Protecting at-risk farm children


I tuck my two teenage children in bed several nights a week. At least I go into their bedrooms and pretend I can’t see the “Oh Mom!” roll of the eyes as I sit on their beds.
It’s that parental instinct: We must protect our children.
My own parents ran ragged to keep an eye on five kids against the backdrop of a 98-acre farm. There was a lot to get into and a lot of potential dangers.
Our dairy farm was my kingdom. I was the queen. I ruled the rolling hayfields, the meandering creek, the dusty haymow. On foot, I galloped along paths in the pasture worn bare by our black-and-white Holsteins. I swung by my knees on the metal bars of the barn stanchions, pretending to be Nadia Comaneci. I created tunnels high in the haymow, occasionally finding Momma cat’s hidden litter behind the sweet-and-sour-smelling hay bales.
* * *
The old, red International tractor was parked right in front of our two-story, yellow bank barn. That Sunday evening, I sat in the tractor seat while Dad milked the cows. I was 2 1/2.
My chubby, toddler hands gripped the oversized steering wheel as I undoubtedly made little putt-putt engine noises with my lips.
I bounced and yanked and twisted the steering wheel. Just like Dad.
The motion, however, was enough to rock the tractor, which was in neutral gear. It started to move.
* * *
Parents can never let down their guard, we all know that. We strap our children into high chairs; we strap them into baby swings; we strap them into car seats. We arm them with bike helmets, with kneepads, with goggles. We monitor their phone calls, their e-mails, their instant messages. You can never be too careful.
So why did a 3-year-old farm child fall from the bucket of a front end loader and die when the loader crushed him? Why did the claws of a plowing disk maul a 2-year-old Pennsylvania toddler? How could an infant who just blew out the lone candle on her first birthday cake slip into a dairy barn’s manure gutter and choke to death?
* * *
The old International coasted backward. I didn’t know it. No one knew it.
Inch by inch, the machine crawled in reverse. The 6-foot-tall rear tires rotated as slowly as cogs in a giant gear.
The tractor bumped over a silo pipe lying in the grass.
It was headed toward a steep 10-foot embankment.
* * *
Parents don’t want farm accidents to happen to their children. They’re not bad parents. Even suburban kids fall out of trees and break their arms. Urban kids dart into city streets. Accidents happen no matter where you live.
But farm accidents involving children are magnified because they happen where you live, where you work, where you play.
You can never leave the scene of the tragedy. You face the nightmare through your kitchen window; you relive the horror each time you pass the barnyard; you confront the memory whenever you start the tractor.
* * *
That June night, the tractor picked up speed.
The International wavered on the embankment’s lip, until the drag of the weighty rear tires lifted the much-smaller front tires off the ground. There it hovered, teetering between coming back down or flipping a deadly somersault.
The tractor bounced back on all fours and accelerated over the lip of the bank.
Then it stopped.
A stubborn sapling was my savior. It wedged itself between the massive left rear tire and the tractor’s body. The fender crumpled with the strain, but the young tree stood firm.
Later, my mother detailed the accident in my white, satin-covered baby book, amid the notations of first words and favorite toys.
“I feel Jesus had his arm around her to protect her,” she wrote.
Dad never fixed the dented fender.
(Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 1-800-837-3419 or at

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