Frankie the tractor man

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Phoebe giggled and handed Frankie a pink marker. He uncapped the pen, bent over his drawing, and carefully sketched the horn of his unicorn. With a critical eye, he looked over the picture to make sure all of the necessary flourishes were present, including the wavy purple mane, thick flowing tail, and sparkly dots on the haunches, carefully applied with a new breed of glitter Crayon. Satisfied, Frankie handed over the finished product to Phoebe, who clapped her hands in delight.

I was chopping vegetables for dinner and watching the two of them with the eyes in the back of my head, questioning, once again, my parenting judgement.

Frankie is a fine product of Humboldt County’s backwoods. A tractor man, in the three summers we’ve lived on our mountaintop, he has come each one to pull a mower and then a baler through our fields. He is a kind man. He also has a striking appearance. Thanks to a checkered history with illicit substances, now behind him, he says, Frankie is short of teeth. Very. His tanktop undershirt stretches tightly over his generous belly. By the end of a day in the fields, the dust kicked up by the tractor settles thickly into the hair on his shoulders and upper back. Despite all this, he bears an uncanny resemblance to Patrick Swayze. It’s…unsettling, really, that resemblance. I have momentarily imagined Frankie in Swayze’s role in Dirty Dancy, singing “I had the time of my life…” Yikes. I quickly suppressed the image.

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When Frankie comes to mow for us, he becomes a fairly big part of our lives. He’s a social guy, and seems to like our family. He has a talent for ending up at the dinner table, and has been there for a pizza night, a chili night, and a whole lot of beers. When he’s done mowing for the day, we can count on a long period of entertainment ala Frankie. Lots of stories, half-lisped through his near-toothless gums.

Frankie has been driving heavy equipment his whole life, since growing up on cattle ranches where his father was a cowhand. He raised his daughter on his own, and tells stories of how the baby sat playing with her toys in the small space behind the driver’s seat while he moved fields. She could drive a tractor by the time she was five. Once, when she was seven, she helped him move a couple of pieces of equipment from one farm to another. A CHP officer pulled her over when he saw the little girl driving a giant tractor on the highway. Frankie, who was behind her, pulled over, too. “What the HELL is this?!” the cop accosted Frankie. Frankie responded, “Show me the law that says kids can’t drive farm rigs.” Turns out there isn’t one. Farm kids have always driven farm equipment, have always helped their parents with towing and moving and baling. In the end, the pig-tailed seven year-old re-started the rattling engine and they went on their way. Booyah.

Indeed, Frankie appears, in all his dusty, hirsute wonder, to have a way with kids. My kids love him. He draws unicorns with Phoebe, throws a baseball with Tomas, and gives Tristan rides on the tractor. In fact, such is the magnitude of Frankie’s influence on my kids that they call him Uncle Frankie and Tristan refers to all types of heavy equipment as “Frankie”. Mom, look, a Frankie!! he cries with joy as a logging truck passes us on the road. Frankie mows for our neighbors as well, and their kids also find him fabulously engaging. Their mom once emerged from her home office to find the hands of her oldest son and his friends duct-taped to individual baseball bats to lock them in proper position. The kids were delighted, not one of them the least perturbed to be handcuffed to a bat. Apparently every one of them experienced a dramatic improvement in his and her game.

Frankie’s youth may have been checkered with more than heavy equipment and illegal, trailer-brewed chemicals. Last summer, on a warm evening, Gary took Tristan out to play on the tractor, parked in our yard for the night. Tristan successfully extracted the key from the ignition of the 1965 John Deere and commenced to drop it in the waist-high grass. We tried everything — crawled through the grass on our bellies, combed the area with a metal detector, shined a flashlight around after dark — to no avail. The key to the ancient beast was lost. When Gary called Frankie to tell him, the tractor man was unflapped. “No problem,” he yawned into the phone. “I’ll hotwire it.” A man of many talents, our Frankie.

At the kitchen table, Frankie and Phoebe began another illustration — a sweet puppy doggie. They were both totally absorbed in the project. The guy clearly had a talent with kids. I began to review his specific merits: a skill in (and unique approach to) baseball coaching; a know-how of the traditional art of RePo; an intimate understanding of heavy equipment maintenance and operation; a comfort with, appreciation of, and creative ability to use duct tape. There really was a lot Frankie had to offer, and we are short of childcare on our mountain…Could we establish a Frankie Day Care? My more wholesome firehouse day care idea hadn’t panned out. Frankie could mow and bale AND watch our children at the same time! Watch those blades kids! Ooooh, a filleted My Little Pony. That’ll teach ‘em to pick up their toys from the yard. And during his lengthy breaks, he could instruct them in various useful skills that would ensure that they’d always have work! As I put the finishing touches on Frankie’s dinner plate, I began to construct the pitch I’d give the other mothers on our mountain to float the Frankie Day Care idea.

“How ‘bout another cold one?” Frankie asked, shooting me his friendliest grin, a grin that exposed a lot of empty space. The day care idea quickly dissolved as my parenting judgement reasserted itself. Maybe my kids don’t need to know how to hotwire a car after all. Who needs day care anyway? I can shower in two years, after Tristan starts Kindergarten.

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