Spring has sprung. Fall has fallen. Winter is here and…well, it’s not that bad actually. Winters in Alabama tend to be rather mild, compared to, say, winters in New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, and cities in the northern portion of the United States. As I write this, the groundhog, known to those of us in his “inner circle” as Punxsutawney Phil, or to his close friends as “Phil” or “The Phil” or “Philmeister” or “Philco”, has emerged from his subterranean bachelor pad and officially announced he has seen his shadow. Why seven billion people will trust their long-range weather forecast to an oversize rat with a prominent overbite, who, as far as I can tell, never even graduated from meteorology school, is a phenomenon I can’t quite comprehend.
We’re all aware of the significance of this event. It means that Old Man Winter has decided to extend his stay in the guest house for six more weeks. We may not like it, but that’s the hand we’re dealt. Personally I believe Phil-lay Mignot is a warped and twisted rodent with Machiavellian tendencies who gets his kicks by controlling others. He loves playing little mind games and sticking it to us. He’s one sick furry puppet master.
I’m sure we all have experienced some memorable winters in years past. I don’t remember that many from my childhood, except vague memories of snow on the ground. I do recall the notorious Winter of ’93, when we had up to 12 inches of snow in Jasper. I also remember snow accumulations of a few inches sometime in the mid to late 90s. The problem was that rain had fallen the day before, and the temperatures had dropped since, freezing the wet ground, so we had snow on top of ice. At the time, I lived in a small valley area and there were two or three hills to climb, so getting out was a little dicey. I was working in radio part-time then and was supposed to work a 3 or 4 hour shift that Saturday evening. After I watched several cars spinning their wheels repeatedly while attempting to climb the hill in front of the house where I lived, and since I would have to climb hills out of the valley, regardless of which route I took, I decided to call in and let them know I wouldn’t be working that night. My supervisor wasn’t pleased, but since I neither owned nor had access to a plane or helicopter or jet pack, my hands were tied.
During that same period in my life, I recall some bitterly frigid temperatures, especially after nightfall. One of my uncles had some land adjacent to where I was living, and he would regularly come by to check on and feed his cows, bale hay during the summer, and take care of various other farming details. He would sometimes leave his tractor parked nearby behind the house, since it was next to his property. One particularly cold night, when the temperatures were down in the single digits, I was watching TV when I heard what sounded like machinery running. I looked through the back kitchen window and saw nothing out of the ordinary, except for a small puff of steam rising from the tractor exhaust. I thought it to be somewhat unusual, but assumed my uncle had stopped by on that bitterly cold night to tend to the cows and make sure they were warm. I went back the movie or TV show I was watching, but the tractor’s engine continued running. I thought perhaps my uncle had started the engine and was allowing it time to warm up.
Ten minutes passed. Fifteen. I wrapped myself up like Ralphie’s brother in “A Christmas Story” and went outside to check on things. I was not prepared for the shock of the frigid temperatures. It was so cold my heart almost froze solid inside my chest. No other vehicles were around anywhere. There was no sign anyone had ever been there. The tractor sat idling, eerily illuminated by a pale winter’s moon, steam rising in plumes from its exhaust pipe. I was rather perplexed, to say the least. A farm tractor’s engine running, lit by a milky pale moon, sitting in my back yard on one of the coldest nights I can recall, with no one around. It was like a surreal David Lynch film.
Twenty minutes passed. Half an hour. By now even a greenhorn like me knew something was amiss. I called my uncle’s home number and he answered. I explained to him that I felt he should know his tractor was idling in the back yard. He seemed to be mildly amused, but not as surprised as I was. He gave me a few suggestions to shut the engine off, and again I bundled myself like Nanook of the North and ventured back into the Arctic back yard. I fumbled for several minutes with a screwdriver, trying to shut off the engine but the tractor continued its steady idling. I returned indoors, pausing to shake off the icicles, and called my uncle back to report my mission had failed. He chuckled and nonchalantly told me he’d be over in a few minutes. He lived a good half hour to forty-five minutes away, and arrived within an hour. In a few minutes the only sound was him packing his tools and climbing back into his truck and driving away.
To this day I have no idea how that tractor engine started. Perhaps those of you more familiar with such machinery would know, or have a theory. My uncle seemed to have some notion of what caused it, but I can’t recall what it was. However, I think if we examine what limited evidence exists, we can all agree that there can only be one sensible, scientific solution that explains it. I am convinced there could only be one person who was behind the notorious “Phantom Tractor” incident. Only one name (well two really, but The Joker happened to be in Arkham Asylum at that time) makes any sense.
The Marquis de Phil. 78
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