Sunday, February 13, 2011

Drop Dead Road Signs

When I was ten, dad asked me to take our 730 John Deere tractor and head over to one of our farms about 6 miles away from the home place. He said he would be along shortly in the pickup.

The old 730 was a two-cylinder gas machine with long vertical hand controls for the throttle and clutch rising up from the floor to the right of the steering wheel. It was your typical Johnny Popper as the old John Deere tractors are affectionately called. I loved that tractor. Dad bought it new around 1960 and I felt fortunate enough to find it later in life and buy it back from a guy who had restored it.

I headed for the farm at top speed which was around 15 miles an hour. After traveling for 3 miles, I began to feel the effects of what I later learned to be ADHD. Reaching the top of a large hill, Johnny and I approached an intersection where we had to make a right turn. Being a mature 10 year-old and loving a challenge, as I got closer to the turn, I decided to see if I could take the 90-degree corner at top speed.

As I went into the turn, I realized I had neglected to foresee a change in road conditions. If it had continued on to the side road, the pavement would have allowed me to turn at high speed and still stick to the desired route without much trouble. However, the gravel road I was turning on became like an ice skating rink, even though it was a hot summer day.

The tractor started sliding sideways as soon as I hit the gravel. It slid toward the outside of the turn with the force of an astronaut’s centrifuge, skidding off the road and into the deep barrow pit. I frantically turned the steering wheel righter and righter, trying to get back up on the road.

I had my hands full. I couldn’t slow down or stop because I was 100% occupied with the steering wheel. Since I didn't have 3 hands, I couldn’t grab the clutch or gas handles. There were no clutch or gas foot controls on this baby! No seat belt left me hanging on for dear life by clutching the steering wheel and trying to steer at the same time while bouncing through the off-road terrain.

A 3” square solid metal tool bar was hooked on the back of the tractor, ten feet across and poking out a foot or so on each side of the speeding green machine. Krrack!! As Johnny Popper and I slid into the barrow pit at full speed, I heard the outstretched tool bar strike and snap off the stop sign post located at my nine o’clock position. The wood beam broke at ground level.

It's amazing what a guy has to do to create the visual effect of a stop sign knocked down. It's lucky I'm not in jail for recreating the John Deere accident scene of 1966.

Even though the stop sign was for traffic coming the other way, for the first time in my young life, I really wanted to obey it. Johnny didn’t. So, we did it his way and continued bouncing along the side of the road at full speed. I had the front wheels cranked to the right as far as they would go and yet the tractor insisted on barreling along in the side ditch.

The wheels were sliding, unable to turn the tractor as the momentum, the slope we were on and relatively slick dirt and gravel kept the tractor in the gutter. Finally, the front tires found some traction and we shot back up on the road.

However, my speed was still topped out and before I could react, we shot across the road and ended up in the exact same configuration and motions as we had previously experienced. The only difference was we were now on the other side of the road in the opposite gutter and trying to turn left instead of right.

Krrack!! Up until that moment there had been a “SLOW, CURVES AHEAD” sign standing erect on the opposing side of the road from the stop sign location. This was no longer the case. In less than 10 seconds, I had taken out two signs and installed some new and deep tire ruts in the off-road gutters. Finally, after I had motored another 100 feet or so, I was able to reach up and pull the clutch back, hit the 2 foot-pedal brakes and stop my ride.

I needed a break. I deserved a rest. I singled-handedly had stopped a renegade John Deere. The adrenalin was pumping. I felt I had just avoided a major problem, namely my death. But there was still a minor problem. Two county warning signs were toast and my dad was going to show up at any moment. I jumped off the tractor and ran a 75-yard dash back to the fallen stop sign. The 4’ by 4’wooden post had sheared off right at ground level. It lay comatose.

I was able to raise the stop sign back up to a vertical stance by hoisting it up, wrapping both my arms around it, holding it against my body and grunting repeatedly as I righted the sign. After finally getting the red part pointing heavenward, I was able to lift the entire assembly up a few inches and set it back down on the splintered base. It was critical that I matched the top splinters that were on the bottom of the post I was clutching with the bottom splinters that were on the top of the post in the ground.

At this point, I began moving the post around until I had it perfectly balanced. I stepped back, amazed at the good luck I was finally experiencing. That baby was balanced and holding--locked up, splinter to splinter. The red octagon stood in its full majestic splendor; ready once again to stop anybody coming down the pike. The splintered tongue and groove repair job and balancing act had turned a potentially disastrous “father sees broken sign spectacle and kills kid” into a miraculous healing act that would show up Oral Roberts at a staged leprosy revival.

The only sign of the break were the splinters at the base. I hurriedly scooped dirt and gravel around the post and soon had a nice little mound covering the injury. It didn’t lend any additional support but made the scene look authentic and untouched.

“I just might make it,” I said to myself.

So far, there was no sign of dad. I raced back to the “Curves Ahead” sign and began replicating the previous repair. This one was harder to balance. As I worked, I kept looking over my shoulder, wishing with all my might for dad to NOT come around the bend. I barely finished teaching the sucker to stand on its own when I saw dad approaching the fiasco in his pickup.

“Am I going to pull this off?” I wondered as I stepped back and admired my work while still keeping a hand on it for stability’s sake.

As he approached and began making the turn to head my way, Lady Luck picked a most inopportune moment to run out on me. The stop sign decided it was time to return to its prone position. My dad is the only person in the world who has had a stop sign drop dead, without any visible forces, right in front of him. I’m sure he was bewildered. I know I was.

His confusion was compounded as I relinquished my stability-lending stance and let go of the second sign. A lumberjack would have yelled “Timber!” I whispered “Oh crap.” My dad pulled up and jumped out of his pickup. “What in the heck is going on?”

I explained the situation, putting my driving skills in the best light possible. Dad didn’t buy it. We declared the signs deceased and went back to farming. I listened to tractor-driving safety tips the rest of the day.

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