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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Kent Ballard - A Day in the Woods


I took the truck back into the woods to drag up a log or two to the
woodlot. The weatherman said the bottom was going to fall out of the
thermometer and I wanted extra wood handy in case I wanted to run all
three woodburners. The cold snap was supposed to last several days.
Driving along in the truck, dodging trees and maneuvering my way through
the forest, I came to a large tree that had been blown completely over
in a storm a couple of years ago. We'd had several moderate snowstorms
and although I knew the tree base had a massive hole around it where the
root ball had been pulled out of the ground, the snow had covered the
hole and I couldn't see the extent of it. I hugged the tree on the
right-hand side of the truck, thinking I could miss the big hole. WRONG.
I drove my left-front wheel off into the hole and the truck thumped down
at least two feet on that side. I tried backing out in 4x4 Low Range. No
dice. I was hung up--badly.

It'd take something else to get the truck free, more power, more
traction, some kind of help. I got Tess and the Jeep Grand Cherokee and
extra chains to attempt to pop the truck up and out of the hole.
Although the Jeep is the luxury edition ( a Laraedo, or however you
spell it), it's still a Jeep. I've seen it go through snow and mud
almost magically, as if it had tank tracks. (A little plug for Jeeps,
there. Damn good vehicles.)

But it wasn't enough. We couldn't even budge the truck, and almost
buried the Jeep itself trying. When you get a Jeep stuck, you're looking
at a very serious problem indeed. So we abandoned that idea.

Next off to the tractor. It was getting colder now, the wind picking up
out of the north. And we were burning daylight. The sun was nearing the
horizon. I hooked everything up with chains, cleared a straighter path
to pull from, and with all the activity in that general area we had
already chewed up the earth pretty badly. In a nutshell, it was my
fault. By refusing to give up, I managed to dig the tractor into the mud
far enough that it, too, was now stuck.

I shut it down and got off. I'd managed to tear up the first, frosted
layer of earth and leaves and everything below that was still mud. Soupy
mud, now. There was no sense in spinning any more wheels or trying fancy
tricks like stomping on one tractor brake when that wheel started
spinning, then stomping on the other when that wheel started spinning.
Darkness was coming on and the wind was like a knife. Tess and I hiked
back to the house, leaving all the tools and chains and vehicles where
they were. There was nothing else to do.

I have a couple of neighbors with tractors that could pull my Ford
sideways, *modern* farming tractors with four wheel drive and diesel
engines that weigh about as much as my whole tractor. When it was made,
my tractor was considered a moderate-sized unit. Nowadays it's a tiny
thing compared to the monsters that are used to feed the world every
year. I came in the house and called one friend of mine, and got no
answer. Nuts. Of course not. It was New Year's Eve, and I knew wherever
he was my pal would be pretty well into his cups even by sunset. He and
his wife must have been out at a party or something, as there was no
answer at his house. I left a message on his answering machine and then
started to call another neighbor, then realized this was probably the
worst night of the year to try to describe my problem to anyone over the
phone. It was a holiday for for everyone else. For me, it was just
another Thursday night. And a damned cold one at that.

I went over my options. I have two come-alongs. For those who might not
be familiar with such things, a come-along is kind of a hand-cranked
winch. You chain one end to something solid, and the other to whatever
you hope to move, and start cranking. One has a pulling power of 1.5
tons, the other was 2 tons. Also I have a chain-fall, another manual
pulling gizmo that's rated at 3 tons. With everyone going to be hung
over today, I didn't want to call and ask for help. I'd help a neighbor
if *I* was hung over, but I'd hate him for calling me.

So that's where I left it last night. I'd wait until Saturday when my
friends were more or less recovered and call them then. If no one could
come, or if they were gone on holiday, or if their tractors were torn
apart for winter servicing, I'd try to hook up all my manual winches
and...well, to tell the truth, I hoped it wouldn't come to that. I
didn't have much faith in that idea. When you bury a tractor, it
generally takes one twice it's size to get it out. We're talking some
serious pulling power. And then there was all that bloody mud to deal
with, which reduces the traction on anything trying to pull on it.

Last night was kind of peculiar for me. I was up and down a dozen times.
I couldn't get the problem off my mind, I guess. Didn't sleep well at
all, and when I did fall asleep finally it was just before dawn.
Meanwhile, the temperature had been dropping all the time...

We just had a fire in the fireplace last night, watching the silly ball
drop in Times Square and then listening to the hail of gunfire coming
from every direction of the compass. The gas furnace carried the brunt
of heating the house, and that irked me. Humph! Paying for heat! I hate
the concept. Of course, it beats freezing but still, it aggravates me.
We usually burn a 500 gallon tank of propane every winter, but I have it
filled in July or August, right at the hottest time of the year when the
gas company's prices are at their very lowest. Once we went nearly two
years before filling the thing. At that time, I was still working for
GM. Money wasn't the issue then. It's just a quirk of mine. I consider
myself to be my own oil baron when it comes to heating, as I own
literally thousands of tons--probably hundreds of thousands of tons--of
perfectly good heating fuel. I just hate paying for it. Always did.

I slept in like an actress. I came staggering out around 11:00 AM, asked
Tess if the SyFy Channel was still playing its Twilight Zone marathon,
and then went back to bed.

Around 1:00 PM I came lurching back out, still worried about how to move
several tons of vehicles out of soupy mud and deep holes, and just took
my first couple of sips of tea when the phone rang. Amazingly it was
Scott, the neighbor I'd called last night. He sounded a bit under the
weather, but asked if my vehicles were still stuck. I said, "Yeah. Bad."
He said he caught my phone message when he more or less came to this

"No sweat," he said. "We'll get 'em out. Lemme come over there in the
truck first and look at what we got, then I can decide what to bring next."

I was overjoyed. This guy has TWO almost-new John Deer tractors, the
smallest one about twice the size of mine. He also has a tracked
excavator, a handy thing on any farm, and best of all the guy also owns
a bulldozer. I've thought a couple of times about buying a 'dozer, but
could never justify the cost of one. You just don't need a bulldozer
every day, but when you DO need one, there are few things that can take
their place. Salvation was on its way!

We stopped his truck far short of where my vehicles were. I'd told him
about tearing up the shallow frost cover from the earth and making a
muddy mess out that small part of the planet yesterday. But as we walked
up to my vehicles, the ground was like a rock. Overnight temps of 10
degrees or so, then a high for the day around 18 degrees had cheerfully
refrozen everything. And this time, it was frozen far deeper. Scott
left, and I scurried about re-rigging chains. Also I had my 120 foot
long 5/8ths stainless steel aircraft cable with a big ring at each end
and the monster pulley I'd made while working at GM. I use that gear to
retrieve logs way down in valleys and ravines where it's impossible to
drive in any weather. I figured they might come in handy.

Scott came back with reinforcements, his son Jack, a little boy about
10, and a buddy who was staying the weekend with them, a fellow named
Tom. Scott and his son were riding in his Polaris 4x4, a vehicle similar
to my Mule, and Tom was rumbling along behind them on Scott's "small"
John Deer tractor. I was taken aback somewhat. I figured he'd come with
his big tractor, or maybe the dozer. But as Scott pointed out, there
wasn't much maneuvering room for his biggest tractor and his bulldozer
was notoriously hard to start at these temperatures. Besides, the
tractor he came with was four wheel drive and, as I said, about twice
the size of mine. And I knew Scott well enough that if this thing
didn't do the trick, he'd have heat lamps on his engine and carburetor
all night long out in his barn, and the dozer would be coming for sure
tomorrow. We'd get 'em out, all right. The only question was how.

I got on my tractor and went to first gear, just to break the tires
loose. They'd all frozen to the earth overnight. I managed to rock it a
bit, and broke the hold. Scott chained to me from the rear, all of us
having determined it would be best to back it out. Tom pulled for all
that tractor was worth and I didn't move three inches. His tires were
now spinning on hard frozen ground. He wasn't sinking like I did, but
his treads weren't digging in either. So we reversed everything and
tried yanking it out forward. Nope. Same thing. Scott and Tom were still
a bit hung over, and seemed surprised. I'd fought with both vehicles
yesterday afternoon and wasn't surprised as much as they were.

We decided to bypass the tractor for a moment and try to pull out the
truck. It didn't move a quarter inch. To most people, this would have
been a disappointment but Scott, like me, began to look at it as an
interesting problem in applied physics. We had the power. We just
couldn't apply it where it was needed.

Long story short, after much running around and re-rigging of chains,
Tom said what we needed was a huge block and tackle. That clicked on a
light bulb over my head...

We had the cable and the giant pulley. Normally, I can't get a straight
pull on any given log that happens to be lying at the bottom of a deep
ravine, so I chain the cable to the log, run it up to a handy tree on
level ground where I chain the pulley, and tug on the other end of the
cable which allows me to transfer the power of my tractor around an
angle. If I pull X-amount of force in one direction, the pulley and
cable transmits roughly X-amount of force from another direction, one
that I can't get my tractor to (minus a bit for friction and other
arcane physics). But...

If you attach the pulley to *whatever you are pulling* and chain one end
of the cable to a tree near your path of travel, and the other end to
whatever you're pulling with, you *double* the force. You're no longer
pulling with X-amount of force. You're pulling with 2X-force. Simple
physics. It's not as good as a block and tackle, which multiplies the
force many times, but it will at least allow you to double it.

We were running out of daylight again. We decided to try it.

I climbed atop my tractor again, the pulley hooked to my rear hitch. We
had the cable U-shaped, running from a large tree, through the pulley,
and back to the John Deer idling next to that tree. Scott gave the
signal, Tom pulled forward, pulling me *backward*, and my tractor simply
popped out of the ground. It was almost effortless, or so it felt from
my seat. Scott's son let out a cheer. I felt like cheering too, but my
teeth were clattering too hard by then.

One free, one to go.

I pulled the tractor far out of the way and asked Scott to have his son
walk some distance off. I didn't see any way we could generate enough
force to snap that super-cable of mine, but I didn't want to take any
chances. Pulling with a cable too weak is a very, very deadly thing to
do. When it breaks, all that energy sends the cable flying like a giant
steel bullwhip. I saw the results of this at GM once. It decapitated a
man. Such cables can also cut you completely in half if they hit you in
the torso. If that poor man had to go that way, he was lucky. It was
over with before he knew what hit him.

I climbed in the truck, started it, and put the thing in reverse. We had
the pulley chained to my rear towing hitch, the same U-shape in the
cable, the whole nine yards. I thought there might be the possibility
that I could tear the whole front end out from under my truck as the
wheel was well under the rim of the hole. But on some things you just
gotta take a chance.

Tom pulled again, and from the inside of my cab it felt as if I simply
drove backwards in a normal manner. The wheel mashed a new track coming
out of the hole, the front of the truck rose like a submarine surfacing,
and in less time than it takes to type it, I was out.

I felt like a great weight had been lifted off me. Both vehicles free,
no massive damage, no rollovers, no snapped and lethal flying cables,
everyone managed not to drive or fall over a nearby cliff, and most
importantly, everyone was safe.

As Scott and his son were ready to pull out in his Polaris, I asked him
if I could come over tomorrow with enough diesel fuel to at least fill
his tractor. He just laughed and said not to worry about it, this
afternoon's adventures had given him something to do and had actually
been kind of interesting. I thanked them again and they bounced off in
the little 4x4. Tom came along behind them, and I thanked him too. He
just grinned and waved, dropping the tractor into road gear and driving
out of sight. All the mess, the pulley, the cables, the chains, and
whatnot are still back there as by then it was too dark to gather them.
But I can get them tomorrow, and now with the ground freezing deeper by
the hour I'll have good "pulling weather".

To me it's always remarkable that folks who live in cities think that
country folk lead "the quiet, simple life."

Yeah. You bet.




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