Tractor-splitting bragging rights

I used to be fond of bragging that I “can split a tractor anywhere.” “Splitting” a tractor refers to separating the 2 halves of the machine and rolling these halves apart. In so doing, access to repair such things as the clutch, transmission innards and, in some cases, major hydraulic components is achieved. Nowadays, that statement doesn’t carry as much weight as it once did because moving an inoperative tractor some distance over the road has become a more or less routine matter.

Not too long ago moving a tractor involved a loading ramp, usually made of logs or railroad ties and a few tons of rock and dirt fill. Of course, this ramp was immovable so the disabled tractor had to be somehow moved to the ramp to be loaded onto a flatbed truck. A similar ramp would be essential at the tractor’s destination as well. The alternative was to hire an expensive rollback truck (if one could be found) or hire an excavating contractor to move the machine between jobs — also a difficult and expensive proposition.

Today, though, it seems that everybody has a heavy-duty pickup truck and a large flatbed trailer that they paid too much money for and are dying to use for something other than transporting lawn mowers, mulch, chicken wire and garden gnomes.

For me, the last field split was around 2006 on a Kaoti along the road to Bloomfield, (aka Monkey Town) Va. Shortly prior to that was a Kubota clutch job for the former owner of what is now Blue Hollow Farm near Millwood and a Torque Amplifier replacement at Buck Run Farm near Middleburg. Major tractor splits are still performed at the private farm museum at Middleburg but I consider this to be almost a shop, a Loudoun County counterpart to the North River Mills facility.

Some of these occasions have titles — in my mind, anyway. One that has provided the most bragging opportunities for me is the 1998 split that I refer to as “Massey Picasso.” During this split I removed, repaired and replaced the engine in then U. S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s Massey Ferguson 135 on her farm near Hillsboro. This left the remaining parts of the tractor perched in the hay field at grotesque angles, hence the name.

In this age of paranoia about being watched by the government, I am nonetheless flattered to know that somewhere deep in the Pentagon are satellite images of me working on the old Massey. The Diplomatic Service (Secret Service only guards the president) guys were friendly and probably would have pitched in had they been allowed to set their weapons down. Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat visited the jobsite — what his impressions were remains unclear. In those days, much of my work was for high government officials and I probably have a spy satellite named after me — but that would be classified.

I know that naming these events sounds a little crazy. However, my most challenging split was circa 1995 — and is entitled… well, maybe I should explain the circumstances first lest I convince the reader that I’m truly certifiable. Ahem. This split involved a mid-50s International/Farmall 300 Utility tractor. The tractor’s oil pan had hit a rock, a very common problem in the lower slung Internationals. The impact caused a sudden stopping of the crankshaft and a subsequent sheering of the teeth of the camshaft gear. This could be repaired in the field though a “front split” — the removal of the front section of the tractor, which includes the radiator and front axle assembly, would be necessary.

The customer couldn’t have picked a worse place to break down unless he tried. The only access to the tractor was down a very steep bank at the east end of the bridge over the Lost River near Wardensville. The customer had actually sought the services of a rollback truck to move the disabled tractor but the driver made it clear that it was as inaccessible to him as anyone. In fact, making the site accessible to the Old Black Truck required some chainsaw work as well as rolling aside several large rocks. Finally I was able to reach the tractor with my truck’s crane and was able to proceed. Still, getting in and out of the site held its own adventures with each visit.

Then the gnats emerged from deep in the riverside leaf and twig humus, thick clouds of well-fed, very animated bugs that flourished in this moist environment. No amount of swatting could noticeably diminish their numbers or keep them at bay. However, building a smoky fire of damp, rotted twigs upwind was, to my surprise and delight, very effective at making the gnats choose to do their gnat business somewhere else.

Finally, I had gotten the tractor apart, made my parts list and called the parts order in to Browning Equipment of Purcellville, Va. This International/Farmall parts getting place has daily deliveries to Winchester Equipment. It was then time to wait for everything to fall into place and go do something else for a few days. It was then that the customer informed me that WVDOT intended to demolish the bridge with the official starting date of the project 3 days hence. After that, we might look for the tractor under about 10 feet of fill and debris.

I expedited the parts acquisition by going after them myself instead of awaiting delivery and got the tractor running just prior to the project date. A steady rain set in as I was finishing and the customer drove the tractor up the steep incline. However, the Old Black Truck was unable to make the climb on the slippery, wet surface. An assist from the Farmall brought my truck up to the highway. The customer and I settled up our business by the side of the highway and went our separate ways, leaving WVDOT only an empty space to fill.

Driving away, I felt victorious — almost invincible. In the spirit of a fighter pilot’s victory roll, I floored the throttle of the truck’s big 390 cubic inch V8 as I imagined the engine’s tall red Mercury valve covers leading the truck on a valiant charge up mountainous Route 259. I loudly intoned a famous instrumental piece from a Wagner (pronounced “vog-ner”) opera. Thus the title of this split became “Ride of the Valve Covers.” (Sorry.)

These days, the once greasy crane that had lifted a multitude of tractor transmissions and more than a few diesel engines, seldom picks up anything more substantial than the front half of a zero turn mower for blade sharpening. Its cable shows a light patina of rust. I find myself using phrases like “back in the day” a lot.

But I can still split a tractor anywhere — though I doubt that anyone cares. And unless I explain, they usually don’t know what I’m talking about anyway. But I’m holding on to my hard-earned bragging rights — for what it’s worth. And that’s what it’s like to approach 60.

 

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