Like most kids, farm kids get their driver’s licenses at age 16. But we were allowed to drive in the fields as soon as we could, and to drive the country roads to and from the granaries during harvest time, when we were 14 or 15. My experiences were common.
I remember vividly my grandfather teaching me how to drive. I think I was 13, but can’t remember. He put me in an old truck that had no doors, put enough of a pillow behind me that I could reach the pedals, and proceeded to teach me how to start it. The starter was a separate foot pedal you had to push.
The procedure went something like this: Right foot on the brake and left foot on the clutch. You let the clutch out far enough that it would keep the truck from rolling (on a hill). Then you moved your right foot over to push the starter pedal, turning the foot sideways enough to push on the gas as soon as the engine started, at the same time pulling out the choke, adjusting the little knob in or out as needed. Here is a short video showing someone starting one of these. Video of starting an old truck.
Notice the play in the steering wheel. You had to turn the wheel completely around to turn a corner, then spin it hand over hand to straighten it out.
I remember how scared I was that I was going to mess up. As soon as I knew how to start it, Grandpa had me drive up a steep hill. Halfway up, he had me stop and turn off the engine, then start again, using the clutch to keep from rolling backward. We did this several times. I was warned not to drive around the hills, or I would roll my truck over. I must always remember to drive straight up or down, especially when I had a load of grain. The combine could go around the hills since it had a leveler on it to keep it upright.
The clods in the fields made the truck bounce up and down, so my feet kept bouncing off the pedals. Going uphill was very hard, as I had to use the steering wheel to pull myself forward enough to reach the pedals. I must have looked funny to the men, with my jerky progress, especially uphill.
I think I drove one or two years in the fields only, before being able to drive to the granary. One year everyone had a bumper crop, well over 100 bushels per acre, so that the combine barely moved, trying to collect all the grain. Before I could unload, our entire line of trucks was sent to another granary. I was 16, so could drive on regular roads at the time. After waiting at the second granary for over an hour, the truck ahead of me and the rest of our line was sent into Oregon to a third granary there. It took me most of the day to unload one truck. They were piling it outside the granaries and loading it directly onto train cars and barges, to stay ahead of the harvest. Everyone was exhausted after that harvest.
I used a description of an old truck my grandfather used for logging, when I wrote “The Stubbornest Girl in the Valley.” That one even pre-dated the one he used to teach me to drive.
One other piece of farm equipment I drove was the D-8 caterpillar tractor, which replaced the four horses and thirty-six mules that dad used to use to pull the combine. My uncle had me drive it to pull the hay wagon. It had two levers and two brake pedals. To turn you used the lever and brake on the side you wanted to turn towards. For a gentle turn, the lever was enough. To turn sharply, you braked, which stopped the track on that side, and pulled the lever back, making the other track spin around the first. Like truck driving, I was scared when I first had to do it, but my uncle would jump on the back of the tractor and talk me through it. He always started it up and rode with me when we took the wagon back to the barn, so I only had to navigate around the bales of hay and remember not to run into the fences.
I found out later that the lever-brake combination is used for airplanes, which explains why they made so many farm kids into pilots during World War 2. I went up for a touch and go flight with an instructor when I lived in Hawaii, and he thought I had flown before. I said, “No. I’ve driven a caterpillar tractor.” The turns had the exact same feel.
On our hilly farm, I was never put on the wheel tractor, as it turned over too easily. I did have to ride the trip rake behind my dad, who pulled it with that tractor. A trip rake is described in “Little Britches,” by Ralph Moody. He broke all except one of the toes on his feet while on it, but his was pulled by horses that ran away with him.
The rake drags across the ground, scooping up the hay. When the circular tines are full, the person (me) riding the rake pushes the foot lever. The rake flips the tines into the air just long enough to release the hay, and then they come down with a force that almost throws the rider off the metal seat. The seat is up all by itself, above the rake, with nothing to hang onto except the seat rim where you are sitting, and you have to keep your feet away from the foot pedal once you trip it. It is like riding a bucking horse.
Ever so often you’ll see one of these rakes still around. I know now that if I ever was thrown off, I would have probably landed in the hay row, behind the rake, and not under the tines, but Dad watched me carefully. I don’t know how old I was when he started me on the rake, but it was several years before I learned to drive.
Nancy Radke grew up on a wheat and cattle ranch in SE Washinton State. She attended a one-room country school through the eighth grade. She learned to ride bareback at age 3 (Really! It was a common practice.) and when she got off or fell off, she would pull her horse’s nose to the ground, get on behind its ears, and the horse would lift its head so she could scoot down onto its back. She spent most of her childhood exploring the Blue Mountain trails that bordered the ranchlands. She and a friend once took a trail that turned out to be a two day trip. They always rode with matches and pocket knives, so made camp and returned the next day. These long rides worried her parents, but provided plenty of time to make up stories. Her first novel was set in the Blues, and is entitled APPALOOSA BLUES. TURNAGAIN LOVE was the first one published. It rated a four star review from Affaire de Coeur. Scribes World said “Turnagain Love has some fascinating twists and turns, unexpected complications, and charming scenes.” It is light and humorous.