If there is one art that separated the men form the boys, it is the art of backing up a trailer. While most women fail at parallel parking while most men excel at it but few men excel at backing up a trailer. Perhaps that is because backward thinking is involved. I spent my summers on a farm and at the tender age of eleven was driving tractors. Old Farmalls and Fergusons with manual four speed non synchronized transmissions (one has to double clutch to down shift) and top speeds of about twenty miles per hour were the available form of transportation. I was allowed to back up, if I could, the short single axle trailer we used for general work. There were no mirrors on the tractor, I mean what you didn’t need them , since all I had to do was I had to turn my shoulders and head towards the back while keeping one hand on the steering wheel. Children are better at learning to back up trailers than adults, it’s more a game and as children we learn games very quickly.
It wasn’t until I was about fifteen that I was allowed to mow and rake hay. Those activities take planning and good judgement, even at that slow a speed. But the great accomplishment was backing up the hay trailer. It had tow bar and two sets of axles, one in back and one in front that was articulated, making it a double articulated trailer. When no one was around would sneak out to the barn and hitch up that four wheel trailer and practice backing it up. If ever there are a vehicle that taught the art of patience it was that trailer. I got pretty good at it. So when my uncle would take the two ton GMC flatbed out in the fields to pick up the bales of hay, we’d hook up the four wheel trailer to it and I’d sometimes be allowed to drive it in the field.
It’d be a hundred in the shade and if I were loading I’d wear a sweatshirt soaked in water to keep cool. Stand that bale up, slap the hay hook into it and swung it up on the bed of the truck or trailer. Sixty pound bales tend to put a little muscle on your arms and shoulders over the summer. I bet I was one of the very few kids in our middle class suburbs who could back up a trailer. Now one of the families in our housing tract had acquired a motor boat, something about twenty feet long that they would use for water skiing and fishing on one of the big lakes near by. To say that Mr Fox was out of his element when his station wagon was hitched to his boat is an understatement. I watched him trying to back the boat into his driveway and into the back yard. Let me tell you it was a most painful affair. His son, Jim, was a friend of mine and so I felt obligated to lend assistance as best I knew how.
“Mr Fox, you’re doing it wrong.” “What do you know, kid?” was his reply. “I’ve backed hay wagons on my uncle’s farm for the past couple of years. You’re doing it wrong.” Well, he ignored me and tried again and again but he just couldn’t get it through the back gate. Painful when adults don’t want to learn. Finally I said to him, “You got to think backwards, that’s all.” Well, that was enough to get his attention and he thought for a minute before looking at me. “What do you mean think backwards?”
So I began to explain the process. “Look, you can watch the way the trailer turns if you put your right arm on the back of the seat and half turn yourself to see the trailer. Go ahead and do that.” Mr Fox looked at me rather quizzically but he followed my instructions. “Okay, now when you want the trailer to turn to the right, turn the steering wheel left.” You mean the tires, don’t you son?” “No, no don’t think about the front tires. Just remember that when you want the trailer to turn left as you look at it, turn the wheel right. Got it?” He looked at me for a minute and said, “I’ll straighten the car and trailer out first if you don’t mind.” Then he did as I said and turned half around, holding onto the seat with his right hand. It was rather comical but I never laughed or smiled at his mistakes. But after three starts he started to get the hang of backing a trailer. And with some encouragement he finally got the boat through the gate and into the yard. Mr Fox looked at me for a moment and then smiled. I looked back and said, “You want to try again?” “No” was his answer. “But come over tomorrow evening and help me practice some more.”