(A six minute read)
In 1968 every American lad dreamt of the day when he would get behind the wheel and drive. It was the rite of passage. The toddler’s toy cars led to boyhood imagination games which then fueled the dreams of the pre-teen.
I was twelve, meaning I wouldn’t be able to drive on the road ‘for farm purposes’ for two more years. But Dad always said ‘there’s no time like the present’ and it was a fine April morning when he called me outside after breakfast for a driving lesson. It was time to learn to pilot our 1949 Dodge.
It wasn’t actually my first driving lesson, because I’d been driving tractor for almost a year. That only happened because I finally weighed enough that I could depress the clutch and brake pedals on our Ford tractor. Fat kids drove tractor earlier than skinny kids like me.
But that was a tractor. Tractors are machines, not vehicles. They are only for working. Driving a tractor is not real driving. No farm kid with half a brain falls asleep dreaming about the day he can drive tractor. It’s a stupid farm kid who wishes for more work. Work is life anyway. No, the dreams are all about real vehicles, not work machines. After all, there is status when your vehicle has a cab. A cab means you stay dry in the rain and warm in the winter.
All that said, road rules were fast-and-loose in farm country back then. There were plenty of southern Minnesota kids pulling equipment to remote fields or hauling hay wagons along dusty gravel roads. Those moments were the highlight of driving tractor. There was a fleeting glimpse of freedom on the open road, when you could get ‘er into high gear and breeze along at something like 12 miles per hour.
Ah, the wind in my hair, the sun beating down, bugs flying into my face, everyone behind eating my dust (until they pass and I eat theirs). It was grand, relatively speaking. But it never lasted. There was always field work at the end, or possibly a long walk home after the delivery was done.
Driving tractor in the field meant being stuck staring at one spot on the horizon and slowly, methodically driving back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, plowing, planting, harvesting at two miles per hour. That wasn’t fun. It was hard work because there was no power-assisted steering, and driving tractor required concentration. It was also very boring.
I was spared the drudgery of field work because Dad began renting our fields before I was old enough to be pressed into service. No plowing, no planting, no cultivating, no harvesting. Not for me. However, there were many other chores and everyone pitched in when it was time to put up hay. But that’s another tale.
On this day, when Dad said It Was Time, I had already entertained many grandiose visions of flying down the road, elbow on the window frame of The Truck, heading to town on Some Important Errand. I would drive with one hand, my baseball cap pushed back rakishly off my forehead. The day would be bright and sunny. I would greet oncoming vehicles by lifting the required pair of fingers casually off the steering wheel while almost imperceptibly nodding my head at the other driver with perfect timing. The Farmer’s Hello.
But that was in the future. This day, it was instruction time.
The Truck was nothing special as farm vehicles went, but to me it was the best thing ever. It took a long time later to forgive Dad that he wouldn’t let me have it when I left home. He sold it to a neighbor for $75 and it died an ignominious death instead of living on in teenage glory. Man! Instead I drove an image-crushing VW Beetle, but that too is another story.
The Dodge had an all-steel body with a wooden bed. It was manufactured with a red cab and a blue box, and the paint was now well-faded by many years of summer sun and winter chill. Under the ugliness, the ‘52 motor that was later dropped in it purred just fine.
It was definitely a work truck. Three road speeds with a low gear for working, typically called the ‘Granny gear’. It was never clear whether this was because Granny would drive that slow, or if it represented how fast she hobbled.
Inside the cab was all metal as well, except the badly upholstered seat. There were four knobs on the dash generically labeled ‘Head’, ‘Panel’, ‘Head’, ‘Panel’. The first one did indeed turn on the headlights, and the next one the panel lights. But the third one was the choke and the last one a manual throttle.
Let me explain. Some of you may know about a manual choke, because you’ve run a small-engine appliance like a lawn mower or a chain saw. The choke connects by cable to the carburetor, and controls the air-fuel mixture. You normally pull this out for a couple minutes at starting, to help a cold engine warm up. The hand throttle is also attached to a cable, and this one controls the engine speed. It manually overrides the foot pedal. No kidding.
The Truck didn’t start with a key, not exactly. Not like your car. You did have to turn the key to ‘on’, but all that did was connect the battery. The starter itself was engaged by a spring-loaded plunger on the floor just above the gas pedal. No kidding.
That was my first assignment that happy day. Learn how to start: hand brake on; make sure the transmission is in neutral, then engage the clutch and pull out the choke. How far? That depends on how cold it is outside and whether the engine is cold. You learn to guess right, or you flood the engine so it won’t start at all.
Next, turn the key. Then push the gas pedal halfway with the right heel (one time only), while positioning the right toe on the starter plunger.
Push the starter until the engine catches and then release, while simultaneously giving it some gas with the heel. You might have to pump it. Keep your hand on the choke in case you need more (fuel mix too lean), or need to back off (fuel mix too rich).
Assuming it started, slide your foot quickly down on the gas pedal and keep the motor at a high idle until it begins to sound thready, then back off on the choke until it runs better. Keep doing this until it runs without the choke at all. Warming up can take a couple of minutes on a cold morning.
After all that, you are ready to drive. Just don’t forget to release the hand brake first or you will stall out and get to start over, possibly with a flooded engine.
Just as Starting The Truck called for special skills so did driving it. The most important one was double-clutching. This meant using the clutch to get out of gear into neutral, and then, after waiting a beat, clutching again to get into the next gear. Without double-clutching the gears didn’t mesh well. I can still hear someone say, ‘Hey Alan – grind me a pound, will ya?’ Likening this to making ground beef was the universal insult for bad clutching.
Well, Dad was patient that day and had me in and out of first (not low) and reverse around the yard and on the field roads. To my disappointment I didn’t progress past second gear and we never pointed toward the road. When he was finally satisfied I was competent enough at the few skills he’d imparted, I pulled up by the house and switched off. He told me to get a pair of gloves and load a shovel and pick into the pickup bed as he went into the house.
These instructions didn’t bode well for my immediate future. I shot some hoops and wondered what was next, because he would rarely reveal that (Wait-And-See-Pudding being a frequent menu item in our family). About 10 minutes later he returned and we got back in The Truck, again with me behind the wheel. My driving methodology was closely scrutinized as we went down into the fields. I’d paid attention and didn’t flood the engine. My double clutching wasn’t smooth yet, but was grind-free. I felt good, but wondered where we were going – and why.
When we got to the field he wanted, one that was freshly plowed, he showed me how to get The Truck’s left wheels in a furrow. Then he had me shift into the Granny Gear. As I let the clutch out he told me to keep my foot off the gas and pulled out the hand throttle – just enough to start The Truck moving down the furrow at a walking pace.
‘Get out’, he said, and opened the passenger door. I was dumbfounded as he left the cab.
‘Get OUT!’ he said again, louder now.
The truck continued to chunter across the field, safely in its lane, and I could see no harm in it. So, I shrugged mentally, did as he said and piled out from behind the wheel, confused. He walked around behind The Truck and I fell into step as we paced along behind it. He unlatched the tailgate and let it drop.
‘Now, what I want you to do is walk along behind, and when you see a rock that the frost has pushed up, toss it in the bed,’ he said. ‘If its too big, use the tools to get it out. Got it?’
Stunned, I nodded, understanding the instruction. Then, the kicker: ‘When the truck gets toward the end of the row, hop back in the cab, turn it around into another furrow and come back the other way.
‘You’ll be done picking this field in a couple of hours. I’ll see you at lunch’, he said, and walked off toward the farmhouse, whistling.
I had plenty of time then for thinking. But none of what came to mind that morning was about driving on the open road. It’s hard to dream carefree boyish dreams when you feel like you’ve been had.
Instead, I mused on the geologic and climatic forces that brought rocks to the surface each spring when the ground thawed. The phenomenon is like a box of different sized objects. When you shake it a while, the larger ones all rise to the top.
And, I mused on the inscrutable ways of fathers and how they teach us our lessons, but not always in the way we expect.
And, I mused on my problems. And how the ones I think are big ones always seem to float to the top.