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Boomer’s Journal: Driver’s education

I remember the first time dad gave me the keys to the family car. A few of my cousins and I took a trip to Fergus Falls to a movie. The movie was With Six You Get Eggroll starring Doris Day and Brian Keith. More importantly, it was my first solo drive, with passengers, down I-94. I was terrified…but pretended to be brave. Every kid has to take that first trip. It’s a ritual so to speak, a passage to independence and adulthood.

My passage to independence had begun years before that trip down I-94. Driver’s education began on an old 1935-B John Deere tractor…along with the old Ford tractor… and the old ’49 Ford car that had once been shiny and new. It began in the fields and in the pastures. It began, out of necessity, when I was in about the third-grade. And I loved every minute of it.

My driver’s education progressed when I got behind the wheel of the old Studebaker truck dad came home with one day during my high school years. When I started hauling grain in that Studebaker, with my dog Fritz next to me in the passenger seat, well, I thought I had graduated into the big-time with that big old stick shift. I was ready for over-the-road hauling. I would bet many readers have similar memories.

I learned how to drive with my left foot on the clutch, my right foot on the brake, and mother most likely praying in the kitchen. With practice…I went from quick and jumpy acceleration to a slow and steady release of the clutch. Dad was fairly patient even-though the front wheels were often off the ground. After all, I was the fifth kid he taught on the farm. We learned a great respect for the machinery and yet, often when reflecting, I wonder how we survived childhood at all.

Uphill and downhill, riding the brake, standing on the brake, sliding down hills, pulling trailers and hay-racks. Learning how to back up with a trailer attached (an art I never did accomplish with finesse). Cultivating and disking…tightening a chain while pulling the stone-boat…or another tractor with a dead battery. Hooking up trailers. Closing gates. Jumping on and off the John Deere, back-and-forth on the Ford tractor. It was all a part of growing up and being responsible. Driving the old 1949 Ford car was a hoot-and-a-half. Learning how to parallel park between cowpies and fence posts. Blazing down the dusty pasture trails, the ones forged by cows. The old ’49s radio worked now and then…and I could hear, through the static and grass catching under the fenders, a song by the Monkees during my year as a seventh-grader. We were allowed to drive out to the pasture in what was deemed an emergency. I’m not sure what the emergency was, but we would take our dog Chipper along (Fritz came later.) Chipper absolutely loved riding in the back seat (so did Fritz). Quite frankly, I begged to drive that old ’49 Ford. I didn’t enjoy so much the lessons on learning how to check the oil, change the oil, change a flat tire or record mileage. I do remember when gas was about 25 cents a gallon, but most of the time we filled-her-up at our own bulk gas tank on the farm.

My driver’s education instructor, Mr. Stan Kaess.

My driver’s education instructor, Mr. Stan Kaess.

Finally when I was of age, I took driver’s training from Mr. (Stan) Kaess. I was ready. It only seems like yesterday when I saw him pull up our driveway to pick me up for my first driving lesson behind the wheel. As we drove away from the safety of my tractors and my ’49 Ford he told me to put my hands on the steering wheel at “10 and 2 o’clock,” and I was on my way. My driver’s education lessons were in a car with a clutch. I didn’t really notice the educator’s brake on his side of the car, and I don’t remember him really using it at all. Mostly, we drove in Elbow Lake, where I practiced parallel parking, starting and stopping, parking uphill and down, maneuvering left and right turns and coming to four-way stops. Traffic lights weren’t in play much since there weren’t any. In my estimation, the only difference between Mr. Kaess’ lessons and those from my dad was the difference of dust and gravel…to a pavement or tar-covered road. Oh, and traffic laws.

My first city-driving experience was Elbow Lake, where I would later take my written test at the Grant County Courthouse. I proudly passed the road test on the first try, with a 96 on the road and a 98 on the written. Funny, how we remember those numbers. I think it was a stop at a four-way intersection (I passed the point of the pedestrian walk) and parking up or downhill with the wheels turned in or out toward the curb the wrong way that took points away from a perfect score. What I remember more, however, is sweating through those tests on the hottest day of the summer, and feeling pretty sure that I had failed both. Miraculously, I passed and earned the privilege of driving on public roads.

Driver’s education had begun in the classroom earlier that spring, with films and lectures by Mr. Kaess. Each member of our whole class, if I’m not mistaken, would take individual training during that one summer. Farm permits were issued at the age of 15 for some classmates, only for travel between home and school, so they could work before and after school. Many of us earned our real license to drive at 16. We had reached the age of perceived independence.

Dad purchased an Oldsmobile with an automatic transmission almost immediately after I earned my real license. Suddenly I didn’t need my left foot anymore, except to change the lights from high-beam-to-low with that little button on the left corner of the driver’s side floor. When I got my license, the speed limit was 75, and wearing a seatbelt was not required. I think the belts were there, buried in the seat somewhere. My first solo in that Oldsmobile, with automatic transmission, was to that movie in Fergus Falls with my cousins. What I remember most about that trip was that I forgot to put the headlights on before we got on the road for home. I’m not sure which cousin reminded me to do so. My hands were at 10 and 2’oclock.

The next step in my driver’s education will most likely be studying the handbooks about how soon I can drive after cataract surgery and knee replacement. But…in the meantime, I can remember that it all started with the old 1935-B John Deere and ’49 Ford. My driver’s education story…what’s yours?

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