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I was fourteen years old the summer of '76, the year I'd really started feeling my growing independence and the fact that there wasn't much time left before adulthood arrived. In many ways, I felt adult enough already, and in the ways that I didn't, I pushed the envelope a little.
One of those times was on a balmy afternoon when my folks had friends from Chicago visiting our country home in central Wisconsin. Their daughter Kathy was only a year younger than I, and world wise in a different way than we Up North teens were, but just a girl all the same. Our parents had gone off somewhere for the day, taking the small kids along, and wouldn't be home until late. Kathy and I were left to fend for ourselves.
We sat at our round kitchen table, pivoting lazily in swivel chairs discussing what we could do with our afternoon and evening of freedom. All the while, Dad's orange Ford pickup seemed to wink at me in the sun through the kitchen window.
Now, to back up just a little with a brief aside -- I knew how to drive a car. Back then, a lot of fourteen year old kids did, and many even younger. Most of my experience came from my maternal grandma. She was a real softy, a five-foot-three lady who always got so nervous taking the driver's test she didn't manage to get her license until she was over fifty. I spent a lot of time with her growing up, and she let me talk her into just about anything. (Just one of the ways the oldest grandchild paves the way for the rest to come.) So it stood to reason that I could occasionally beg her to let me drive her car out to the back field, or just up the road a little ways.
Back to my dad's truck; with such experience as mine, I figured a little drive would be a great way to show my Chicago friend a good time. I glanced at the truck and back to Kathy. "Hey," I said, sensing that she might think country life was boring. "Want to go for a ride in my dad's truck?"
She sat up straighter in her chair. A year or so later, during a trip to Chicago to visit these same friends, I learned that Kathy was a bit of a rebel who barely kept some of her activities under the wire, so it turned out my idea was a pretty good one -- as far as teenage wiles go.
"You know how to drive?"
Slight disclaimer: I'd never learned how to drive a stick. I did explain that to Kathy, but I also just shrugged and figured a truck was a truck, and as long as there was a gas pedal and a brake, we'd do okay.
One more disclaimer: not only did I not know how to drive a stick, but I really had no idea whatsoever what a clutch was used for nor how to find any gears. Basically, I just jammed the shifter around until I got the thing to chug backwards out the drive. Of course, that took a generous amount of pressure on the gas pedal to accomplish without the clutch. But, we were off. A few more cranks on the shifter, and eventually we were moving -- or sort of jumping -- forward. Everything smoothed out once we picked up some speed.
My family lived on nearly the end of a country road. Only my cousins' house was farther down, where dirt fire lanes sprung beyond. Between our house and the first intersection half a mile north there were just three houses. The first we had to pass was my other grandma's. She was a sharp lady who always noticed comings and goings up the street, so I was anxious to get past her place. The second home belonged to a young family whose kids I babysat. I think the lady of the house occasionally suspected when I was up to shenanigans, but she never mentioned any misdeeds to my folks. The third place was the home of one of my best friends. I kind of wished she'd been outside so I could wave as we cruised by, but we were better off that no one saw us on our lark.
We drove up to the corner. After a few minor issues, some grinding gears, some chugging and jumping, and a lot of giggling, we turned around and headed back. But that first mile gave us courage, and the adrenaline rush was over much too soon. So I suggested we go around the block. The block was a mile square, so that would give us a good ten minute ride. That four mile square had hardly any houses on it, and no impediments to driving to speak of. Once again, we arrived back home feeling like we'd just had a great adventure, but that it could be made greater still.
I don't recall how the discussion progressed, only that Kathy agreed to whatever I suggested -- I had "leadership skills" that way -- and before we knew it, we were on the road again, this time really, really on the road.
I'd learned by now that if I rolled the stop signs just a little, the truck wouldn't kill. That meant we'd need to avoid heavy traffic and especially stop lights. So we decided to head to the small town of Nekoosa, about ten miles away, which didn't boast of any lights back then. We'd be on the highway most of the way, and I figured I could handle that smoothly. It was only the stops that concerned me. From Nekoosa, we took the river road through Port Edwards and on toward Wisconsin Rapids. We wouldn't have driven that far, except I knew that we'd have to try to put gas in at some point, and the station on the west side was now the closest I could think of. My dad is a very meticulous guy, and he would certainly notice a drop on the gas gauge. We'd already put about twenty-five miles on the truck today, and with another twenty going home, he'd surely realize something had happened.
Up until now, we'd not experienced a single problem, but pulling into the gas station which sat on a pie piece in a fairly busy intersection directly across from the DMV was a bit of a trick. I came in a little too fast (didn't want to kill the engine you know) and in trying to avoid literally clipping off one of the pumps, I nearly took off another driver's open car door instead. He scowled and pulled the door into him. I smiled and avoided prolonging the gaze. Whew! That had been a close one.
We pumped what seemed like a reasonable amount of fuel into the tank, not having the slightest idea of gas mileage or anything like that, and only having a small amount of cash to our names. Then, with a roar of the gas pedal, we were off again. About half way home, we both had to go to the bathroom so badly, we didn't think we'd make it the rest of the way if we didn't stop. But where to go? We were on the highway, with nothing much around. Ah... It would have to be Bob's Bar.
"Bob's Bar" Photo courtesy of Rhonda Whetstone
I'd been to Bob's Bar on a number of occasions in my young life. It was my grandpa's favorite place to socialize. He'd take me there to buy me an orange crush and a candy bar and let me put a dime in the juke box. Grandpa also introduced me to the oldest living man in the area there. Smokey Joe lived to be a hundred. The area where Bob's Bar stood was known as Smokey Joe's Corner. Smokey Joe told me about having to use horses and wagons instead of cars, and about the way things were when electricity came to town. Bob had been a nice guy too. If you stopped by his bar to trick-or-treat, he'd give you a full-sized candy bar right off the shelf. By the time of my and Kathy's joy ride, Bob no longer owned the bar. Not that Bob anyway. He had recently passed on, and a different Bob had bought the place. I eventually got to know the new Bob's kid a couple years later when we rode the high school bus together. It was nice they didn't have to change the name of the bar though.
"Come on," I said to Kathy. "I've been here lots of times. We'll just head straight into the bathroom and out again."
We did just as planned, and before we knew it, we were back in the truck.
That's when we encountered our second problem. This time the truck wouldn't start. It would only whine and whine. Sweat drops of dread gathered on the back of my neck. Kathy's huge blue eyes brightened with alarm too. We must have sat there for ten minutes. What could be wrong -- other than the fact a fourteen and thirteen year old were sitting outside a local drinking establishment after joyriding the day away in daddy's pickup all across the county?
It all sounds worthy of a country song to me.
Image by Clipart Panda
Suddenly the bar door opened, and out came the new Bob. Kathy and I cast each other a quick glance and tried to play it cool. He approached the truck.
"Are you having some trouble?"
"Yeah, I can't seem to get it started."
"Are you pushing in the clutch?"
Oh.... so that's what that was for. "Oh, no, I forgot. Thanks!" I said with a gush and a smile that I hoped conveyed a duh, kind of face-palm relief.
"She just got her license," Kathy piped in for good measure.
Somehow, I don't think Bob was fooled, but I revved up the engine, thanked him again, and he backed away from the door. Good move on his part. I don't recall that I used the clutch to shift yet, but we managed to herky-jerky our way out of the lot and out of Bob's sight. We pulled into our yard about ten minutes later, our shoulders dropping with relief over our stupendous success. It had been such a day to remember. I understood even then why such things were called joy rides.
So that should have been the end of it, a grand adventure to wind up a summer afternoon. But as evening closed around us, the excitement of it all sloughed off, and we believed we had time for one more short excursion. After all, now that we knew a little something about the clutch, it would be a waste not to exercise that knowledge. So we headed out into the dark.
By this time, I'd grown concerned that my grandma up the road would be noting the number of comings and goings from our house and getting suspicious. The last thing I'd need would be a call of curiosity to my dad. So I got the bright idea that we'd just shut the headlights off while we went by her place so she wouldn't see us. I thought we should do the same by the next house too.
Boy was it dark! It was hard to tell when we'd gone completely past, and then... whomp!
"What the heck was that?" I'm not sure if Kathy said that, or if I only thought it, but my heart sent out a panicked thumping. I hit the lights, and Kathy and I sent each other glances of near terror. I drove up to the corner, did a quick U-ey (because a slow u-turn would kill the engine) and headed back for home. As we approached the house in question, our headlights cast beams at the damage. One dead mailbox lay sprawled on the shoulder of the road. Not a breath of life left in it, clipped off right at the post.
Image by Clipart Panda
I gunned the engine and drove on by, hoping the neighbors wouldn't recognize the sound of my dad's truck.
We'd had enough. No more adventure for us, which is quite a thing to say, coming from a teenage girl. I took great care to park the truck exactly where it'd been parked earlier and to make sure no evidence of our excursion was left behind in the interior. I checked for external damage, but thankfully, the mailbox had been the only casualty. Safely back inside the house, we finally let out our breaths.
There were some things I didn't tell my parents about until I was an adult, and they could no longer ground me for them. This was one of those things. I'm pretty sure the neighbor knew who knocked over their mailbox. She had a certain light in her eye when she mentioned the mailbox to my folks a few days later, but as they were oblivious, she didn't air her suspicions. My dad, however, did ask me if I'd planned to drive the truck straight through the garage.
"Whaaaat???" I asked, in that teenage, playing dumb tone. He'd noticed that the truck was parked about two feet closer to the cement slab than usual. I told you he was meticulous.
It was all fun, all part of growing up as far as I'm concerned. And it's not like I got by with it completely. Twenty years later, I had a twelve year old daughter who took her small siblings on a joy ride of their own. Like most lessons in life, all things come 'round eventually.