Parenting's unexpected lessons – in heavy machinery

My wife and I have learned things we hadn't considered before our son was born. In particular, identifying types of heavy equipment.

From behind me in the back seat, Henry called out happily, "A paver!" We had just pulled into the parking lot of our local grocery store, and, as is often the case, my 2-year-old son had spied an interesting piece of heavy equipment. Then he noticed another one: "A dump truck!"

So we freed ourselves from the car and started walking away from the store to check out the yellow machine parked near the movie theater. After a few steps, I recognized the large piece of equipment, for Henry had noticed it in the same parking lot a few weeks earlier, and we had gone to investigate it. "That's a chip spreader," I said. "Remember?"

Many times my wife and I have remarked about how much we have learned, thanks to our son – things we hadn't considered, even dreamed of, before he was born. In particular, we have learned to identify some types of heavy equipment, including pavers, graders, and chip spreaders (used in road resurfacing, they spread chips of stone into hot asphalt). "Did you ever imagine we would drive out of our way to see road construction?" Jane has asked more than once, as we pull into slow-moving traffic so Henry can get a good look at the men and equipment working alongside us.

But Henry is interested not only in road-building and resurfacing equipment – he likes all kinds of large machinery, with tractors and firetrucks being some of his favorites. When the weather is good, I often strap him on my back and go hiking on a network of old carriage trails at a nearby piece of federal parkland. One of the trails, as it winds its way up a mountain, traverses a large field. One morning in late summer, as butterflies bounced in the breeze, we noticed a new presence in the field. "A tractor!" Henry exclaimed.

"With a mower," I added.

We began returning to that trail regularly and watched as the assortment of farm machinery grew. The farmer who rented the land brought three tractors to the field. Henry quickly identified them as the red one, the blue one, and the green one. Each tractor was dedicated to one piece or set of implements: one for the mower, one for the tedder and rake, one for the baler. Eventually a bale spear and trailer appeared.

Then we watched as the bales of hay and the equipment were removed. The first tractor to go was the green one. Then Henry asked, "Where's the blue one?" not finding it in its usual spot by the far edge of the field near the woods. The last one to remain was the red tractor, with the baler. Being in the middle of the field, it provided a comforting reference point for Henry when we were farther along on our hike, on top of the mountain looking back at the field.

Henry also knows where the fire stations are in town. During warm weather, the stations' garage doors are kept open, and the fire engines are sometimes pulled forward, closer to the street. Thanks to learning about them in one of Henry's books, my wife and I know now which truck is which when we drive by. Of course, Henry is usually there to remind us: "That's a pumper truck. That's a ladder truck."

As the weather cooled in late autumn, we watched with dismay as the fire engines were drawn inside and the garage doors pulled shut. There is sometimes a small red utility truck parked on the street or in the parking lot outside one of the stations, but they don't make Henry's eyes shine in the way the big fire engines do.

I'm almost worried that there won't be any heavy equipment on the roads and in the public spaces we visit for Henry to marvel over this winter. Then the rattling of the wind at the window catches my attention, and I look out to see snow from the season's second snowfall sticking to the hemlock branches. There's not much accumulation this time, but soon there will be, and that means snowplows and salt trucks – and probably some equipment I haven't learned about yet.

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