In the late 1970s, I was seventeen and short of money. My mate had a brother who lived in Swan Hill, in the riverland district of Victoria. He suggested that we try making some money picking fruit for the summer. We lived in a caravan and got up early enough to start work at sunrise. I remember packing the trailer on Christmas morning and driving past the farmer’s house bellowing out ‘Silent Night’ at 5am. It was kind of nice being the local colour. People passing by would stop their cars and take photos of we charming rustic locals.
One morning, the cocky arrived early to give us our jobs. He turned to me and said, “Adam, you take Ann and Jean out to the plum orchard. You can drive a tractor, can’t you?”
“No.” I didn’t even have a car licence then.
“OK.” He led me over to the tractor. It was a little grey Ferguson from the early 1950s. “Here’s the clutch. This is the left wheel brake. This is the right one.” He jumped into his ute and disappeared.
Ann and Jean got up onto the trailer and looked distrustfully at me. I got the tractor moving and onto the road. We arrived in the orchard without mishap. We started picking. It was a lovely peaceful morning, sunny and full of birdsong. The sprinklers were chuffing away at the other side of the orchard, keeping the air cool and dust-free. Soon it was time to reposition the tractor. For this, I needed to turn sharply to get into the next row. To my surprise, the wheel brakes worked perfectly. We pivoted on the left wheel and turned cleanly into the row. I was so surprised that it had worked that I left the brake on and cannoned into a plum tree. I picked up the fallen plums, hid the ruined branches and kept picking.
Towards lunch time, we were making good progress. I moved the tractor up to where the sprinklers had been working in the morning and hopped down. I sank up to the calves in mud. The irrigation ditches were overflowing. Oh dear. Ann and Jean would not like this. I decided to move the tractor back to dry ground. I started it up, ground it into gear and went nowhere. The poor old Ferguson didn’t have enough power to spin its wheels. It just grumbled and sank.
Eventually I decided that I would have to go for help. The farmer didn’t say anything. He just told picked up a couple of lengths of solid chain and told me to hop up on the Ford tractor. He then drove to the plum orchard. Ann and Jean had filled the boxes and had nothing to do. There is nothing a fruit cocky hates to see as much as pickers standing idle. He hitched up the Ford to the bogged Ferguson with a chain and began to pull. There was a snap and the Ford lurched backwards. The chain had broken.
The next chain managed the job. Before the farmer drove away, he said, “Don’t drive in the irrigated bit.”