I was born certain I knew how to drive. All I really needed to do, I figured, was wait for my legs to grow long enough so I could reach the footfeet.
I mean the gas pedal, children. “Footfeet” was what our parents called it, back when learning to drive was almost as basic a part of early childhood as mastering how to feed yourself with a spoon.
Or it was, at least, in rural North Dakota and Minnesota. City kids — those raised in metropoli like Moorhead and Fargo and Grand Forks — had to handle the universal lust to drive in a slightly more civilized fashion, awaiting high school drivers ed and formal instruction on paved streets complete with curbs. But out on the farm and in the tiny towns where I grew up, the experience was rather different. The fine points of civil society’s prescription for turning out educated drivers took a back seat to the natural need for more hands on the wheel.
We started young.
I didn’t cut my teeth on a tractor, as so many of my farmbred peers report. Instead, my proving ground was the municipal dump. There, sitting on my father’s lap, I could “drive” our old Hudson to my heart’s content while, unbeknownst, he forestalled disaster with his knees firmly pinning the steering wheel.
I was 4. My legs were still at least a foot shy of reaching the gas pedal and the brake, while the clutch was a mystery far beyond me. But I could steer, by george, guiding the lumbering sedan among smoking piles of refuse and taking meandering turns at famous landmarks — the mountain of old tires, the broken wringer washing machine, the pile of wind-tossed tree limbs too big to burn in the barrel behind the house. Flocks of seagulls flapped and swooped, cawing loudly as they competed for choice morsels; feral cats slipped among the bounty, stalking the fat, sassy rats that called the post-apocalyptic landscape home.
Driving! It wasn’t just the cool rite of passage that my urban peers anticipated. Instead, it was both natural and necessary where the distances were long, the roads empty and, too often, the combine sitting idle in the field until someone could speed into town to pick up the critical part.
My brother had the advantage, back in our ’50s household. Despite my early dump-driving skills, he was the one Dad tapped to steer our old Allis Chalmers out in the field, while I was relegated to the dish rags and ironing board that kept the domestic world turning. He was 9 or 10 by that time — compared to some of my friends, a bit of a late starter.
Working on motors became the kind of father-and-son bonding experience that he and his buddies — grandfathers now — treasured when they were boys. For him and Dad, that meant keeping the farm machinery and the rattletraps my family drove in what passed for peak condition. Or moving, at least. It seemed (still seems) to me that they had a genius for fixing big, greasy engines with baling wire, chewing-gum wrappers and bits and pieces scavenged from the rusty old implements and ghostmobiles permanently parked back in the shelterbelt. It’s a love that has never left him. He hates computers with a passion.
City kids did have some early advantages back in those days when children first nursed their need for speed. They could start out on two wheels, learning to balance their bikes on sidewalks and paved streets — and mastering that little rodeo move to jump the concrete curbs. We lacked that maneuver. No paving and no curbs. We just learned to fight loose gravel.
But we had an edge when came when it came to cars. We could master automotive motion out of town. In our earliest lessons, deep dusty ruts across farm fields held the tires nice and steady. By the time we graduated to county roads, there were two lanes but literally no traffic. Collisions were no risk at all. We could spot the occasional neighbor headed toward us by the cloud of dust visible from miles away — and get ready to practice the stoic two-fingered farmer’s salute that bound us as members of the tribe.
As our drivers tests approached, though, a bit of book learning was essential. By the time I showed up at the local sheriff’s office to apply for my full license, I’d never so much as navigated an entrance ramp onto the brand-new interstate highway. In fact, I’m not sure I’d ever had to stop at a stoplight. But I was already a pro at some peripheral skills they never tested: Watching for suicidal deer leaping onto the road late at night, say, or dodging hay bales tipped from a carelessly stacked wagon.
I polled some Facebook friends the other day about their own experiences. Setting aside those law-abiding folk who waited until drivers ed class in their teens, they shared a bunch of memories that made me smile. Several confessed, like me, to being dumpground drivers. Others cited cemeteries, where anyone who witnessed their early blunders was guaranteed to stay forever silent. Some practiced with a parent in barren parking lots on Sunday afternoons. And then there was the apparent majority: tractors, tractors and more tractors.
Ellen, a farm girl, recalled, “It was out in the field with a truck that would get progressively fuller. How many farm kids fell into a daze between hopper loads … only to be startled into total concentration by the loud whistling, yelling and waving of arms from the other end of the field by the dad driving the combine?”
Robin: “I learned out in the pasture. ‘Use the brake and don’t touch the accelerator and don’t break an axle on the prairie dog holes.’”
Kent: “Field and pasture road driving — learning courtesy of wheel ruts has its advantages. I learned a lot about acceleration, shifting and braking without the stress of total steering control.”
Cher: “My uncle, 8 years older than I, taught me to drive on the little-used airport runway in Bowman. In a Volkswagen bug. I was about 10.”
Ellyn: “I drove farm machinery when I was so light they tied me in the seat. The few times I had to stop, I’d jump on the pair of brakes on either side of the gear box so they took. John Deere A and B, combine, windrow, baler, etc. The car was easy!”
Nancy: “Dad took me to the Capitol grounds on Sundays with our 900-foot Chrysler station wagon, with fake wood side panels, of course!”
But Larry — an import — topped us all with his hair-raising tale from a very different childhood: “In Southern California, we learned to drive on the Ventura Freeway. During rush hour. In a torrential rain. All of us.”