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Grandpa Hopewell and his flying tractor.


Grandpa Hopewell's nieghborscan't remember exactly when he began to fly in his tractor. They say it was a gradual process; he never had more than one wheel of the machine on the ground from the moment he bought it. He was 65 then, and they thought he would kill himself in a week. But when he was 68 he began to race the Rock Island trains into Des Moines, bouncing along beside the tracks, his white beard streaming in the wind and his thin old body bent behind the wheel like a racing driver. That was why the Rock Island put on streamliners. They had to; Grandpa Hopewell was breaking the morale of their engineers. And for a while after that, Grandpa Hopewell would just sit by the tracks and grumble and shake his fist at the sleek silver trains. But not for long. Shortly, he was up in the air knocking the steeple off the Congregational Church. Grandpa Hopewell was 70 the day he sliced off the church steeple at Stuart, Iowa, just as smoothly as though he were peeling an apple.

His neighbors say the streamlinersdrove him to do it, but the minister says it was pride. Sinful, overweening pride. He says Grandpa Hopewell wouldn't admit he was getting old.

There's something to that. Grandpahadn't meant to buy the tractor in the first place. He climbed up on it in the salesroom to see how it felt. When his daughters-in-law fluttered around him and wrung their hands and begged him to come down before he had a heart attack or another one of his liver spells, he got two red spots in his cheeks and yelled, "How d'ya hitch up this buggy, anyway?" The salesman showed him the starter and the gears but might have forgotten to mention the brake. Grandpa put his big shoe on the starter, and before his daughters-in-law had opened their eyes he was halfway home, dragging one of the salesroom doors behind him. Later, he sent a check for the tractor and the door.

From the very first, that was an uncommontractor. It had the loudest exhaust in Guthrie County. Ordinary tractors put-putted dutifully or, at the end of a day, wearily. Grandpa Hopewell's tractor whooped like a schoolboy when he started it in the morning and shouted all over the prairie when he took it out to plow the east 40. There was something magnificent about the voice of that tractor. Ten miles away they used to listen for it in March. If it sounded profane, they would say, "The ground's too wet to work" and go back to the mail-order catalog. If it sounded happy and confident, they would put on their rubber shoes and go out to the fields. The tractor was as near human as it could be, they said, without eating spareribs and sauerkraut.

Grandpa Hopewell would never letanybody tinker with his tractor. Several times the mechanic from the salesroom came out to inspect it, saying something about the wrong kind of gears being put into this model. And once a man from the home office came to see grandpa.

He said, "Mr. Hopewell, with atransmission like that, you'll kill yourself. I don't know how we ever got that mechanism in there. Why, that would drive an airplane. Now, if you will only let us make a few changes--"

Grandpa said he was satisfied, andthe man shook his head sadly and left.

There was no question aboutgrandpa's being proud of the tractor. He drove it to church as though it were a limousine. On the way, he would wave to his friends and call, "Sorry I can't pick you up; only one seat in these sport models, you know." Then he would park it, chugging and smoking, beside the banker's shiny car. His daughters-in-law pretended not to be watching. Later, they would make certain remarks on the subject, beginning with "I was never so mortified"--which was the signal for their husbands to slide behind newspapers--and ending with "I tell you, people will begin to say that old man is out of his mind"--which was the signal for their husbands to ask whether dinner was ready. By that time grandpa would be well on his way home, enjoying a friendly little race with the doctor's coupe.

Grandpa made his worst scenewhen the daughters-in-law tried to tidy up the tractor. While Adelaide talked to him in the house, Minnie and a man from the hardware store sneaked out to the barn and put a cushion and an umbrella on the tractor seat. The cushion was lovely. It was a floral design--roses and sweet peas. When grandpa saw it, he said words that had never before been heard in Guthrie County. Then he carefully put the cushion and the umbrella where he would run over them when he drove out of the barn, took a long swig of cider, and went riding. That was the day he first flew.

It wasn't pride, and it wasn't thestreamliners, although they had something to do with it. This is the scientific, the documented truth: the secret was cider.

Of course, many a man in GuthrieCounty has had a drink of Grandpa Hopewell's homemade cider and felt like an airplane. But that isn't what I mean. Grandpa Hopewell told me exactly what happened that first day he flew. He was chugging around his farm, trying to forget the sweet peas on that cushion, and occasionally sampling his jug of cider, when he happened to remember that the eastbound streamliner was due in 20 minutes. Just then, he ran out of gas. That was especially bitter to him because he felt like racing, and that particular streamliner was the one train he would rather beat than any other on wheels. The engineer ignored him; Grandpa Hopewell could never forgive him for that. Freight engineers waved to him, and some of the passenger engineers looked down their noses at him as he bounced along beside them, trailing dust and smoke. But the engineer on that one streamliner would never deign to notice. He would merely jerk the throttle a little farther down, and the shiny train would pull away from the pulsating little tractor. And at the end of his land, grandpa would pull up and indignantly watch the last car disappear toward Des Moines.

Far to the west he heardthe streamliner honking like an old goose over the pond. He tried the starter again and squinted into the tank. The streamliner honked again, only a few miles away. In one of those seconds of genius that distinguish men like Edison and Hopewell from the rest of humanity, he took his jug and poured what was left of the cider into the gas tank. The motor turned twice without anything happening and then roared like a young lion.

Grandpa Hopewell said he couldtell by the way that tractor trembled and the way it kicked up its wheels when he let it urn that if ever he could beat that streamliner, this was the day. The tractor seemed to be off the ground more than on it. Grandpa declared he wouldn't know whether to say it ran like a deer or flew like a swallow. But it kept up with the streamliner. When the engineer opened his throttle, the tractor simply yelled a little louder out of its exhaust and kicked harder at the dust and kept up. Yes, it even began to pull a little ahead of the streamliner. And then grandpa saw, not 50 feet ahead, the fence that marked the boundary of his land.

He says he doesn't know why hedid what he did then. He couldn't stop anyway. He just pulled up on the steering wheel and grunted, and, believe it or not, the tractor took off like an airplane and jumped the fence. It came down on the other side with hardly a trace of a bump and scurried across Pete Littlefield's pasture like a frightened rabbit. When they came to the place where the tracks turned away from Littlefield's land, grandpa looked back over his streaming white beard and made a face at the engineer in the silver train. It was a face he had learned to make at Panora High School some 55 years before, and it was even more effective with a beard.

That was the first time GrandpaHopewell flew in public. There might never have been a second. Several times he rode out deep into the south 80 where nobody could see him, stepped on the gas, pulled back on the wheel, and grunted. Nothing happened. Always nothing. Finally, he decided that flying over the fence had been an accident and went back to racing streamliners.

Those were the days when historywalked a tightrope. If the daughters-in-law had been just a little less anxious for his health, he might never have discovered the secret of flight. But Adelaide persuaded her husband to have grandpa's gas ration cut so he would have less chance to hurt himself. The shorter grandpa's gas supply got, the more cider he had to mix in with it. And one day when he had a good mixture of high-test gas and homemade hard cider, the tractor took off and flew almost of its own accord.

Later, grandpa was inclinedto disparage those early flights. That was after he learned to fly better, to bank by leaning, and to shift his weight backward or forward so as to climb or dive. But he admits there was never a thrill like the first time he sailed past a surprised hawk, or buzzed the cows, or looked down on his own land from the air. He kept his flying to himself. He would rumble across the fields until he was out of sight of the farmhouse and the tenants and then soar over the wood lots or the far pasture.

Sometimes he would go upfor a few minutes at sunset to watch the day a little longer. He always loved to circle around and look down on his land that seemed so different from above and study the cloud banks that now seemed so near at hand. But most of all he loved to go up at dawn, when the ground was still shadowed and the stock just beginning to walk and stir, and meet the day half a mile up where the air was already shiny from the sunrise. When he came down, he wouldn't have known, if anybody had asked him, whether the wind had made his eyes water or whether they were wet because it was so beautiful where he had been. It was on one of those flights that he startled the passengers and crew of a low-flying airliner so badly that they had to land in Des Moines.

Grandpa Hopewell kept all thatpart of his life secret from the rest of his living. There were only a few signs of it. The tenant's wife, who kept house and cooked his meals, was surprised to find him reading aviation magazines. And one day he fashioned a huge wind sock and hung it on the barn. Every man in Guthrie County made a joke about it, but grandpa said nothing, and after a while they quit talking, because they figured grandpa was old enough to have an eccentricity or two.

Yet he couldn't hide his hobby entirely;that was what got him into trouble with the Congregational Church. If he hadn't decided that he needed an aviator's helmet, and if the salesgirl had been able to keep her face straight at the sight of his bright blue eyes and his snowy beard sticking out from that helmet, there might have been no trouble at all. But no, she had to giggle. And then she giggled again, and soon she was shaking with uncontrollable mirth. Grandpa Hopewell clamped his jaw shut, and his blue eyes frosted over.

"Young woman," he saidsternly, "do you know a cumulohimbus?"

The salesgirl's jaw fellopen in the midst of a giggle. Grandpa counted out the price of the helmet and strode away, sizzling like a skillet.

When he got on his tractor,the wrath was still strong in him. Outside town, he took off quietly and came over to buzz the store. He got a good deal of satisfaction out of seeing the clerks rush to the front door and the manager's puzzled face at the side window. But when grandpa looked up, he saw the Congregational Church looming through the dusk ahead of him. He zoomed--too late. Like a chisel, he clipped off the point of the tower, and the stones fell neatly in the parsonage yard next door, where they disrupted a wedding that was being celebrated at the request of the bride's father.

The case of the tower was a famousepisode in legal and journalistic history. Grandpa made no attempt to deny that he had done the damage. From one end of the country to the other, newspapers carried the full text of grandpa's preliminary hearing on a charge of desteepling a Congregational Church. In part, it read like this:

COUNTRY ATTORNEY: The witnessdeponeth that, willfully and maliciously and with intent--

HOPEWELL: What's that?

COUNTY ATTORNEY: The witnessdeponeth--

HOPEWELL: Look. I don't deponenothing. I just said that I was flying around in my tractor and I looked up too late and there was the church in front of me, and I busted it.

JUDGE: Did you say "tractor"?

HOPEWELL: Yes, your honor.

JUDGE: Did I understand you tosay you were flying in your tractor?

HOPEWELL: That's what I said.

JUDGE: Do I understand you tomean that you were proceeding in your tractor through the air, motivated by means or methods which are unknown to this court, in such a manner that no part or parcel of your vehicle was in contact with the ground?

HOPEWELL: I don't know. I said Iwas flying around in my tractor. I don't know what happened. Maybe I didn't have enough cider in the gas tank or hit a downdraft or something.

JUDGE: I want to apologize to thiscourt. I have a new hearing aid, and it seems not to be adjusted properly. I seem to be unable to follow this testimony. I am very sorry. We will adjourn until tomorrow at 2 p.m.

Out of those days came one of thegreat quotations now taught all schoolchildren. The parson asked Grandpa Hopewell sternly, "What were you doing up there?"

Grandpa looked at him with thepity a seaman feels for a landlubber. "what were you doing down there?" grandpa asked.

Schoolchildren are usually taughtthat Emerson and Thoreau said those words when Thoreau was in jail for refusing to pay a tax he didn't like. Emerson asked Thoreau what he was doing in there, and Thoreau asked him, in return, what he was doing out there. But that is wrong. Those words were spoken on the front steps of the Guthrie County Courthouse by Grandpa Hopewell and Parson Spindell of the Congregational Church of Stuart, Iowa.

The investigation draggedon for months. If Grandpa Hopewell had tried to get out of it, maybe they would have convicted him. But he kept insisting he was guilty, and even the prosecuting attorneys kept insisting he couldn't be. The newspapers asked a number of opinions on the matter. Alexander Botts, the well-known tractor expert, was quoted as saying, "In all history, no Earthworm Tractor has ever been known to knock over a church steeple. Buy an Earthworm Tractor and keep your feet firmly on the ground!" Then he wired Grandpa Hopewell for a private appointment, but grandpa was miffed and didn't answer. Orville Wright said it was not aerodynamically sound, but, then, people hadn't believed him and his brother Wilbur, either. The governor of Nebraska said he didn't believe the story, although it might be true because of the accepted fact that Iowa people are frequently up in the air. A committee of famous psychologists arrived to debunk the story. Grandpa hopewell offered them a taste of his cider and took them to the south 80. When they came back, they walked with eyes averted from one another. Asked to comment on Grandpa Hopewell's claim, their chairman snapped, "Obviously impossible!" Then he went to Rochester, Minnesota, for a checkup at the Mayo Clinic.

Grandpa Hopewell was thoroughlyindignant the day charges against him were dropped. "Who do they think did it, anyway?" he demanded. There were almost as many answers as there were Republicans in Iowa. Some said that lightning had struck the church as a punishment for the sins of its members, and although the parson had observed no lightning, he was interested to see that for a while attendance was phenomenally high and offerings nearly tripled; even today, Stuart is widely reputed to be a God-fearing community. Others said that the stones had merely been heated to the exploding point by the sermons preached under them every week. A correspondent of the Stuart Herald advanced the ingenious theory that some child, practicing for the Iowa music festival, might accidentally have struck the one right tone to cause the tower to collapse; many a person has had the top of his head practically taken off by a schoolboy practicing a trombone or a trumpet, she pointed out. The most common though certainly least imaginative explanation, however, was that it was some obscure manifestation of the New Deal.

"Grandpa, dear, we are going toput you in a place where you will be safe and very happy," Minnie said one day.

"Who wants to be safe?" GrandpaHopewell asked.

"There will be someone to takecare of you and watch over you every minute of the time," Minnie said.

"Minnie," Grandpa Hopewell saidwith distate, "the trouble with you is, you're too old."

"Why, the idea!" she said.

"Humor him," whispered Adelaide.... "Now,father," she said, "if you will just sign this little blank."

"You girls," Grandpa Hopewellsaid. "You ought to wear armor. You ought to go sleep in the museum with the other fossils."

"Now, father," Adelaide said,"remember at your age you have to be careful."

"Careful," Grandpa Hopewellsaid. "Let me tell you how you get old. By being careful. If you girls were smart, you'd be out learning to jive. You'd be starting up a Saturday-night poker club. You'd get an airplane and practice parachute jumping."

"The idea!" Minnie said.

"Father, you've been drinkingcider again," Adelaide said sadly.

"Tell you something," GrandpaHopewell said. "Comes a time you can grow young just as easy as old. I'm five years younger 'n I was when I got that tractor. Liver trouble shook all out of me. Enjoying things more. Every time you try something new, you get younger. Evert time you're afraid to, you get older."

That was the week the telegramcame from California. Before Grandpa left for Long Beach to be guest of honor at the annual Iowa Picnic, he prepared a large hogshead to be shipped to him at the California address.

"What do you suppose it can be?" Adelaidesaid.

"Smells like cider," Minnie said.

"Gracious, what an awful lot ofcider for one trip," Adelade said. "Why, he can't--he couldn't drink all that!"

"We can't let him disgrace himselfout there," Minnie said.

"Let's not send it," Adelaide said.

Not until Grandpa Hopewell hadgone did Guthrie County realize what a national figure he had become. Grandpa twinkled at them from the front page of the Omaha World-Herald. Grandpa's white beard brightened up the Denver Post. Grandpa told the Salt Lake City Tribune that the secret of good tractor driving, contrary to what Mr. Alexander Botts had said, was learning to vibrate with the tractor. It is just like horseback riding, he explained. If you go up with the horse, it is less strenuous than if you come down while the horse is going up. The tractor vibrates and you vibrate; once you learn to vibrate in the same rhythm, you don't getshaken up. The Tribune sent the story out over the press wires to all countries, and the Department of Agriculture reprinted it as a pamphlet. The Los Angeles Times said, CALIFORNIA AWAITS HOPEWELL.

Grandpa had a visitor in GuthrieCounty the day after he left. It was a man from Washington. A scientist, he said. Working for the government on something called jet propulsion. He asked exactly how the exhaust on grandpa's tractor sounded, and then he banged his fist on the table and said he dratted well believed grandpa had discovered a secret they had tried to find for years. He said he would jus wait until grandpa came back.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Schramm, Wilbur
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1987
Previous Article:The mission.
Next Article:Who said a rose is a rose!?

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