My father was in the back of the Jeep pickup, throwing bales of hay out for the cows. I was in the cab, driving. I was five years old.
Safety wasn’t a major issue, since we were on level ground out in the pasture, with acres and acres of room. In first gear, otherwise known as “granny low,” we were probably moving at the dizzying pace of least five miles an hour. There was no traffic, either, other than the cows, who were all safely occupied behind the Jeep where the food was.
Looking back now, I can see that the Jeep would have—and probably did, on days when my father fed the cows by himself—idled its way along perfectly well without me behind the wheel. At the time, though, I took my responsibility as the driver quite seriously. I must have been standing up, because I remember peering through the windshield, clutching the steering wheel with both small hands while we bumped across the prairie.
When the hay was all distributed, my real responsibility began. I was supposed to step on the brake and stop the Jeep so my father could get out of the back, get into the cab, and take over the driving chores. Following the directions he called through the open window on the driver’s side, I planted my foot on the pedal and pushed.
We didn’t stop. I tried again. We kept moving. If anything, we seemed to be going faster. I’m not sure whether I was stepping on the clutch or the accelerator instead of the brake, or whether I simply didn’t have enough oomph to push the brake in far enough to do any good. I rather think I had the wrong pedal.
At any rate, I wasn’t getting the Jeep stopped. And even with my somewhat limited view just barely above the dashboard, I could see that we were getting closer and closer to the fence.
I wasn’t sure of the consequences of driving through three strands of barbed wire, but I knew enough to know it couldn’t be good. I began to panic. This didn’t do anything to help my driving skills or my ability to follow directions.
Finally, my father swung down from the pickup bed and into the cab of the moving vehicle. My memory is that he climbed in through the window, though he may have leaned over from the box to open the door and scramble in.
Whichever way he did it, I was in awe. To climb from the box to the cab of a pickup while it was moving—granny low or not—seemed to me to be a feat of acrobatics worthy of a circus performer, or at least a cowboy.
True, I wasn’t exactly an adventurous child, not being the type to hurtle down steep hills in the little red wagon or try to fly from the roof of the porch. Maybe I was easily impressed. Still, it seems pretty cool to me even now.
Funny thing, though. For some reason, no one asked me to do any more driving until I was 13. Maybe they were just waiting until I was tall enough to reach the pedals. Or maybe it just took that long for me to figure out the difference between the clutch and the brake.