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Swerving to the right

My first car was a very used Ford Falcon.
The year was 1968. Vietnam was in full swing; Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had both been shot and killed; bras and college buildings were burning; and Apollo 8 orbited the moon. Rising in my near future was the dream of so many: my first set of wheels.
The $100 for the car plus another $75 for a half-year’s auto insurance premium were hefty sums for this young teenager working for minimum wage at a warehouse that distributed newspapers in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. Pay was $1.25 an hour. I worked from 2 a.m. to about 8 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. This, minus taxes, left a take-home of about $50 a month.
Technically, I could have saved the money in a little over three months but a workingman has expenses. A Hostess cupcake and at least one Pepsi were needed to keep up the energy level. And what was the point of toiling if a fellow couldn’t join his workmates for at trip up to the Prospect House for breakfast now and then?
So it wasn’t easy, but by the age of 16 I had a couple hundred in the bank and was ready for the freedom of a straight six-cylinder engine.
Seems to me that when minimum wage is considered, it should broken down into two categories: one for working adults trying to make a living and another for teenagers wanting to earn some discretionary spending money. If an adult works a full time job, then they should get paid enough for a basic living that includes food, shelter, health care and even a small amount of recreation. Around here in Iowa, that wage is easily $15 hour or more. You try renting a place, feeding your family and keeping up a health insurance policy for less!
For kids, a second, lower, say eight bucks an hour, level is acceptable. In fact, I’d double-down for the fiscal conservatives in the crowd and advocate that a minimum amount of work is required of every youth if they plan to go to a publicly funded college. No kid exempt: to start classes, first show your pay stub.
Of course, something would have to be done to make jobs available, but does that really have to be that hard? I’d propose two laws that would bring back hundreds of thousands of perfect part-time jobs for teenagers: one requiring that every gallon of gas be pumped by an attendant who also checks your oil, and the only way to legally mow a lawn would be with an old fashioned reel hand mower, teenager attached.
But I digress.
Dad went with me to check out the Falcon. A mechanic and truck driver, the Old Man was a great asset when it came to sniffing out a good deal on wheels. The asking price was low because the owner admitted up front that one of the brake lines was leaking and it would cost a tidy sum to fix. Dad recognized the potential, however, and provided a ready repair for the break line: he snipped it off and bent it in half. The line never leaked again and I motored about with three instead of four brakes.
It’d be okay, Dad theorized, if I drove very carefully and stayed in the outside lane. In the unlikely chance I did have to stop suddenly, the geometry of the three working brakes would pull the car to the right and into the ditch. The fact that it might pull me off a cliff or into a lake was acceptable because I’d only be hurting myself.
The hundred bucks I paid for that Falcon turned out to be the best investment in wheels I ever made. It ran for nearly four years and took me to work and back hundreds of times. I even managed a couple of road trips in the old beater. One summer, younger brother Bob and I traveled to visit the Wisconsin branch of our family; and another time I drove to Iowa City to go on a date.
Returning from that trip, a cigarette butt I tossed out the window covertly landed in the back seat. Cars honked and passed. It took awhile before I saw the plume of smoke in my mirror. Braking hastily, I didn’t so much as steer but hang on, as the car swerved right onto the gravel siding.
Perhaps the only time in my life I’ve gone that way.
PS: The fire got doused with a 12-pack of Coors and ran another year until an axle broke.