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The Runaway Cotton Picker

The first cotton picker I ever drove was a Farmall one-row model. I seem to remember it was permanently mounted on a Model M or maybe it was an H. I was about fourteen or fifteen years old. The cotton had been picked over once and needed scrapping. Anyone who has ever scrapped cotton knows what a long, boring job it can be. You go up and down the middles for what seems like hours trying to get a basketfull of cotton. Suffice to say this was the perfect job for a young man my age. In the old days, it was worth it to scrap your cotton even if you only got a bale a day. In these modern times it seems that no one scraps their cotton anymore. What with the cost of fuel and such, scrapping has become a thing of the past. Anyway, back to my story. I was pretty familiar with driving a tractor so after a few rounds made on the picker with the owner showing me which levers did what, he dismounted and I was left in control of the monster all alone. I was appropriatley alert for several rounds but after awhile, as they say, familiarity breeds contempt, or in my case utter boredom. I began to let my mind wander. As is usually the case in the fall of the year down here in Louisiana, we had already started getting some of our winter rains by this time and the ground was somewhat muddy. I was picking along in second gear nearly asleep at the wheel when all of a sudden the cotton picker became a live being. By that I mean it made a sharp turn to the right and began to buck up and down as it crossed the cotton rows at right angles to my original direction. I was instantly jolted from near slumber to intense horror so much so that I believe I actually cried out. I began to spin the steering wheel, first one way, then the other, to try and head the beast back in the right direction. With the ground being muddy the single guide wheel just continued to slide over one row into the next. The brakes on this particular picker had long since ceased to function so no amount off stomping produced the desired result of helping to turn the picker back down the cotton middles. Finally some far recessed instinct emerged from my mind and I pressed in the clutch which brought the raging hunk of errant metal to a halt. I then idled the engine down and put the picker in neutral. Shakingly I dismounted and taking a minute to catch my breath I began to take stock of the situation. Walking back over about ten rows I was able to discover what had happened. As I was lazily letting the picker run down the cotton rows the guide wheel had gradually began to turn to the left. But due to the muddy conditions of the field the tire did not catch anything solid at first and it simply slid down the middle allowing the picker to continue in the right direction. Ultimatley though, the wheel struck solid ground somewhere along the way and that was the point at which the entire machine made the unexpected hard right turn in the middle of the field. I returned and mounted the willy-nilly beast and began to slowly try and turn it back on the straight and narrow. Not only would it refuse to turn either direction back into any middle, it was particularly troubling to realize that the red-ripper had turned into the un-scrapped portion of the field and was now strowing cotton and crushing stalks with each move. After fighting hand to steering wheel with the behemoth only to find it and I about five more rows over in the wrong direction and still headed across the rows instead of up and down, I surrendered to it's erratic whims. I dismounted and having taken everything out of gear and leaving the engine running I proceeded back to the owners house which was only a few hundred yards away across a fence row. He looked somewhat surprised to see me, but I quickly explained what had happened. We walked back to the puffing mound of red paint and I watched as he mounted up and quickly backed the now subserviant mechanical deviant around and lined up on the row of cotton I had earlier abandoned. He then dismounted and I remounted and continued to scrap cotton. However, from this point on I paid more attention to the pile of red scrap iron and made sure to keep the wheel as straight as possible, even to the point of occasionaly stopping and leaning over the side to see if it was running true. I've picked a many a bale of cotton since that long ago day in the early 1970's and I've driven lots of different models of cotton pickers but I have never forgotten the wild ride I took the first time I was let out of the chute on my own.

MB, LA, entered 2010-07-02
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