Mom’s Driving Lesson

Learning to drive the smooth-operating cars of today, with their automatic transmissions and hydraulic brakes, is a snap compared to the rough-handling ones of the days of our mothers and fathers.

My father drove a coal truck for E L Calvert Coal Company in Sedalia in the 1940s, which was also our family transportation thanks to his understanding boss. We couldn't afford a car of our own.  The old truck was a rough riding rig that would jar us to pieces on potholes and railroad tracks, but we never complained since the alternative was walking. The seat of the truck was just a collection of rags and blankets over bare springs to keep them from tearing our clothes off as we bounced along. Very often this was not enough protection, and we had a lot of patched clothes courtesy of that seat.

The truck was a 30-something model Dodge, with a floor shifter, and mechanical brakes that were not entirely dependable. It was easy for dad of course, who was quite adept at driving the complicated machine, having done so for quite awhile. A truck like that could be quite a chore to handle for the uninitiated, as my mother found out.

On a warm summer evening in the early 40s, the family was relaxing on the porch after supper, when my mother asked dad for the 100th time to teach her to drive, and being in a rather mellow mood that evening, he agreed. The neighborhood kids were all alerted to stay out of the streets around our house, which proved to be no problem since most of them chose to ride in the dump bed of the truck with my sister and me.

Dad got mom started, with a few simple instructions on how to apply the clutch before you hit the brakes so the truck wouldn't buck and shake at each stop along the way, but of course, that was the part the screaming crowd in the bed of the truck liked best. We would all let out a big cheer each time mom forgot the clutch, causing the old truck to vibrate to a sputtering halt and die. The route she drove that day was east on Fourth Street, south on Babcock Avenue, west on Fifth Street, then north on Emmit Avenue, then back to Fourth Street to complete the one block circle.  Dad stayed with us until he thought she was doing well enough turning the corners, to stay between the ditches. Then he got out and sat back on the porch and watched as mom and the truckload of screaming kids made the trip round and round that block.

Mom never did master that complicated clutch before the brake routine, and after more bucking stops than I can count, she finally left the verbally abused truck where it died on Fifth Street and walked home. She never asked dad to teach her to drive again. My sister finally taught mom to drive in the early 60s, using our stepfather’s 1953 Chevy with an automatic transmission and hydraulic brakes. My sister told me once, that those driving lessons were a real adventure too; but she said they did not compare to the adventure we had in that old Dodge truck with its dump bed full of kids.

Tune in to Jack Miller on Newstalk 1050 KSIS every Monday morning to hear excerpts from his book of Mid-Missouri Memories, titled ‘Unhurried Days.’