I sat on the seat still gripping the steering wheel. The tractor sat on the wreckage of an end post and grapevines, suspended front tires turning in the air. Through the cloud of dust and sulfur and smoke blowing around me I heard my father shouting. I’d finally done something bad enough to earn the full blast of his temper, I thought. This time he really was going to beat hell out of me.
A few weeks earlier my father taught me how to feather the Massey Ferguson Fifty’s stiff clutch without popping it or stalling the engine. I practiced starting and stopping for hours, going back and forth in a straight line, up and down our long driveway, in first gear then reverse. The next day he taught me how to steer. I drove slow-speed laps around our house, turning with both the steering wheel and the wheel brakes—two pedals that operated the left and right brake drums independently of each other, making it almost possible to corner ninety-degrees on a dime. During the course of his lessons, my father gave me one piece of advice over and over again: respect it and it won’t hurt you. But I never gained quite enough confidence to tease the throttle lever or shift into a higher gear. I remained frightened of the tractor, all hot parts and spitting noises and vibrating metal.
Respect it and it won’t hurt you, my father liked to say. But I’d seen him kick tools, throw tools, break cheap tools into bits if they failed to work properly. I feared that if I failed to drive the tractor properly, I would become something else that deserved his wrath. Perhaps that’s why I drove so conservatively. Maybe I could lower—even erase—his expectations of me.
There wasn’t a third driving lesson—not until my father made me sulfur the vineyards. That morning he drove his pickup down the turnrow to the back of the vineyard, and I followed slowly on the Fifty. I was 11 years old and wore a dust mask and mirrored sunglasses to protect my eyes and lungs from the sulfur dust. My father gestured for me to enter the first row and stop, where he talked me through sulfuring. Run in high range, second gear, full throttle, he said, touching each of the levers as he spoke. And don’t overcorrect the wheel. This tractor gets squirrely at high-speed. You’ll have to push the clutch all the way down to engage the Power Take-Off (PTO). He patted my leg. I had to stand on it, using all my body weight, and bend over awkwardly to reach the PTO lever tucked under the seat. Fifty horses stampeded in my stomach. Shorter and shorter breaths circulated inside my dust mask. Tears welled behind my sunglasses. Remember, respect it, he said, then took several steps back and crossed his arms, waiting for me to set off.
I maxed the throttle. The exhaust stack shot blue smoke into the air. I did my best to feather the clutch, but I’d never practiced doing it while standing up, and the pedal pushed back. The tractor jumped forward. The sulfur machine came to life behind me, and ripe, yellow sulfur dust began to howl as it blew through the nozzles. No machine had ever seemed so alive to me, so wild. The leaves of the grapevines blurred together as the tractor picked up speed. I more clung to, rather than steered the wheel.
The Massey Ferguson Fifty wasn’t much more than a decade old when my father inherited it from his father in 1973, but was already old-fashioned compared to the new models coming out, which had power steering, shock-absorbing seats, and glass cabs. On the Fifty, the driver rode over a fixed back axle, in the open air, with only a worn cushion on the pan seat to absorb rough ground. It had a rounded radiator grill set between wide wheels, giving the Fifty all the composure of a sneak who couldn’t keep a straight face. The gauges were as round as clocks, with dirty water beneath the cracked glass. The exhaust stack had no muffler and no hinged rain cap—my father used to put a tin can over the pipe at night to keep dew and rainwater out of the engine. Hanging modern implements on the three-point lift tipped the front wheels off the ground, while adding too much counterweight to the front axle surpassed the limits of horsepower and bogged the tractor down. Either way the Fifty couldn’t turn or couldn’t move, so my father only used outdated discs, furrowers, and terrace blades. The only luxury Massey-Ferguson added to the Fifty was a rotating wooden knob attached to the steering wheel, a handle for driving one-handed so the driver could look over his shoulder a little easier.
When he moved back home to grow raisins, my father wasn’t just starting small with a small tractor. The vineyards he bought to the east and north of the 40 acres he’d inherited were in bad shape, the vines old and low to the ground. He spent nights and weekends putting in a new trellis system—stakes and wires to support the weight of the vines, canes, and eventually the grapes—while working a day job at Sta-Rite Pumps in Fresno. My mother substitute taught at Caruthers High School to make extra money. They had no cushion, no safety net, and no assurances that his work would ever be rewarded. So much depended on forces out of his control: the market, the weather, his luck. He had to borrow $600 from his in-laws to buy a new sulfur duster after finding his father’s Valley Town machine was irreparable, a necessity he must have found galling, because my father never liked relying on anyone other than himself.
The advertisements I’ve found for sulfur dusters stressed reliability, because without regular dustings of sulfur, a vineyard was vulnerable to powdery mildew, downy mildew, stem blight, prune rust, leaf spot, scab, leaf spot rust, thrip, black spot, and a whole universe of hungry mites. No wonder my father needed a loan from my grandparents—the vineyards might need a dose of medicine at any time.
His new Bush Hog duster was all triangles and pointed corners. Powdered sulfur loaded into the hopper, passed through an agitator, and blew out the nozzles at high speed. A lever controlled the rate of flow; the guide with its hatch lines was the only curve on the machine, and it soon turned unreadable beneath layers of dirt and sulfur dust. In 1976, the year I was born, my father still regularly worked 16-hour days. The shrill scream of the sulfur machine running in the vineyards used to sing me to sleep in my crib.
All this history rode with me when I was made to go sulfuring. By now my father had achieved a kind of financial stability rare in agriculture, and the Bush Hog and the Fifty were the beginnings of that success story, his Genesis and Exodus. How could I ever be successfully entrusted with them?
Our cultural relationship with sulfur is hardly an easy one. We know it best by its odor: a lit match, a dead skunk, sliced grapefruit and garlic, rotting eggs. It’s the stink added to odorless natural gas to warn us of leaks, the clove worn around medieval necks to ward off vampires, Pepe Le Pew’s yellow curls of gas. Sulfur is the toxic water of the badlands, the blue flame of ignition, and the killing fumes and fires of the volcano. In Book XXII of The Odyssey, after Melanthius is killed and dismembered, Homer writes: “Bring blast-averting sulfur, nurse, bring fire!/That I may fumigate my walls.” Here sulfur does not merely cleanse, it annihilates the past. European alchemists gave sulfur its own sign, a triangle at the top of a cross. Sulfur, along with fire, figures prominently as a symbol for torment in the Torah, commonly translated into English as brimstone, making sulfur the seed, or the fuel, of hell.
Agricultural handbooks, gardening websites, and packages of sulfur dust, which can be bought in any reasonably stocked home and garden store, describe sulfur as relatively non-toxic, but with a long list of caveats and warnings. If overused, the dust turns poisonous. Commercial vineyards are far more likely to create toxic atmospheres by virtue of the amount of sulfur used and the method of its application. Between 1976 and 1980, the California Department of Food and Agriculture recorded 302 incidents of poisoning; as a result, the CDFA established a 24-hour waiting period for entry into treated fields. Toxic exposure to sulfur contributes to chronic bronchitis, sinus problems, and the deformation of the nails and hair follicles. Far more common are skin and eye irritations, though my research leaves me unclear as to whether or not such reactions are due to toxic levels or the properties inherent in any amount of sulfur.
I used to like playing outside when the sulfur machine ran. I’d stop what I was doing and watch the Fifty barrel out of one vineyard middle and turn into the next so quickly that the tractor outran the yellow dust cloud in its wake. Our hired man at the wheel stood rather than sat, to gain a higher view, or perhaps to bring his body to full attention. I didn’t understand that they were stunt turns, our hired man either showing off or entertaining himself, employing skills he’d honed over a lifetime of driving a tractor—I thought that’s how one sulfured.
It was best to sulfur on still days. The cloud billowing in the tractor’s wake deepened in color as it gained body. The smell hit first, but subtly, as if it came from something much farther in the distance, followed by dryness of the lips and gums. Licking them left a taste on the tongue not so different from our vineyard dust, from a soil rich with clay, the texture of chalk. If my mother let me keep playing outside, my eyes would gradually start stinging, hot pain that increased in intensity if I moistened my eyes by blinking or rubbing them with the backs of my wrists. Usually she called me quickly inside.
When I came to the end of the vineyard row, the first turn, I was still more clinging to the wheel than steering it. I’d come to the conclusion that slow turns wasted sulfur, and that far less would get in my eyes if I took the corners at high-speed, so I didn’t slow down at all. I barreled out of the middle, front tires chattering across the hard dirt of the turnrow, but somehow the tractor made the corner and I started down the next row, heading back the way I’d just come.
My father, sitting on the tailgate of his pickup, was a blur of red cap and blue jeans as I shot once again out of the vineyard. I suppose we both knew what was going to happen. I cranked the wheel but the tractor wasn’t turning tightly enough. To correct, I tapped the left wheel brake, which pinned the back left wheel to the ground and jerked the tractor straight toward the end post. The number sign lined up between the front wheels and then disappeared under the radiator. Wood snapped. Metal bent. The tractor bucked and nearly sent me flying. The Fifty came to a stop on top of the broken end post and collapsed vines.
I beat the steering wheel with my hands, threw the dust mask, a display of temper I hoped would communicate to my father the fact that I hadn’t meant to crash. I heard him shouting, Kill the engine! He emerged through the dust cloud before I could react and turned the key. That silenced the mechanical half of the roar in my head. The other roar—my failure, the fear of what would happen next—was not so easily quieted. What were you doing, driving like you’re Barney Oldfield! my father said.
I couldn’t answer. I sat on the tractor seat, a throne of shame, and tried not to sob, waiting for the backhand I’d finally earned.
You okay? he asked. He helped me down. Okay? he asked again.
He climbed into the seat and restarted the engine, put the transmission in reverse and coaxed the tractor off the wreckage. The end post lay splintered in half. Two vines lay toppled on the berm. A few more metal stakes were bent, the trellis wires they supported gone slack. The worst shape I’d ever seen our vineyards in. Probably the worst shape they’d been in since my father began building this life we lived. I felt the blame for the destruction keenly.
My father left the tractor idling while he checked for damage. The body work was dented below the radiator, as if the Fifty had taken one on the chin, but no fluid was leaking, and the engine note didn’t sound pitchy to his ear. Sorry, I said.
You’re okay is the main thing, he said. But you’re getting back on and finishing the job.
That night I took down the O volume of the encyclopedia from the bookshelf. I followed the guide words to the entry on Oldfield, Barney—if my father expected anything, he expected me to know what he knew.
“Barney Oldfield was an American pioneer automobile racer whose name was synonymous with speed in the first two decades of the 20th Century.”
I squinted at the small print, which made my eyes water, which activated the sulfur dust in them, which summoned vicious pain and burning tears. The rest of the words were consumed in a lake of fire.