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  • It was 1969, and I was eight years old growing up in a small Kansas border town, the kind of town where your cousins and grandparents are only a short walk away. Back then, children were expected to walk places.

    Do you want to join the summer bowling league? Then leave an hour early so you can walk the four miles to the bowling alley.

    Do you have a summer movie pass to the kiddie matinees? Then leave two to three hours early so you can walk over to your cousin's house first. After that, the two of you can collect pop bottles along the way to cash in for candy at the show.

    My grandmother was a registered nurse. She worked hard, she smoked, she drank, she was a terrible cook, and she had an independent, mischievous streak. When I was born, she pushed the doctor aside to deliver me. She also put a ribbon in my hair just to tweak her son, my father. The first look of his namesake baby boy was me with a pretty pink ribbon in my hair. Grandma had style.

    During the hot Kansas summers I was required to walk over to my grandparent's house to help them with chores, at least that was my father's intention. I never did any chores because my grandfather liked to cut the lawn himself and my grandmother wasn't that concerned with housekeeping. Most of my trips to their home involved sitting around playing Yahtzee. Or going to Bingo with my grandmother and her girlfriends. Or just hanging around outside playing with their dog, King, until it was time to trudge home.

    Grandma was a working woman back when many weren't, especially in small town Kansas. With her money as an RN, she purchased her own car, a sporty 1964 Corvair. Ralph Nader used this car as his example for "Unsafe at Any Speed" due to its catastrophic swing axle suspension and the placement of the gas tank directly in front of the driver. The Corvair was small, turquoise, cute and always reeked of gasoline. But it had a nifty little chrome switch on the dash for changing gears, which I thought was super cool, like Batman cool.

    My grandparents had a large carport behind their house, and when it was just me and my grandmother, she used to let me drive her car up and down the alley.

    One day I showed up at Grandma's while Grandpa was away, which wasn't unusual. He was always puttering around town visiting his cronies or just staying away from my grandmother. They had a traditional marriage of the time, I suppose, which meant that they raised kids together but didn't seem all that close. This particular Saturday my grandmother had a chore for me. She was out of cigarettes and milk and still in her bathrobe with no intention of changing. What she needed was for her tall-for-his-age grandson to take her Corvair down to the local grocery store, get her some smokes and milk and come right back.

    The first image that jumped into my mind was my father. My Catholic father. My Catholic father who was quick to go to the belt. The situation my grandmother proposed was one likely to get my backside "tanned" if discovered. I expressed my concerns, which she laughed off.

    "Don't worry about your Dad. We'll keep this between you and me. And if he were to find out - I'll handle him."

    "But what if I get in a wreck? I don't know how to drive, and I'm only a kid - I don't have a driver's license yet!"

    "Robby, you do know how to drive. I've seen you drive up and down the alley a hundred times. The store is only six blocks from here. Take a left at the end of the alleyway and go straight. Just drive slow and easy and park a little away from the store."

    "But what about the police? What if I get caught and sent to jail?"

    She laughed again. "I've never seen a policeman in this neighborhood, and I know them all anyway. Don't worry about the police, worry about the road."

    She smiled at me and tried to calm my fears. "You don't have to do this if you don't want to, but I think it would be fun, and it would be a big help to me."

    Her car keys sat on the Formica tabletop next to the ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts. She knew I was going to grab them before I did.

    "A pack of Viceroys and a quart of milk. Let me get my purse and give you some money. Buy yourself a candy bar too. And drive safely, kiddo."

    Pulling out of the alley and onto the street was the scariest part. The alley never counted as driving to me, but I knew that street driving was breaking the law. Posture seemed very important. I tried to sit up straight to appear taller and older than I was. The speed limit was 30 mph, and if I broke 20, it was because of a strong tailwind.

    It was a sleepy little town, and I didn't encounter any traffic along the way. I parked two blocks away from the grocery store and then dashed out of the car hoping that no one would recognize me. I got the milk and the cigarettes and a Baby Ruth candy bar too, then I dashed back to the car and crept back to grandma's house.

    She was sitting at the kitchen table with a Coors beer in front of her when I burst through the back door. She pulled the smokes from the paper bag and asked me to put the milk in the fridge. I heard her packing the cigarettes down, then unwrapping the pack and lighting up a fresh smoke.

    "Did you have any problems on your little adventure?"

    "Well, after I got the stuff at the store, I couldn't get the car to start, and then I noticed it was in "D" and not "P". I put it back into "P" and it started. "P" is for when you park and "D" is just for driving."

    "That true, kiddaroo. Why don't you sit down and eat your candy bar while I go and get dressed? Maybe we'll go for a burger and then down to the Bingo Hall. How does that sound?"

    "That sounds good. Can I drive again?"

    My grandmother laughed, "No, honey, I better take over for the rest of the day. Just remember, this is our little secret - don't tell your father."

    I didn't tell a soul. My grandmother died young from lung cancer. Her funeral was the only time I ever saw my father cry.
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