My phone rang as I was in the middle of a task with my cattle the other day. The number was one I didn't recognize, but it was a local cell phone number, so I answered. Seeing as how I was in the feedlot and could see my cowherd nearby, this seemed like a low-risk call to answer. Local calls via cell phone are usually to inform me that my herd is somewhere they shouldn't be. What with an obvious majority within plain sight, the worst this call could be would be a matter of one or two stragglers.
Nope, not even close. Granted, it was a neighbor, but it wasn't a neighbor calling to report roaming critters. No, it was a neighbor with a request. He had sort of, kind of, in a way, gotten his tractor stuck. He was curious to see if I could maybe pull him out.
Most of the “Can you pull me out?” calls come during the winter, and they are a two-parter. Part I: Can you pull me out? Part II: Once I'm out, can you blow the snow out of my driveway this time and every other time it snows from now on?
This one came during halfway reasonable weather. That was the first point in the caller's favor. The second point in his favor was technically his first name.
It's not easy to say no to someone in need who answers to the official name of Reverend. Naturally, I told The Right Reverend that I would be there shortly and get him out of his jam.
My first order of business was to go home and get the big tractor with front-wheel assist, and then throw in the key ingredient for a successful subsurface extraction.
I had to get The Snake.
Here's the deal. We used to farm a place with a lot of peat ground. Peat ground is very unusual dirt. It's sort of like standing on a marshmallow. It's spongy and sometimes springs back to its usual form, but it can be deceptive and suddenly turn into melted marshmallow quicksand. Getting stuck in peat ground is par for the course, even in a dry year.
The owner of said property used to work at the local electric cooperative. When the crew would go out to work on electrical lines and poles, they would have to drive into the road ditch a lot of the time to get next to the poles. In wet conditions, that meant getting stuck somewhat frequently. Their solution was to hook a log chain onto the stuck vehicle and pull it out with another vehicle. That worked great on most occasions. At other times, especially in deep mud, the log chain would break. Physics being one of the more unforgiving portions of science, it came back to smack them upside the head in a big way to remind them about everything they learned in physics class. There was the part about mass. There was the part about velocity. There was the part about inertia. There was the part about the mass of log chain snapping off, picking up velocity as it kept itself in motion, crashing through the windshield, and coming to rest on the driver's face.
It was pretty much MythBusters without the goggles, shields and mathematical theories.
After the third episode of windshield removal via log chain in one week, the electric co-op decided to look into other options to connect a stuck vehicle to a tugging vehicle. The solution came from the great state of South Dakota. Sioux Falls, to be exact. There is a company there by the name of Dakota Riggers that makes a really, really handy towrope. But it's not a standard towrope. A standard towrope has a chain hook on the end of it. An almost-standard procedure with a standard towrope is to hook it between two vehicles and then pull until the rope snaps, which then launches the chain hook through the windshield. Dakota Riggers staff figured out that if you put a loop at the end of the towrope and have it woven in as part of the rope, you can hook the loop at each end to the two vehicles and not have to worry about metal projectiles if it breaks.
That's all well and good, but why not go one step further and make the towrope even better? Add a bungee element to the equation. Now your towrope not only won't hurl metal at you, it will also allow you to take a running start with your pulling vehicle and have the rope extend to its full length and then shorten up under the bungee effect and thereby extract the stuck vehicle with the force and strength of both the pulling vehicle AND the bungee power of the rope's elasticity.
We invested in one of these bungee ropes after getting the combine stuck multiple times in peat ground. When it arrived and we first tried it, we were thoroughly impressed. It had the look of a python, so we dubbed it The Snake. From that point forward, all anyone had to say was "Bring The Snake" and we all knew what was meant by that request.
Our original Snake served us well for probably 20 years or so. Then, after a very wet fall in 2008 with LOTS of Snake work, it began to show signs of wear. I was given orders to get a new Snake. Lo and behold, the geniuses in marketing at Dakota Riggers no longer had the lovely grayish-blue choice for my Snake. Nope, they had white.
Let me get this straight. I'm going to be dragging this thing into the deepest, sloppiest, muddiest holes around to get stuck equipment out, and the color you went with is WHITE?
"Well, that's all we have."
Well, thank you, Henry Ford.
So I decided to go with White Snake.
White Snake was actually a bit bigger in diameter than the old one. Why, I'd be pulling out WAY bigger and WAY stucker stuff with this thing, I figured.
The white color pretty much lasted right up until the first time we pulled something out with it. After that, it was more of an earth tone. Surprise, surprise. That's why all of my Two Guys Farming hats are gray. Only desk jockey wimps would keep a white one clean.
I got the 8420 MFWD, which already had The Snake in the rock box on the front of the tractor, and headed down the road for The Right Reverend's Ranch back in the woods. He met me in the yard and ushered me deeper into the woods to the scene of the crime. The Garden of Eden, so to speak.
Sure enough, he was stuck. He was majorly, majorly stuck. The Right Reverend appeared to have been on his way to cut some firewood and he didn't quite make it across the creek. His tool of choice surprised me somewhat.
He had a front-wheel-assist loader tractor with a cab. And it was a reasonably newer machine.
To keep it interesting, the tractor wasn't working solo. It was hooked onto an old manure spreader, which appeared to me to be the implement to carry the chainsaw and related tools to the woods and return with cords and cords of firewood.
Small problem. The tractor made an attempt at crossing the creek. When it didn't work, it looked to me like maybe another attempt or ten were made. Each attempt generated a bit more of a rut. What with the front wheels also being powered to drive, the digging wasn't limited to the rear axles alone. It looked to me like the front axles threw dirt up and it was immediately grabbed by the rear axles, which then proceeded to use it as traction to dig even deeper. It was a perpetual motion machine, and the motion was all downward.
Meanwhile, the spreader remained in place on the level ground next to the creek's bank. It was perfectly horizontal. The tractor had gotten itself into sort of a 45° angle to the spreader. (Yeah, I know. It didn't do it by itself. It had a driver. But the driver is a guy named Reverend, so let's assume there was divine intervention here.)
If you hook a tractor to an implement and then suspend them in the middle until they hang at a 45° angle, you pretty much have them married to one another so tightly that Arnie Becker couldn't find a way to get them apart. I tried pounding on the hitch pin to get the spreader unhooked from the tractor, but the hitch pin wouldn't budge. That meant there was also no easy way to attach The Snake to the tractor. We ended up feeding The Snake under the length of the spreader and attaching it with a safety chain to the frame around the tractor's drawbar. It wasn't ideal, but really, it was The Snake and a couple hundred green ponies on the other end, so how tough could this be?
I got in the tractor and put it into gear to snug up The Snake. Then I drove a little further to stretch it out, fully expecting the stuck tractor to pop out of the creek at any moment as part of the whole bungee physics portion of the day's lesson.
No such luck. My tractor began to spin. The tractor in the mud didn't budge.
I backed up and decided I'd try the whole elasticity slingshot theory. Take a run at it, get The Snake extended, and then watch the tractor spring out of the sandbar like a cannonball. A Nerf cannonball, hopefully.
Again, that didn't work, so I backed up and tried again, this time with more throttle.
One of the greatest ag engineering euphemisms is "safety chain." Every piece of equipment we've bought for the past several years comes with a length of log chain that is supposed to attach the equipment to your tractor to keep it hooked on in case your hitch pin comes out. Right off hand, I'm not sure I've ever seen one in use. We always take them off and use them as handy lengths of log chain that don't require you to drag a 40-pound length of regular log chain with you for little jobs.
I didn't stop to do the math for exactly what the coefficient of drag was for the tractor in its beached position, or the amount of force exerted by my tractor, but the combined total of the two was at least one pound more than what the limit of my safety chain was. It snapped and sent The Snake recoiling through the sand underneath the manure spreader. In light of the fact I was there with a guy named Reverend, and despite the fact I was inside a lovely sound-limited cab, I managed not to spew the usual round of cuss words for such an occasion. I went with a very Sunday-friendly, "My, that was unfortunate!" instead. As soon as I said it, I'm pretty sure I heard a harp.
The Reverend and I got out and did some strategizing. I had him climb into the cab of his tractor to see if we could use the loader to get us the right leverage to pry him loose a little bit. Not only did that not do what we needed, it showed me that having the engine running in its current geography meant that all kinds of water was shooting all over the place, what with the front axles underwater and the engine fan in pretty much the same spot. As inviting as it may be, a Jacuzzi wasn't really at the top of my wish list at that moment.
I walked around the front of my tractor to see if I could get a better position for another try. That's when I saw something in the rock box that caught my eye. It was a pair of clevises. One was a straight clevis and the other one was a curved clevis. I took the two of them back to the submerged tractor to see if they'd fit around a section of frame near the drawbar. Then I took the big loop on the end of The Snake, fed the clevis through it, and then hooked the clevis onto the frame of the tractor, dropped the hitch pin in, secured it with a safety clip, and headed back to Big Green for another try. It's a whole lot easier to break a chain than it is to break a solid piece of steel like a hitch pin or a clevis, I reasoned. This was a much better arrangement than my first attempt. That was totally amateur. Idiot mistake. Obviously stupid. Duh, duh, duh.
As I sat down in the seat again, the first thing I thought of was what the heck I was going to do if THIS try failed, too. How embarrassing to have to call a bulldozer or the big wrecker from Decorah. (Not that I have used him before or have him on speed dial or anything.)
The Right Reverend was in position, ready to hit some levers and try to assist me in any way he could to get an extra boost somehow. I throttled up and began to move ahead until The Snake was snug. The Reverend's tractor was still firmly planted in the mud, so I put in the clutch, hit the throttle hard and released the clutch for a sudden jerk on The Snake. Like a slow-motion slingshot, the tractor jumped from the sandbar like it was a carrot picked from the garden. I dragged it a comfortable margin from the bank and then backed up to remove the tension on The Snake so we could unhook.
The Right Reverend was duly impressed. He was pumped when he got out of the cab. "Man! That was so cool! That thing is amazing!"
He then switched to fundraising mode. "What do I owe you? I mean, this was a nuisance for you right now, because you're busy."
I told him he didn't owe me a thing. This was just one of the benefits of having me as a neighbor. Quite frankly, all I really wanted was a picture of the whole thing from start to finish.
But, sadly, I didn't get any pictures. All I got was a chance to go to a little Garden of Eden and show one of His Chosen Ones that sometimes you need to trust The Serpent. Turn down the offer of an apple, but trust The Serpent nevertheless.
Guy No. 2