WHEN word got around that Clive Dobson had done his knee, the shockwaves went from the outskirts of Wonthaggi all the way down to Cape and back again.
Of course we were sorry for Clive but we were even sorrier for ourselves. Who was going to mow the paddock?
We kept hoping for a miracle recovery but by January, with the grass high and very, very dry, we called in a political favour and got a former lord mayor of Melbourne to slash the paddock. He did a good job but I still missed Clive, as much for the pleasure of his company as for his magic on a tractor.
Clive hasn't got a boastful bone in him but even he acknowledges he has a special relationship with tractors. “I can talk to them,” he says. “You can’t hurry a tractor.”
As a boy, he tagged along with a farmer in Cape Paterson Road, just past where his own farm is now. He was 10 the first time he was allowed to drive the tractor. To put it in to gear, he had to hang on to the steering wheel, put two feet on the clutch, push, then jump off the clutch and onto the brake before he knocked something over. The farmer put a roller behind the tractor and let him knock down the scrub on the place, then he'd shout him to the pictures on Saturday night, a win-win for Clive. “That was beautiful!” he says.
He drove trucks for a living but years later, when he and his wife, Hilda, bought their own farm, he got back into tractors. He’s had a few over the years, mainly Fordsons, and he’s got them still. His current favourite is a Fordson Super Dexta – “the little old girl,” he calls her – and he threads her through the narrowest of gaps as delicately as a needleworker.
He’s slashed our paddock for the past 10 years. It’s only a bit over an acre, no big deal, but there are trees everywhere and not a straight row between them. Clive has to weave around the new trees, which are shorter than the grass, steer clear of the resident bees, which are enraged by the diesel fumes, avoid the swampy area and mow a 20-degree slope without tipping over into the dam. It’s not a job for a man in a hurry.
For all of this, I think we pay him $100 but I reckon we could talk him down to $20 on the never-never if we tried. Ron Gilmour, who’s known Clive all his life, says you couldn’t find a kinder, more honest, more hard-working bloke. “His problem was he was too kind-hearted. He’d do anything for anybody – and forget about his own farm.”
Clive’s customers have watched with increased nervousness as he crept up through his 70s: 75, 76, 77, 78 … how much longer could he keep going? At the end of each visit, I ask nervously, “Will we see you next summer?”
“If me tractor’s still going,” Clive says.
So I was delighted when Clive called in last week on a grand tour of his regulars to let them know he was not far from a comeback. First he cast a knowing look over our paddock although, always a gentleman, he refused to comment on the work of his understudy. Then he filled me in on what had happened since I’d last seen him.
Turns out it wasn’t bungy-jumping or skiing that buggered the knee but a mad cow. They were loading her for market and she knocked him flying. He couldn’t move. He called out to his son, “Gavin! I can’t get up.”
But she’d flattened Gavin too, and just missed Hilda. The cow was demolishing the yard rails by the time the neighbours opened the gates and let her back into the paddock. “She went off her rocker,” Clive said. I suggest that perhaps she didn’t want to go to the abattoir but he reckons she didn’t know.
Anyway, Ron Gilmour came with a wheelchair and they got Clive to the hospital. One of the new foreign doctors came in with the x-ray. “It is stuffed,” he said to Clive gravely.
“I know it is stuffed,” Clive said. “But what are we gunna do about it?”
“We can’t fix that one,” the doctor said. “You need a new one.”
Clive got the new knee in early December and he’s been wearing it in ever since. He was on a walking stick and could just shuffle around. The timing – mowing season – couldn’t have been worse: the phone never stopped. After a while Hilda refused to answer it. She’d hand it to Clive to explain. Dozens and dozens of calls. “It got to be a hell of a mess,” he says.
A couple of weeks ago he went up to Melbourne so his surgeon could check out his work. “That leg’s bent!” the doctor said accusingly as he walked in, as if it was Clive’s fault. Clive reckons the leg’s straight enough. He was never one to make a fuss.
The surgeon told him not to drive a tractor or a car. He hasn’t been back on the tractor yet but he’s driven into Wonthaggi to pick up the paper and take Hilda shopping. A return to the tractor is not too far off.
At the end of the visit as he climbs gingerly down from the verandah on his not-quite-straight leg, I ask nervously, “Will we see you again next summer?”
“If me tractor’s still going,” he says, and grins.