Letter From Langdon: Wheels

Ryan turned 16. He passed his driver's license test and now he's free to make all the mistakes I made back when I first got some wheels.

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Few things represent freedom more than the open American road. Henry Ford’s motorcars have had a profound impact on four generations of Oswald drivers.

Make that five, because today grandson Ryan got his driver’s license.

Confined in my parents’ cars, forced to go where they went and do what they did, I had no idea what I was missing. But when I turned 16, all that changed and life became icing on the cake. Unfortunately, I’ll never be 16 again though that sense of freedom found at the center of life remains. 

Like those famous chocolate sandwich cookies, it’s the goody in the middle we crave.

Town kids could walk or ride a bike to the municipal swimming pool; or to the Central Cafe where they had a pool table and Cokes; or the Rock Port Fountain where they had cherry phosphates; or the tennis and basketball courts at school; or the golf course and baseball diamonds at the park. 

I could still ride my bike to Langdon, picking up pop bottles along the way for a free soda, but Langdon wasn’t where the action was. 

Kids in the middle of nowhere had to be hauled. Mother believed if she made the five-mile trip to town more than twice a week she was wasting gas. Anyway, she kept a tight rein, so there wasn’t much chance to wander.

And then there was riding the school bus — two hours of lost time every weekday. Sometimes it was the big kids and sometimes it was the little kids, but on the school bus someone was always messing with you or your stuff. And a school bus contains 20 shifting, developing, maturing, metabolizing bodies.

In other words it smells like a busload of kids. 

Ten years of that is enough. 

To country kids, getting their drivers license meant leaving it all behind in a cloud of dust and rock and roll music. Thanks to that one little privilege and the modern automobile, freedom is as close as the turn of an ignition key. 

Sadly, it doesn’t seem quite so important anymore, but on those rare occasions when I still get to town on Saturday night, I wonder where the kids have gone. In my teenage summer Saturdays, Main Street stirred at least until midnight, sometimes 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. (I’m not admitting I was there, but I heard stories.) There were no cell phones, instant messaging, or Facebook. Conversations took place face to face. Talking to friends meant road tripping 5, 6 or 7 miles, going to town, here and there on 17-cent gas.

Bees buzz around flowers. There was a pretty little rose just up the road. Getting my license meant I could visit every day. Then my blossom got her license. Once she went mobile, keeping up with her meant more flitting around. 

On the downside, the punishment worse than death or cleaning my room became withholding the car keys. 

One hot summer evening I went down Main Street right behind my friend Mark in his new Impala convertible with the 327 engine and 4 speed on the floor. The city Marshall pulled me over. He said I was racing. I wasn’t, but I may have been in a hurry. After he bawled me out, the Marshall told Dad. That’s when Dad said if he ever caught me anywhere close to that convertible again — in it, on it, beside it, or behind it — my driving days were done.   

Scott Muthersbaugh/Burlington Times News
Main Street and Saturday night were made for cruising. Late this August, folks in Burlington, North Carolina, revived the tradition for a Saturday night cruise. Read about it in the Burlington Times News.

On another night they oiled our road while I was gone to town, but the chat truck wouldn’t be through until morning. I got back a little late that night. Just before I turned off the highway to home it started to rain. That’s the only thing that saved me because road oil that hasn’t been blotted with chat-rock collects on rubber tires like fresh cookie dough on an un-floured rolling pin.

Dad said I could have ruined the road, but because rain wet it down, the oil didn’t stick to my tires. There wasn’t even a track. “Don’t ever do that again,” was his final word on the subject. He let me keep my car keys. 

After another rain I drove Dad’s ’61 Chevy pickup over to see Linda, but where I grew up the land was table flat. All I knew up to that point was that wet road oil wouldn’t stick to tires, but that wet bottomland gumbo would. 

I’d never driven on hilly roads after a rain where a different kind of dirt turns to slickum. So when I started down one long hill, the pickup started to slide. The front left fender grazed a dirt bank at the side of the road. I found that Linda wasn’t home, so I went back through town where an old farmer who knew Dad happened to be walking down the street. He noticed the muddy smear and grass stuck in the front bumper of Dad’s truck, mouthed an exclamation, and pointed at me. 

When I got back home I washed the pickup so as not to make it too noticeable even though Dad probably would have heard about it. He never mentioned it, but the week before he dented the door of the same truck when he turned too short out in the feedlot and hit the livestock-watering tank.

That’s when I learned the cardinal rule of mistakes: you don’t mention mine and I won’t mention yours.

Dad didn’t know it, but Mother told me about the time he and his friend Harrison laid Dad’s old 4 door touring sedan over on its side. They climbed out of the car, rolled it back on its wheels and drove off with barely a scratch. 

You can’t do that with today’s paper-thin cars, or even a ’61 Chevy C10.

So when Ryan walked out of the house this evening after passing his driver’s test, and asked if he could go to town, my first impulse was to answer no. 

I suppose I’m getting crotchety in my old age, but it seems like if we could just keep the world from changing we wouldn’t have so many problems. I mean, things aren’t the best right now. 

But problems can always be worse. If I could just freeze time in the here and now, there wouldn’t be any more disease, or world hunger, or wars. I wouldn’t have to worry about my health or friends or family. Corn would always be a good price. The refrigerator would always be stocked with food. I wouldn’t care if the government had disaster funding or an incurable deficit. Or even where I got the money to pay my own debts, because none of it would ever come due.

I could just sit here on this hill where I am now and watch the windmill turn. 

Most importantly in my mind at this moment is there wouldn’t be any more painful lessons…or dented fenders.

But the Earth revolves around the sun, not me. Mostly I’m back to being a passenger traveling through the dog days of his life. But every dog has his day, and sooner or later, every kid gets his wheels.

“Be home by nine,” I said. 

“And…Be careful.”

Richard Oswald is a fifth generation Missouri farmer, president of the Missouri Farmers Union and author of the Letter From Langdon.

 

 

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