THE TRACTORS came preceded by children caked with snow and adults with cameras and dogs sniffing at the oversized wheels and that sound -- that diesel sound -- that broke the silence of a city so quiet it must have been the way George Washington first heard it. The tractors, one green and one blue, stopped at the corner and there two farmers got out and looked around. They had come for the one who had written that they should leave town. They had come for me.
We had waited for them -- me and some friends and some neighbors. We had waited on the corner and watched Washington parade by -- an out-of-whack Easter Parade of sorts, moving down the middle of Connecticut Avenue, a well-dressed army on the move, some of it on skis, all of it smiling. The difference between people you knew and those you didn't was that the ones you know called your name. The smile was always the same.
The tractors had been preceded by a call. A woman had called and asked me if I wrote for the newspaper and I said yes. The phone went dead and I got nervous, as I always do when I get weird calls at home, and then the phone rang again. It was the same woman, and then a man got on. The farmers wanted to talk to me, he said. They would send a tractor, he said -- a green John Deere, whatever that is.
Now it was chugging before me. We got in, my son and I, and we drove off. People waved and some laughed and a few threw snowballs. The farmer, a cattle and wheat man from Okeene, Okla., named George hill, laughed at the snowball. He put the tractor into one of its 16 forward gears and moved out, waving back at the people.
"God, this is a friendly city," he said in what has to be an Oklahoma accent. "The way I see things, this is a friendly city. Everyone's as friendly as can be."
Well, somewhere people were sick and couldn't get to the doctor and somewhere someone hungry didn't get any food and somewhere someone cold did not get the oil delivered. Somewhere, I know, lovers did not meet and a day worker didn't get paid and some merchant spent his last buck promoting a George Washington Birthday Sale that never came off. He probably torched the place instead. And I know, too, that soon the blizzard will be no fun for anyone. I mean, it's a basic principle. You cannot eat cake without getting fat.
But yesterday was sweet. It was white and pretty and quiet and people were friendly -- ripe for the hugging. They laughed with you and waved at you and it was like the day in New York when the lights went out -- the first time. These are special days, and if you got up in the cab of a green John Deere tractor, vintage 1976 and cost something like $24,000, and saw the city from that vantage point, planted your wide-eyed son before you and watched him wave to everyone in sight, you would feel privileged.
So we bounced on, because that is the sort of ride you get in a tractor. There was, of course, a propaganda purpose to all of this. George Hill was going to tell me how some farmers can't make a buck anymore. He was going to take me to the Skyline Inn, where the farmers are headquartered, and there I was going to be told what fine folks they all are -- how they do more than block streets, how, yesterday for instance, they were using their tractors to help the people of Washington.
Hill's tractor poked its way across town, skirting abandoned cars and buses left for dead and always the waving, smiling people. He slipped from gear to gear, finding his way through the snow, and at Pennsylvania and 15th Street he turned left and took my breath away. There before us, was the grand avenue looking never grander -- white and carless and silent. At the top of the hill, the sky blue behind it, was the Capitol, looking like it does in one of those paperweights you turn over to make snow. Hill turned down the Avenue and we were, for a moment, all alone with George Hill from Oklahoma. It was a moment to say nothing.
Off and on, Hill would talk. He talked about how he couldn't make a living farming anymore, how two of his sons had gone off to the oil fields, how a bushel of wheat used to buy a barrel of oil but it doesn't come close anymore. He testified for his fellow farmers, but the most compelling testimony of all was his tractor. No one would ride 1,500 miles in one if he wasn't hurting pretty badly.
At the Skyline Inn, we went into a smoky meeting room. There was a farmer there named Charles Fitts -- chunky and bearded and booted. "You slapped us on the cheek and we turned the other cheek," he said, breaking into a grin and extending his hand. He went over to a desk and explained how the farmers were volunteering their tractors for use in the snow emergency.
"You say, 'Why are we doing this?'" he said. "Farmers are good people. We want to help. This is one way we can show our appreciation to the people of Washington -- the cab drivers and the waitresses we couldn't tip. This is one way of being nice." He looked me in the eye. "Say, 'God Bless the farmer. We're glad he stayed.'"
I said it. I said it because he asked, but I said it really because of a farmer named George Hill. He came to my house on a tractor and showed me a Washington you wouldn't believe. We made a deal.
This summer, I'm going to show him Oklahoma.