St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Driver's Ed

1967 Rambler Rogue $2400

I was really nervous. The driving inspector sat beside me with his clipboard giving me instructions. “Go two blocks ahead and then take a left turn.” “Parallel park between those two cars.” Pass this and I would be a MAN! I already had my ’37 Chev Pickup ready to roll. Driving would open the door to dating, to a job to real freedom! At 16, having your mother haul you to and from everything just didn’t make it anymore.

I had studied the Wisconsin driving manual for months. I talked to older brother Marvin and older friends at school and church about their tests. “Oh, they always fail you the first time if you are a guy. They make it hard on purpose to impress you,” said my older friend Butch, already licensed and on his first try.

I had been driving for a long time. When I was 8 years old, I started driving Grandpa’s Farmall B tractor loading hay. I couldn’t reach the clutch or brake pedal, but just steered the tractor around a level field pulling the hay wagon and behind that the big old hay loader.

By the time I was 10 and could reach the pedals, I drove the Super C, hay wagon and loader up and down the big hills. Marvin (12) and I planted 30 acres of Grandpa’s big river road sand field, plowing, disking, dragging it all on our own. Driving a tractor was only a problem on the hills.

Hauling a big hay load up a very steep hill, the front end might come up a little off the ground. You had to steer with the brakes then. I remember one time just about at the top, the hay loader came unhooked from behind the wagon and coasted all the way down the hill, making a graceful swoop at the bottom. “Drive down and we will hook it on again,” said Dad. And we just went on working.

I got my learner’s permit when I was 15. Dad let me drive whenever we went anywhere, giving me advice – “drive slower and you won’t have problems.” The 62 Rambler Classic had a clutch and column shift. My own 37 Chev Truck had a clutch and floor shift. The Rambler was strange, I think they called it a synchromesh, you had a choice of using the clutch or not to shift under 30 miles per hour. It was fire engine red. Dad liked buying a car made in Wisconsin, even if he had to go to MN to buy it.

The two parts of the drivers test that everyone was worried about were parallel parking and stopping, parking and starting on the way up a hill. Having backed up the tractor with trailers and four wheel wagons, parallel parking was pretty easy—just learning to gauge where the corners of my car and the nearby car were located. I parked between the manure spreader and the hay wagon thirty times at least. “I can do it with my eyes shut” I boasted to younger brother Everett. Sure enough I put the car in the starting location, shut my eyes and parked perfectly!

Starting on a hill was more of a problem. The Rambler’s emergency brake worked, so it starting from a parked position was easy. It was a little harder to come to a stop sign stop, then let up the brake and clutch will giving it the gas. “Same thing as on the tractor stopping on a hill,” something I had lots of practice with already, so I wasn’t too bothered.

So, just a few days after turning 16, Dad and I were on our way to Balsam Lake for the test. “Luck is the best place—no hills, but it isn’t for three more weeks,” I told Dad when I talked him into taking the test in Balsam Lake. “It is pretty much flat there too.” St. Croix Falls was the worst with hardly a level place to drive.

Well, two things were against me. It had snowed the night before and left a slippery icy surface, and I had never driven in Balsam Lake before. There were only a couple of others taking the test. I did the written test first, took about 20 minutes. “Passed it with only one wrong,” said the inspector. I was guilty of crossing two lanes on a left turn on paper.

I knew cars. I could change the spark plugs, change the oil and filter, sharpen the points, change and patch a tube or tire, change the air filter and had put a clutch in my truck. Cars didn’t scare me, but the driving inspector with his pen and clipboard did! “Let’s do it,” the nicely dressed middle aged man said.

It was cold and snowing lightly as we walked to the Rambler. “Quiet day, “ he said, probably trying to put me at ease. I brushed off the snow from all of the windows and then he had us check the lights, brakes and emergency cable. We got in and although it wasn’t required, I buckled up as did he. “I am going to tell you where to drive, where to turn, and the rest. You just do what I say.”

Everything was going fine for the first few blocks. Then I came up a small hill. A crossroads ahead! A stop sign half hidden behind a tree branch. I hit the brakes and was able to slide all the way through the intersection before coming to a stop. “That’s enough, lets go back. Going though a stop sign is an automatic fail,” said the inspector putting a couple of checks on his clipboard. “Have you driven in this town before?” he asked. “No.” “Well next time, drive around the town awhile and get used to the stop signs, then you do better,” he said kindly.

Three weeks later, and after a few hours of driving around Luck, I again tried the test again and sailed through perfectly. I got my temporary license at the end of December. Mom and Dad let me drive from then on. That With my ’37 Chev pickup and borrowing the Rambler I was never been without wheels again. Driving was truly all that I had anticipated, although the 25 cents for a gallon of gas was sometimes hard to come by.

The car insurance man raised Dad’s insurance rate when I started driving. “Tell Russ to take Driver’s Ed and I will drop it down some.” At St Croix Falls HS, Drivers Ed was in the summer. I signed up for it and in June started my week of half day sessions with Jerry Kennealy, a physical ed teacher I knew from school. Mr. Kennealy sat in the passenger side with his own personal brake pedal. Three students were in the car, one driving and the other two learning by listening and watching. Dale Andrewson and Brian Jackson were my partners. We got a drivers training manual to study for a practice test on the last day.

I had physical education class only 1 quarter of one year in the whole four years I was I high school. I took as many subjects as I could, and so mostly couldn’t fit the class in. If you took a sport, you could skip the class too. So, by filling my schedule and signing up for a sport and dropping it almost immediately, I managed to get through school without having to do any exercise. The one quarter I did have was pretty much just run around the gym and then take a shower.

Kennealy knew me already from my little bit of phy ed. Walking out one day after showers, I saw a blue pocket comb with a silver clip on it lying on the bench. Kennealy always checked the showers for stuff and came out a couple minutes later as we waited on the steps for the bell and asked,” Did anyone lose a comb?” “Was it blue with a silver clip?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied holding it out to me. “Nope, mine is all black,” I replied. The other kids broke into a laugh. “We’ve got a wiseguy, huh” said Mr. Kennealy. Of course, after that, I had a reputation to live up to!

Mr. Kennealy’s strategy to keep us at full attention in the car was slamming on his brake. Sitting in the backseat, daydreaming we would be thrown forward every five minutes as the driver made what was surely a critical mistake. “Make a full stop at the stop sign!” yelled Kennealy to me as I almost stopped at the sign. “Use your blinker!” “Watch out for the car!” “Don’t let it go in the river.”

The last day we took our practice written test and went over the questions. I got 100%. Then we went for our last drive. Things went smoothly and soon even Mr. Kennealy relaxed. At the end of our last lesson, we got a pep talk. “You guys have learned everything pretty much. You need to remember to go slow and pay attention, but I think you will get your license. Not on the first try, and maybe not on the second, but you will get it by the third for sure. You have a start to being good drivers. Now just practice for a month on your own and then try the test.”

Then I pulled out my wallet and took out my driver’s license dated 6 months early and handed it to him. He looked at it and sputtered, “what.., when…what’s the deal here?” “I got my license last December, but Dad wanted me to take Driver’s Ed to get cheaper insurance,” I replied smugly, “I’ve been driving down here every day bringing Dale along.”

“Well, you sure didn’t know how to drive when we started,” he mumbled, “those inspectors must be getting senile. Well, you sure fooled me.” After that, for some reason, Mr. Kennealy, just didn’t seem to trust me anymore.

In the fall of 1967 I bought a brand new car, a Rambler Rogue. It had a hard top, bucket seats, four on the floor, a 290 V-8 typhoon engine, all for $2400. It was pretty sporty for a Rambler. “Buy a Wisconsin car and I will help you with the payments,” said Dad concerned when I told him I was thinking of one of those new hatchback Volkswagens.

It was a hot car; as they said in those days, “rubber in three gears and the glove compartment!” But, that is a different story.