped through the main bearing alongside the flywheel, which worked fine except the flywheel picked it up and flung it onto the operator, imprisoned in the driver’s seat. So at the end of a day, I came home with a line of dust and oil two inches wide that started at my crotch and ended above the left eyebrow.

In May, the Poppin’ Johnny and I went to work busting sod and we were both sorely tested. Dad had borrowed a three-bottom moldboard plow from a neighbor, marked the new parcel’s boundaries with a first pass around the perimeter, then turned the tractor, plow and project over to me. As he climbed down off Johnny, he rubbed his right arm and said, “Son, this tractor of yours does keep a person a might busy. But, anyway, there you are; 320 acres of the best piece of land in Chouteau County just waiting to be busted up. Now let’s go see what your mother has for supper.”

In those days, two of my favorite people were Aunt Grace and Uncle Jack Woodahl, who lived in Great Falls, loved to visit the ranch and always brought along an assorted bag of candy bars for me and various other goodies for my folks. That evening, we were greeted by the sight of Uncle Jack’s latest acquisition: a brand new, cream colored, 1938 Buick parked in regal splendor by the front gate. Also there was some good news and some mildly disconcerting news for me. The good news was a week’s supply of Milky Ways and Mars Bars; the other was Jack’s itch to break in the new car with a trip to Seattle. He wanted Mom and Dad to go along and since it was between seasons at the flour mill, he and Aunt Grace had decided to leave in a couple of days. Well, this was a proposition that had to be considered from several angles. After all, they would be gone from the farm for three weeks; also it would cost some money and finally, somebody had to be around to take care of the post office. About supper time, Frank Kelly, our on-again, off-again star boarder, rode in on his horse, Fox, and afterward, I excused myself for bed but instead grabbed a book, turned on the hall light and listened to the conversation drifting up through the air register. “Look, Roy,” said Uncle Jack, arguing his case, “this is the best time ever for us to get away. The mill is down for three weeks, you won’t have to do any more spring weeding for a solid month and besides, Grace and Jennie’s relatives aren’t getting any younger.” Then Dad’s bass voice rumbled but Mom interrupted, “Well,” she said, “ I sure would like to see Uncle Edgar and Aunt Fay again after all these years. But I hate to leave Bobby alone. After all, he is only 12.”

“Oh heck, Jennie,” Dad said. “All he has to do is bust some sod and milk a couple of cows. He can take his time at it and, besides, Kelly will be around most of the time to look after things. How about that, Kel?”

“Sure thing, Roy,” he said. “I’ll be here at meal times and on mail days. Just show me where Jennie keeps the bacon, beans and canned beef.” Then he cackled, because to the grand little guy, almost everything was funny.

After that, the conversation drifted until finally, Uncle Jack said, “OK, it’s settled. We’ll stay here for the night, spend tomorrow in Great Falls and leave the next day. So, Jennie why don’t you start packing and Grace and I’ll do the dishes.”

I drifted off to sleep during a lot of thumping and bumping from the stairwell below as Mom dragged out the old suitcases. Next morning, Dad told me to charge anything I needed to his account at the parts shop in Fort Benton and they all got into the new Buick and headed for the Great Northwest. So that left Frank Kelly, Duke and me at home. And all I had to do was bust 320 acres of sod, milk a couple of cows and survive Kel’s cooking.

Right away, I discovered why Dad came away massaging his arm the day before. Under a heavy load, the Poppin’ Johnny’s front end got light, the steering became erratic and I had to stand astraddle of the seat and furiously crank the wheel back and forth with the “neckin’ knob” to keep us on course. When, after three days of this, I had to use my left arm to raise the fork to my mouth at supper, I knew it couldn’t go on any longer. So I resurrected an old anvil out of the junk pile, rigged a block and tackle on three fence posts and finally got the thing into the back of the pickup. Then I jacked it onto the front axle of the tractor and baling wired it in place. The Poppin’ Johnny didn’t seem to notice the extra ballast, the steering steadied out a bit and I could sit down once in a while for a change. But the process of herding the machine along, shifting gears, changing throttle settings and jumping on and off to pick stray rocks out of the plow was so physically demanding that for the first few days, I wasn’t sure I was up to it. I even skipped my evening shower and just fell into bed bone-tired after supper. One morning Kel got a whiff of me from down wind and cackled, “You know, Bobby, they say cleanliness is next to godliness and at the rate your goin’, Ol’ Scratch may come and git you any minute.” So I cleaned up my act and after about a week, my muscles became adjusted to the routine and I stopped having nightmares about tearing Jim Barnes’ three-bottom plow to bits on the biggest rock in Chouteau County.

Then one day, the Poppin’ Johnny became seriously ill with what sounded like pneumonia. That normal deep “poom-poom, poom-poom” turned into “poom-wheeze-band-poom-gasp” and at the farthest point from the pickup and the right tools, he suddenly quit cold. I trudged back to get the truck, went through the usual diagnosis, checked fuel, air and ignition and finally settled on the magneto as the prime suspect. Well, there was only one thing to do; I stopped by the house, left Kel a note, picked two bucks out of Mom’s cookie jar for sustenance and drove the 35 miles to Fort Benton for a new magneto, but a flat tire on the way got me there 15 minutes after the repair shop closed for the day. That night, I had a hamburger and milkshake for supper, spent the night on a bench in the park, lulled to sleep by the gurgle of the Missouri River 50 yards away and woke up the next morning covered with mosquito bites. Had another hamburger and milkshake for breakfast and picked up the new mag. Then, refreshed by a brief respite from Kelly’s cooking, I headed home and late that afternoon, Johnny responded nicely to the heart transplant and “poom-poomed” back to life.

The days eventually settled down to an almost comfortable routine: up at six to coax four gallons of milk out of Annie and Mildred, run the cream separator while Kel made bacon and greasy fried potatoes, fix a sack lunch and a thermos of black coffee and head for the field. Actually, it got to be sort of fun out there under a brilliant blue sky, watching the rich, black virgin sod curl up behind the plowshares and Duke prancing along with his nose in the fresh furrows. One day at noon with Johnny resting too, I had just finished my coffee when the wail of the train whistle floated in on the breeze and glancing up, I saw the smoke from a Great Northern freighter rolling up above the horizon 30 miles to the north. A beautiful day in Big Sky Country. And things pretty much stayed that way until Ol’ Scratch got to me one morning when he whispered in my ear and caused me to gamble with the odds stacked against me.

That morning, Kel had made biscuits and gravy with leftover fried rabbit so I climbed on Poppin’ Johnny with my belly full of food and my spirit filled with hope because after two weeks, the sod-busting was finally dang near done and there was light at the end of the tunnel. But one patch of sod, probably the site of an old spring, I had left alone since it was tinged white with alkali, some strange-looking weeds grew here and there and it looked a little dangerous. Then as Johnny, the dog and I started another detour around the area, I thought, “Gee, I can’t have Dad come home to this ugly hunk of ground in the middle of everything. We’ll just give it a little test.” So I edged the tractor closer and suddenly the right rear wheel sank up to its axle; I shifted to low gear and gave Poppin’ Johnny more gas but he couldn’t move because there was nothing solid in the muck to walk on.

I stepped out onto the alkali to see what the devil we had gotten into while Duke whimpered and hung back; after about five steps, I decided the dog was the smarter of the two of us because my right leg suddenly disappeared up to the knee in the mud. I had put old Johnny and the plow into a classic bog hole, but all was not lost; after all, there was another perfectly good tractor at home. I drove the three miles to the farmstead, parked the pickup, started the 15-30 and was back at the scene of my poor judgment within an hour, confident that we would be back in business by lunchtime. I backed the 15-30 into where we could reach the rear end of the plow with a log chain, unhitched the plow, hooked up the chain and the old McCormick Deering snaked Jim Barnes’ pride and joy out of the bog slick as a whistle. The Poppin’ Johnny was next but now with the plow out of the way, I needed to move 15 feet closer to get to him and when we backed up a bit more, the 15-30 gave a nasty lurch, sank to its axles and just sat there droning contentedly while its wheels spun idly in the mud. Now I was completely out of tractors.

“Well,” I thought. “I’m not licked yet. There’s still another set of wheels back at the ranch.” So I tossed Duke half my sandwich, gulped a cup of coffee, hiked home and loaded a bunch of fence posts and another length of chain in the pickup and drove back to the bog hole. I stuffed those posts under the 15-30’s wheels until they were gone but the old tractor just broke ’em to splinters with his iron wheels and refused to budge. “OK,” I thought. “I guess I’ll have to go for help. We’ll just drive over to the Stewarts and borrow the D-6 Cat; that old baby should get us out of here in jig time.” But when I started for the pickup, it was not where I had parked it; in my hurry to get out of trouble, I had left it in neutral, it had rolled down the slope and was squatting in the hole recently vacated by the plow. So now I had managed to immobilize all the rolling stock on the ranch.

I hadn’t really cried for quite a while but I did that day. Sitting on the front bumper of the pickup with my head in my hands and sobbing, I finally took a deep breath, shook my fist at the heavens and croaked, “Lord, you haven’t been very good to me today and I know it was all my fault, but I sure do need some help about now.”

So He smote me with an idea and the words in my brain went RETURN TO THE EARTH THAT WHICH YE HAVE TAKEN FROM IT and, as I wiped away the tears, I spied a huge pile of rocks 50 feet away that we had picked off the place that spring. One at a time, I lugged those boulders over, stomped them down in front of the 15-30’s rear wheels, and then, with the first Appian Way that had ever graced Chouteau County in place, climbed aboard, let out the clutch and the old tractor crawled gracefully out of the mud hole. Next we hauled out the pickup and then Johnny, covered with mud and looking a bit disgruntled.

That evening over Kel’s supper of canned meat, scrambled eggs and burned baked beans, he said, “Bobby, ridin’ back from Basin today, I could have swore you had both tractors over on the Fairchild place. Or was I jist seein’ things?”

“No, Kel,” I said. “You’re right. I had a little problem and needed both of ’em for a while today. By the way, do we have any ketchup in the house? I’m not complaining but this particular combination does call for a little taste killer.”

On the fourth day of the third week, we dug the last furrow down the middle of the 320 acres, caught Kel on his way back from Basin Coulee so he could bring the pickup home with Fox tied on behind and the Poppin’ Johnny and I delivered the moldboard plow back to Jim Barnes’. There I pulled out a check, a bit worse for wear from spending the day in my hip pocket, and said, “Jim, Dad asked me to give you this because, after all, we did take the edge off those new plowshares.”

“Nope, son,” he said, “that’s real nice of Roy but I won’t take it. We’ve been good neighbors for a lot of years and one of these days, I just might need the borry of sumthin’ he’s got. And I’d ask you in for coffee but I can smell a storm coming and you’ve got an hour’s ride ahead so you better skedaddle.” So I whistled for the dog, stuck Johnny in high gear and headed for home with a bunch of black clouds chasing us. And as we turned into the yard, I felt the first fat drops of rain on my face.

It rained for three solid days. Kel put on his slicker every morning and rode out to check on his cattle, but I just rested with the mail and magazines and didn’t do a darn thing except eat, sleep and milk the cows twice a day. On the fourth day, the sun burned the clouds away, the land lay steaming in the heat and that afternoon, the ’38 Buick drove in with its beautiful paint job the color of black Montana mud. But everybody piled out grinning from ear to ear because that mud meant a good crop of spring wheat for the folks and more business for General Mills. Then Aunt Grace gave me a sack of candy and a big hug and said, “Gracious, you’re even skinnier than when we left and all sunburned and your fingernails look like they are in mourning. I’ll tend to them after supper.” Of course they stayed over and I had to sleep on the davenport but didn’t mind at all because my belly was full of Mom’s fried chicken, with mashed potatoes and gravy on the side.

The next day, Dad was itching to see the newly plowed ground so we put chains on the pickup and drove over. I’ll have to admit feeling a flood of pride as we came over the hill and saw that field of fresh black loam glimmering in the morning sun. Later, Dad picked up a handful of moist earth, crumbled it with his fingers and said, “You know, this has to be the best dang piece of ground in the county and it’s just aching to be planted this fall. And son, you did a fine job but your mother worried all the time we were gone.” Then he put his arm around me and said, “Hope you didn’t have any trouble.”

I took a deep breath, swallowed hard and said, “No, Dad, no trouble at all. Actually, it was a piece of cake.”

I did casually mention an alkali bog in the west end that I had decided to avoid and one afternoon from across the field, I watched him study the marks of the battleground there, then walk over and stare pensively at the mostly depleted rock pile. A bill for the new magneto finally floated in. He never asked any questions but that fall when I started high school, he gave me, for no apparent reason, the first and only bicycle I ever owned.

Johnny and I spent five more seasons together, became fast friends and developed a lot of mutual respect. Over the years, I benefitted from that relationship many times when things got tough and hard to bear because there is nothing quite like a few summers on a Poppin’ Johnny for building character.

Submitted by,

Robert L. Brust

Walnut Creek, CA