Dad’s Driving Lessons

Grandpa told me when I was a young boy how he learned to drive his father’s Model T Ford. “It was a complicated booger to start.” He said.“First you had to make sure the brake was set and that the transmission was in neutral. If it was cold you had a little knob to choke it, but first you made sure the spark level was adjusted for starting and the key was set to magneto. Then you’d give it a good crank with your left hand, not your right hand or it might kick back, and it would usually start right up!”Grandpa’s eyes twinkled at the memory and although I can still remember his words I had a hard time at my young age imagining what it meant to set the brake or spark lever. “Sometimes my Dad would let me drive to town and I’d have to be real careful going across the ruts in the road because we’d have eggs to sell. We didn’t want to break any of the eggs.”From Grandpa’s stories I knew I wanted to drive a car. And my Dad introduced us to driving vehicles gradually. We had wagons and tricycles and bicycles and even lessons on how to rein a horse. “There’s the neck reining method,” Dad would say, “or, bit reining. It’s easier on the horse and probably nicer to use neck reining. But if the horse won’t mind, use the bit.” I was about five or six when Dad set up an old Model T Ford in the backyard on blocks. We sat in it and practiced steering and pushing on the pedals but we couldn’t do both at the same time.And when we were a little older after Dad checked us out and Grandpa gave us a few words of wisdom they would stand back and let us drive around Grandpa’s big backyard on his old riding lawn mower. We made it into a train by attaching a wagon and a wheelbarrow and whatever else we could find with wheels. Grandpa would make sure the old mower was running okay and Dad would test us to make sure we knew how to steer it and stop it then they’d let us go. I’m pretty sure there was no cutting blade spinning underneath. We’d drive a well-worn path around the dusty Oklahoma yard, over and over and over again. My brother and I were the oldest grandkids so we got to drive it the most. And we learned how to steer and stop and watch for our siblings and cousins falling off or jumping on and off as we went. It was good practice.A few years later when I was about 11 my Dad would take my brother and me out in the pasture behind the house on the Kansas prairie and we’d take turns driving his old Ford pickup. I’d sit behind the wheel with my Dad right next to me in the middle of the seat. And my older brother Dan would be next to Dad already having had his turn.It had a three speed on the column shifter. It took more concentration than Grandpa’s lawnmower to get the pickup going by letting out the clutch and two of the goals were to not stall the engine starting out and to shift into third gear before the fence line. The third goal was to turn the pickup and head the other way but so far I hadn’t even got into third gear.There was a swinging gate at the fence line and one day I managed to shift all the way up into third gear. Dad was saying, “Watch the fence post!” as I drove towards the gate. I kept my eye on the fence post on the left side of the gate, making sure I’d miss it. “Watch the fence post!” Dad hollered again. “I’m watching!” I said. “Paul!” Dad hollered as he grabbed the steering wheel and swung the pickup towards the left and stomped my foot onto the brake. “Watch out for the fence post!” When the engine stalled and we came to an abrupt stop I noticed that even though I would have missed the left fence post I was headed straight for the right fence post. “Didn’t you see it?” Dad asked me laughing. Dan had a straight face.“Oh, I was looking at the other one.” I said sheepishly. “You have to watch both,” Dad said. “I aim between the two,” Dan, my older and wiser brother nodded. “Oh.” I said as Dad picked me up and over him to the middle of the pickup. When I was 15 and was a duly licensed by the state of Illinois with a learner’s permit, Dad would let me drive our ‘67 Buick Le Saber on the highway on our summer trip to Oklahoma. We would go down the on-ramp onto the interstate highway and Dad would tell me to give it some gas!“I don’t like that sound.” I said. “What sound?”“The sound the engine makes when I floor it.” I said. Dad laughed, “You want to hear that when you’re trying to get up to speed so those big trucks don’t run you over.”On my 16th birthday Dad came to my school and picked me up. “You drive,” he said as we headed to the license bureau. I parked out in front trying to act casual even though I was more than a bit nervous.A middle-aged man in what looked like a highway patrol uniform had me show him my car and then we got in. His clipboard and air of authority had me calling him sir.“We will start out and head south,” he said. “Should I signal, sir?” I asked.“Normally you should,” he sighed, “when you pull out.”I followed his directions as we drove around my town. I parallel parked and parked going up a hill and going down a hill and each time I remembered all the rules.On a quiet road, near the end of the test the officer said, “Stop here.” So I stopped. “Now back up.”“How far, sir?” I asked. “Until I say stop,” He sighed again.I began backing up keeping close to the right side of the road, but then I thought I should be more in the middle but then I thought if somebody comes along I should be on the side, but which side. Somehow the car showed my indecision as it wandered across the road. As I adjusted again to the right side the officer said, “OK, Paul. You can stop now.”He wrote some things down on the clipboard and then officiously signed it.“You passed.” He said finally breaking his stony demeanor with a smile.“I did?” I asked. “Yep, you can head back.” He nodded. “You’re a good driver, but you might want to practice your backing.”Dad congratulated me when they gave me my temporary driver’s license and had me drive him to the grocery store. Instead of parking in the lot he said, “Why don’t you drive around the block a couple times and then pick me up in the front.”I grinned as I drove off for the first time by myself in a car, knowing Dad didn’t need to buy anything in the grocery store.But that was Dad’s way of letting me know he trusted me to drive his car. After all he’d personally given me years of driving lessons.

Round and round we'd go. My turn to drive next.
Round and round we’d go. My turn to drive next.
Lawn mowing was good practice for driving, Dad said.
Lawn mowing was good practice for driving, Dad said.

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