It fell off the back of the delivery truck. It wasn’t clear if my father had always wanted a garden tractor, or if an inattentive forklift driver had caused a significant change in people’s lives. I suppose it’s not uncommon for forklift drivers to make significant changes in people’s lives, but usually that involves a pair of feet sticking out from under a large crate. This Central Hardware employee’s accident simply bent up a Merry garden tractor, Eleven Horsepower, Four Speed Manual Transmission. I’m not sure if my father saw the accident happen, or just saw it sitting in the store, before they decided what to do with it, but he found the store manager and made an offer.

It didn’t take us very long. Though it looked bad, there weren’t many items to fix. Get the steering column back up to where it should be, make a new dashboard area to hold it there and we were off. Bob Frei was fifty-two and I was thirteen. We both loved engines, cars and such, but for slightly different reasons. Anyway, we were the two amigos in this endeavor. We would take turns driving it around our property, making new paths through the woods and a rather difficult task of clearing a field that had been taken over by some kudzu-like vines.
At about that time, we started to heat our house with wood. My father kept adding steel bars and plywood boxes onto the poor thing to carry more and more wood up the steep hills.

Typical Early Winter Scene, dad and I

Dad started to buy implements for it – the snowplow being the most promising, as our driveway was very long and rather steep. It came, it came!! Now armed with our trusty plow, the snow came, just the same. We bundled up. We were excited. The little tractor turned out to be quite pathetic at this new crucial task. The little Merry, not being very heavy and shod with ‘turf tires’ could barely get around on its own, much less push anything. You could hear the air hissing out of our puffed up chests. Bob Frei did what he often did when faced with such a situation, he got to work. After purchasing snow chains for the tires, he started adding weight, and more weight and then some more. The stained glass company that was attached to our house generated a fair amount of scrap lead, which we could melt down and then cast it into things, like tractor weights. We cast lead donuts to go in the wheels. We cast lead blocks to fit on the fenders. Bob Frei then did another thing that he often did when faced with such a situation, he pushed the limits. We turned the pathetic little garden tractor into a little monster that could push a lot. The tractor held, the plow did not, bringing Bob Frei to do yet another common habit of his, fixing and improving what he just broke. In time, it held, and it worked. (The Home of a Tradesman)

Robert Frei in Action, pulling the sledders up the hill

Shortly after all this, I started to spend quite a bit of time playing and working on a real farm owned and run by the family of a friend of mine. There, I got to drive some real farm tractors, with turbocharged diesel engines. I thought that my dad might want to come for a visit and drive one of these things. (Farm Life in St Genevieve Missouri) As it turns out, that’s not what interests him. The challenge of making things and sticking to it until he makes it work, that is what made him tick.

Summer came again, the snow plow was put away and dad quickly decided that he wanted more for his tractor than simply cutting grass and hauling wood. A vegetable garden, that’s what we needed! A great big one, with an emphasis on strawberries. Bob Frei loved strawberries. The fact that my father grew up in downtown St. Louis, and that neither of us had ever grown much of anything was not going to be a deterrent. We can read. The earth plow took some time to come in and we were anxious. The minute it came in, we bolted on to the back of the tractor and headed up to the field and started to plow, and in that instant, we were farmers, and felt the connection with turned up earth. We were now kin with the Joad family in Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”, although trying to be optimistic that we would not lose our farm when the wind would blow the earth away, causing a crop failure… In the suburbs of St. Louis.

After tiring of our task of working the earth, we took inventory of what we had done… Lots and lots of big, hard, clods of dirt, with sturdy grass attached to each clod. Steinbeck hadn’t mentioned this. Luckily, dad had also purchased a row of discs to pull behind the tractor to complete our set of farm implements. We hooked them up, put the tractor in gear, and went on the attack. Our lack of tilling experience turned out to be matched by our lack of rodeo experience as the little tractor bounced this way and that over the menacing clods.

After mixing in a pickup truck load of old cow manure from my friend’s farm, we had our garden. It was quite successful actually, surprisingly so. Perhaps an entire truck load of manure was a bit much for a suburban garden but the plants loved it. Our produce was bountiful. We were up to our gills with tomatoes, which everyone liked, but it was too much. We gorged on them, we gave them, we tried to sell them, but they kept coming. We felt like Lucille Ball at the end of the conveyor belt at the candy factory.

Then there was the sad part. Our father, being a bit of a picky eater, hated zucchini and squash, which are plants that apparently love cow manure. Strawberries, which my father adored, and was the impetus for the garden in the first place, apparently have a more delicate palette. It also turns out that they want you to direct their little runners to the next place they are supposed to grow by trapping them with little toothpicks. Why haven’t these picky little shits gone extinct? We did get some berries, but it was a struggle. The garden lasted for a few years before we lost interest in the farmer’s life.

Most of the work that was done around the property was a family affair. The four brothers didn’t exactly have specific chores to do but were aware of what needed to be done. Our father, never wanting to do most projects alone, had the dreaded “hey so and so, got a minute?” It was never a minute. When we would whine and complain, he would say “come on, it’ll be fun, we’ll sing songs.” Though he said this in a joking manner, you had to do it. The larger projects were often done as an all-hands-on-deck. The tractor, and the short-lived garden, however, those were kind of a he and I thing.

(Memories In Black And White)