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  • When you live on a farm, you have to learn how to drive. Everything. The potential for catastrophe is everywhere, and farm equipment is expensive. So if it needs to be moved, you'd better be able to move it.

    I learned young how to drive tractors and trucks and pretty much anything with a steering wheel, because my father's family didn't have time for women who stood by helpless and wrung their hands.

    In 1964, I was 10. Gas was about 30 cents a gallon, and horsepower was king. The more horses under the hood, the better. (Although, as one of Dad's friends once said, "The more horses you have under the hood, the more hay you have to feed 'em.")

    Dad had just gotten a new pickup truck, a thing of great beauty: A Dodge, desert turquoise, with a V-12 (if I remember correctly) 477-horsepower engine. Zero to 60 in a flash, took hills like a dream (unlike those *&^%$#@! slant sixes).

    And one lovely summer day, he pulled over beside my uncle's porch -- my uncle's house sat at the bottom of the hill beside the road that went back to our house -- and said, "Come on. You're going to learn to drive."

    "But I'm not old enough," I said.

    "Yes, you are," Dad replied, in that voice that meant he would not be swayed. "You can't live on a farm and not know how to drive."

    Secretly, I was thrilled. Driving! I'd wanted to do it since he'd let me sit on his lap on the tractor and hold the steering wheel. (He held the steering wheel, too, but he let me think I was driving. I must have been about 3.)

    Already I was the size of a small adult -- 5 feet tall, 100 pounds -- tall enough to reach the pedals andsee over the steering wheel at the same time, heavy enough to slam on the brakes if necessary.

    We swapped places.

    "OK," Dad said. "The clutch is the pedal on your left. The accelerator is the pedal on your right. Push the clutch in and hold it there while you start the truck."


    "Now, you let out the clutch as you push in on the accelerator."

    Well, that seemed simple enough.

    At this point, I should probably tell you that I wasn't a timid child. Not for me the whiney clinging to Mom's skirts and bawling some of my cousins indulged in. Wimps.

    I had once ordered my father's extended family -- brothers and sisters, wives and husbands, kids and dogs, parents and grandparents -- to stop discussing the Carole Lombard plane crash, which happened close to where I grew up. I informed them if they didn't, I would walk out. They ignored me. (Ignored me! How dare they!)

    So I shoved my chair back, stood up, and walked out without being excused from the table. (The horror!)

    The family sent a delegation to negotiate my return. I refused until they promised all conversation about death and plane crashes would stop. It did. (Well, OK, one of my uncles tried to bring it up again but was soundly shushed by his wife.)

    Maybe I should mention I was 4 at the time.

    Obviously, the thought of 500 horses and a V-12 didn't faze me. Ha! Child's play!

    I followed Dad's instructions to the letter.

    I floored the accelerator and popped the clutch.

    The truck shrieked and roared. Smoke and gravel spewed from the tires. We shot up the hill like an out-of-control cartwheeling careening Catherine wheel!


    We laid rubber for about 1,500 feet. (My brother, who was 15, was wildly jealous when he heard.)

    And then the truck stalled.

    Dad sat back, closed his eyes, and breathed deeply for a long time.

    Finally, he said, calmly (!!), "OK. Try it again, but this time go easy on it." He added, "Slowly. Please."

    Which wasn't nearly as much fun.
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