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The John Deere ‘A’ – a Radio Mystery

Transistor radios battle the mag.

I recently needed to move some large round bales of hay, which gave me an excuse to drive my 1949 John Deere “A” tractor.
Certainly there are easier ways to move bales other than with a two-cylinder tractor and a two-wheel cart. But I’m Norwegian, so doing things the easy way is against my nature.
If one doesn’t do it all the time, one forgets what it’s like to trot down the road on an open-platform tractor. Grit flies up into your face, your hair becomes saturated with the smell of exhaust fumes, and you run the risk of being soaked by a sudden cloudburst.
And there are many other pleasures in addition to these. The feeling of raw power thrumming beneath your feet, the freedom of the open road and the shifting tableau of scents that tickle your nose – silking corn, blooming sweet clover, the sensuous aroma of curing alfalfa – as you move through ever-changing plumes of air.
I realize that these are some of the same reasons that motorcyclists enjoy riding. The difference is that on a tractor, you are moving at a stately pace and thus have more time to luxuriate in these hedonistic pleasures.
This wasn’t the case when I was an adolescent and was forced – forced, I tell you! – to drive the “A.”
Like many teenagers, I felt put-upon by my lot in life. What sort of miserable luck had landed me on a stodgy South Dakota dairy farm? Why had the fates chosen me to putt-putt across the stark prairie on this wretched open-platform tractor?
Like many teenagers, I yearned for a life of adventure and grandeur. There are very few things less grand and adventuresome than driving a pokey old tractor that’s hitched to a manure spreader full of cow poop.
My sense of affliction was intensified by the fact that the “A” lacked a radio. Being a sensitive person, my spirit was nurtured by music, especially from groups with such uplifting names as The Animals, The Zombies, and Badfinger.
One day, I attempted to alleviate my musical deprivation by carrying a small transistor radio in my shirt pocket. I drove the “A” out to the field, cranked up the radio, and was instantly disappointed.
The “A” has a magneto, a device that uses some sort of voodoo magnetism magic to create a spark. This might seem unbelievable – until you accidentally touch a spark plug wire while the tractor is running. The jillion-volt jolt can put a permanent curl in your toes.
Magnetos also create interference in the AM spectrum. My radio’s speaker crackled with a rhythmic “thup, thup, thup” whenever the “A” was running. It wouldn’t be bad, but the “thups” never fell in with the beat of the music. The radio was more of an annoyance than a source of pleasure.
At about this time, astronomers had pointed their gargantuan umbrella-shape radio telescopes at the heavens. From the vast emptiness of space there came an unbelievably precise “thup, thup, thup” through their telescopes’ speakers. I found this extremely interesting, so I absorbed everything I could about the topic.

The astronomers at first thought that they had stumbled across a signal from an alien civilization. They even gave it the provisional name LGM-1, an allusion to little green men.

They had actually discovered a new celestial object called a pulsar. A pulsar can form when a big star explodes and leaves behind a dense, rapidly spinning core. In other words, it’s very similar to what happened with Charlie Sheen.
If things work out just right, the magnetic pole of a pulsar can align with our planet. As the star’s magnetic pole rotates, its beam of electromagnetic energy will sweep across the earth like the light from a lighthouse. I found this somewhat disappointing. I had been secretly rooting for the little green men.
My teenage brain ruminated upon all of this as I jostled across our fields on the seat of the “A.” Maybe the explanation regarding how the magneto works was a bunch of hooey. Maybe there was actually a tiny chunk of pulsar attached to a rotating shaft inside the mag. This theory was much more adventuresome and a lot grander than some nonsense involving a spinning coil of copper wire and a humdrum horseshoe magnet.
These days, I am no longer forced to drive the “A” – I get to drive it. As I jostle along, I marvel at the mystery of its magnetic induction ignition system and extract a scandalous amount of pleasure from the earth’s ever-changing aromas.
And meanwhile, up in the heavens, the distant pulsars continue to pirouette as they count the beat of the universe.
Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at and in bookstores nationwide.

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