Tractors and Pinstriped Overalls

thinking about the things my grandfather did

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Mackenzie Kavanagh

My grandpa on my Mom’s side fixed up old tractors until cancer took him away. That was almost 20 years ago. He and my grandma lived in a Wisconsin farmhouse on a road bearing their name. The house my mom grew up in. The house that didn’t have electricity until 1950. The house with the dusty old piano I can’t remember anyone actually playing.

Grandpa didn’t “restore” most of those old tractors. Big, cranky machines shedding flakes of rust. They smelled like metal and oil. He simply got them running using the parts at hand. He built a big green pole barn to hold them and made a big green sign to hang on the outside, readable from the road across the cornfield: GRANDPA’S TOY BOX.

When he died, some in the family thought Grandpa should be buried in his trademark pinstripe overalls. But those were clothes for farming. For milking cows. For wrenching tractors back to life. And Grandpa knew a suit was called for on certain occasions. Marriage ceremonies. Fiftieth wedding anniversaries. Funerals.

But there was one tractor – a bright red beauty he truly restored with all the proper parts and pieces, painted the original color. A 1936 Farmall F-12 made by International Harvester. When he bought the tractor back in the ’90s, it was just a frame and some wheels. The rest came in boxes, and Grandpa put the puzzle together using old manuals. He finished working on it about eight years before he died in 2001, lying in that old farmhouse under the care of his children.

My uncle tells me the family had a different Farmall F-12 through the mid ’70s until a scrap dealer showed up and bought their old farm machinery. Grandpa sold him the Farmall, and the dealer banged it to pieces with a big sledgehammer. My uncle says Grandpa felt bad about that. So later on he started buying old Farmall tractors and making them run. Grandpa probably thought he was the only person in the world doing this. 

My mom likes to tell a story about Grandpa drinking coffee at the kitchen table, how the coffee was so hot he’d pour a little bit onto a saucer and blow on it. He’d gingerly raise the saucer to his lips, perched atop his leathery farmer’s hands. He’d lean back in his seat to suck it off the plate, wary, as if the coffee might decide to attack him at any moment.

It was a dairy farm, but for most of my life it was just the place Grandma and Grandpa lived. They got rid of the cows and started renting out the fields when I was pretty young. By then, Grandpa made money installing carpet. By then, he worked evenings and weekends as a bartender at the local supper club. After he got sick, he told Grandma he’d quit smoking cigarettes. But I’m pretty sure he never did.

When he died, some in the family thought Grandpa should be buried in his trademark pinstripe overalls. But those were clothes for farming. For milking cows. For wrenching tractors back to life. And Grandpa knew a suit was called for on certain occasions. Marriage ceremonies. Fiftieth wedding anniversaries. Funerals.

At the visitation, my cousin snuck a scrap of thick, pinstriped fabric into Grandpa’s breast pocket.

Grandpa was quiet. It was weird for me to hear him talking at family gatherings or while he tended bar. I mostly remember him sitting at the cluttered table by the kitchen sink, smoking and reading the paper. We’d show up for a visit, he’d nod and say, “Hello.”

He had a nice smile that made his eyebrows go up.

I know he talked more with other people. Adults. His sons and daughters. I can’t blame him for not having much in common with a kid who grew up on Star Wars, Transformer cartoons, and MTV.

My grandma, an ardent fan of both Jesus and Weight Watchers, used to keep a huge brick of margarine on the dinner table. Grandpa wouldn’t touch it, which made for a running joke. But I understand. They were sitting down to eat in the middle of a dairy farm, after all.

He planted a little row of flowers along the garage each spring. It seemed like a strange thing for an old farmer to do. Strange for someone who worked on such a large scale, harvesting entire fields, tending to herds of hulking animals. Someone who got so greasy, going elbow deep into clunky old engines. Someone with a big family and so much to do. Someone who, later in life, sat quietly as the world buzzed around him.

But I guess it wasn’t strange at all.

Press and hold the up/down arrows to scroll.