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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   October 2008



Bring the Jubilee

If there's one thing you can count on in this life, it's an old tractor.

In the pantheon of manly rural values, loyalty is highly appreciated. Whether it's a mangy, broken-down, three-legged cow dog or a spirited woman with sand in her craw, men come to rely on certain things in life to stick with them through thick and thin. This is evidenced by the fact that we keep our underwear when it has more holes than thread, or argue the merits of a sway-backed recliner in the living room. Unfortunately, our stubborn loyalty tends to hide from us the fact that our affection can become downright ignorant, which brings me to the Lightcap family tractor.

Many moons ago, when I was a lanky lad of 13 and New Mexico was still new, my dad decided that if he was going to be a proper pecan farmer, he needed a tractor to subjugate the soil. So he went out and found him a deal on a slightly used Ford 8N Jubilee model farm tractor, with batwing-like fenders and a metal seat without cushioning. Best as we can tell, this over-engineered block of steel and bolts was forged out of a single ingot of iron back in the early 1960s sometime, and hadn't suffered any extensive pampering up to that point in time. It had tall, knobby tires that looked like they'd been chewed on by a ravenous pack of coyotes and a Krylon rattle-can patina over the sheet metal.

Dad brought it home, twisted the key, and proudly sat back as the six-volt starter whined to no avail. At that moment, he initiated a ceremony that has changed slightly over the years only in order and intensity. He jumped up, swearing softly, and checked the gas and the spark, and fiddled with the thimble-sized carburetor, and pulled on the choke rod, and wiggled the battery cables, and sprayed highly flammable starting fluid up its snout until it coughed and caught, painfully settling into a smoky, uneven idle. Happy at last, he jumped into the pie-pan seat and put it in gear, dragging behind an implement designed to eviscerate weeds.

As an unlicensed teen driver, I actually volunteered for tractor duty, as it was the closet thing to driving I could do with my parents' blessing. When I was bouncing in that metal-sprung seat, I was a racecar driver, a long-haul trucker and a teamster. I would whip it around in top gear, and do donuts with the wheel brakes. One time, I drove it to the convenience store, using only ditch banks, to get me a soft drink. (Country boys think pulling up in a tractor is way more cool than a family sedan, anyway.)

As fine an example of Detroit engineering as the old Ford tractor is, it has suffered its wounds under Lightcap family care. I ran it into a pecan tree when I was young, and sprung its front sheet metal to where the hood has never closed fully since. My brother stuck it up to the hubs in a mud hole, and it took a week to dig it out. My father slipped it into gear inadvertently once, and got run over as the unmanned tractor idled away. It was stopped by the wall of my grandmother's house, which wasn't good for her blood pressure or the side of the house, much less the tractor. It has broken down in the field, snapped steering components, and ground bearings into dust.

The old tractor looks like some sort of metallic, oversized wind chime now, with errant flaps of ill-fitting steel banging together and pieces of metal apparently welded in place by myopic drunkards. There are wallowed-out braces and brackets, and things that seem to remain assembled only through the inexplicable forces of magnetic attraction or static electricity. The entire air intake is constructed of cut-up rubber houses, duct tape and baling wire. The bug-eyed headlights are as cockeyed as Marty Feldman, with the non-functioning bulbs aimed in mutually exclusive directions at all times. The only gauges that still work are the temperature gauge, which shows how hot the engine is before it stops running, and the oil-pressure gauge, which confirms that engine is no longer running.

Yet, every two weeks, it unfailingly executes its timeworn tasks with the turn of a key, the jiggle of the choke, and the finagling of the throttle lever. It burps and farts and wheezes to life, popping out wraiths of black soot as it warms to the job and growls to life. After every use, it seems there is something else that needs to be bolted down, adjusted, epoxied or welded, but this somehow fails to get done before the next two weeks goes by. Like an oversized mechanical cockroach, the tractor will likely continue to go on living long after a nuclear holocaust, outlasting its makers. It is over-built and under-powered, which is a recipe for mechanical reliability and longevity.

The battered, leaky, bent and lopsided Ford 8N Jubilee has been parked in the Lightcap family barn for about 30 years now. By all rights, it should have been put out of its misery in 1992, when its pre-Mesozoic engine block was torn into and rebuilt. It should receive a kind of Viking funeral where it's floated out into the irrigation ditch, set on fire and shot repeatedly until it sinks. It should be allowed to slowly dissolve back into the earth, its components disintegrating into rust molecules and bits of ozone until it's only a dark, oily stain on the soil. Instead, like an old dog or a good woman, it stands by, ready to answer the call.

Thus proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is nothing more stupid or stubborn than a Ford 8N Jubilee farm tractor.

Henry Lightcap can be found atop his tractor, every two weeks, in Las Cruces.



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