Butch Hawkes, my fiftysomething customer, and I were driving south on Route 7 en route to his home in the tucked-away Addison County town of West Cornwall. He had come up to Burlington a couple of days earlier for shoulder surgery.
Butch was sitting in what I call the "wayback" seats of my minivan. He was burly and bearded, with calloused hands the size of bear paws. I thought, This is the kind of man I'd want for backup in a bar fight. (I have never actually been in a bar fight, but still.)
It was a sunny, warm spring afternoon, and I had the windows half-cracked. The rush of air was invigorating after the long, cold winter, but the whooshing sound only compounded the auditory difficulties created by the, excuse me, fucking distance.
When the virus hit Vermont, I removed my taxi's middle seats to create a safe "social distance" and began asking all my customers to sit in the wayback. I always throw in an apology, which is invariably waved off with, "Hey, no problem. I understand." Still, I'm a social guy, so this distancing business goes against my nature.
"How you doin' back there?" I called over my shoulder.
"Not bad, all considering. You?" Butch replied.
"Oh, fuck — I can barely hear you," I said, my frustration mounting. "If you don't mind, I'm gonna shut the windows and turn the AC on low. That way at least we can hear each other. I'm willing to sacrifice the fresh air for some decent conversation."
"I'm right with ya," Butch agreed with a chuckle.
"OK, that's much better," I said. "Now we don't need to shout. So, Butch, you grow up in Addison County?"
"Yup, on the family farm. We had about 100 cows, milked 'em twice a day."
"I couldn't help but notice you are one large unit. You musta played high school football, I bet."
"I didn't, but I sure wanted to. When I was a freshman, the JV coach came to me and said, 'Just say the word, Butchie. You could be dressed and playing this weekend."
I laughed and said, "They saw this strapping farm boy and could picture you mowing down opposing quarterbacks."
"Exactly. But, unfortunately, my father wouldn't let me join the team. They needed me at home to help with the chores. Farm work is, like, never-ending."
"Jeez, that's too bad. Did you have anything to do for fun?"
"Oh, yeah," Butch replied. In the rearview mirror, I saw a wide smile come across his face. "My thing is tractor pulls. It's, like, my big passion since I was a kid."
"Wow, that is something," I said. "I think I've seen that once on some sports channel. It's a competition to see how heavy a load your tractor can pull, right?"
"Yup, over a specific distance, usually about 100 yards. And then you got your different classes, like antique, farm stock, enhanced farm stock. Anyways, I was actually one of the guys who brought the sport to Vermont. Now you see it at state fairs all across the state. Of course, most of the events this year have been canceled on account of the virus."
"Well, that's way cool. You were the Vermont tractor pull pioneers."
"Yup, me and two other guys made it happen. One was an accountant and the other was, like, this genius at marketing and promo. And I kind of brought it all together. Hey, would you like to see some pics of my machines?"
"You mean the tractors? Sure."
Like a proud grandparent sharing photos of the beautiful grandkids, Butch stepped forward toward the front of the cab and passed me his cellphone. "You can scroll through to see a few of 'em," he said. "They're all classic models that we restored, both the bodies and mechanically."
I took the phone and glanced for a moment at a few gleaming tractors parked in front of an old barn. As I passed him back his cell, I said, "I couldn't look too close while I'm driving, but I can tell these are some gorgeous machines."
Different strokes for different folks, right? I thought as we motored along. I really couldn't imagine getting into tractor pulling, either as a participant or a spectator. Then again, I would have said the same thing about demolition derby, until a friend convinced me to go with him to one of those crazy competitions held at the Champlain Valley Fair in August.
It turns out I loved it. I thrilled at the sight of the drivers crashing their beaters into one another; it was like an exercise in the fulfillment of every cabbie's deepest and darkest id. Who knows? Maybe tractor pulling holds a similar allure just awaiting my discovery.
We hung a left off Route 22A toward Butch's place in West Cornwall. After another couple of turns, we pulled into his driveway. He explained that the farm was sold off years ago, but he still lives on a piece of the original property.
"Hey, do you want to see some of the tractors up close and personal?" he asked. "I know you're working and all."
"Hell, yeah," I replied, chuckling. "I'd love to."
I followed Butch on a path behind the farmhouse to an old barn, the one in his photos. Out in front sat three tractors, each clearly an antique but lovingly restored to factory-showroom quality. The paint jobs were amazing — all hunter greens, fire-engine reds and silver chrome.
"The one in the center, believe it or not, was bought new in '58 by my granddad."
"It's a beauty, man, no doubt," I offered. "You have totally restored it to its former glory, and then some."
As the two of us stood there admiring these machines, I thought, I do believe I just might be getting the pull of the tractor pull.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.