I was about 14 or 15 when my Aunt Opal decided it was time I learned to drive a car. The car was my Grandpa’s hump-backed, brown 1939 Chevy with scratchy mohair upholstery and a floor-mounted stick shift. It took more tries than I can count before I got the feel of having found the right gear, letting out the clutch at just the right time, and giving it just enough gas at exactly the right moment to avoid killing the engine. And that could only be learned after I’d mastered the art of getting my foot off the starter button and onto the gas pedal in time for it to ‘catch.’ How easy it is today! All I have to do is turn the key and all that stuff is taken care of for me. As I look back, I guess if I could learn to drive Grandpa’s old car, I’d be able to drive anything.
Up until that time, all my driving experience had been limited to my bicycle, so I didn’t have a whole lot of transferable knowledge under my belt. Not even in the matter of steering. Steering a car is a whole lot different from steering a bike and I headed straight toward the ditch the first time we came to a curve in the road. Aunt Opal grabbed the wheel and shouted at me. I took my foot off the gas pedal, which killed the engine. The car stopped with a jerk. I was shaking– partly from being shouted at, partly from realizing how close I’d come to going off the road, partly because I knew what my parents would say if they ever heard about it, but mostly because there was an enormous yellow road-grader coming rapidly toward us– I was stranded smack in the middle of the gravel farm-to-market road. And I was much too shaken up to get the thing started again.
Those roads had been recently constructed so that farmers could get to town to deliver their goods and procure necessary supplies without being hindered by the circuitous routes of long-ago wagon trails that had morphed into muddy inefficient roads. The new roads were laid out in relatively consistent grids and were graded high for good drainage with narrow, or no, shoulders. Getting out of a ditch could not be accomplished by simply driving out, it would require a tow-truck or at least a farmer with a powerful tractor. The road-grader, which apparently everybody in Dallas County called ‘The Maintainer,’ was bigger than any other such machine I’d ever seen. It looked to be a lot longer than a bus, the driver sat high in the middle surrounded by a forest of gears and levers, the blade of gleaming steel glided along under the belly of the machine looking capable of uprooting tree stumps and slicing the tops off of boulders. I was stranded in its path.
While my short life passed before my eyes, the driver stopped his juggernaut a few yards from us, Aunt Opal got out of the car and came around to my side urging me to move over so she could drive. I was certain the road was too narrow but she managed to pass the grader without the right wheels of the car dropping into the ditch, and we continued on our way to town. We made a quick tour of the dime store for a spool of thread, some envelopes and a packet of rubber bands Aunt Opal needed, then to the drug store where I was treated to a lemon soda and assured that my parents would never hear about my first driving lesson. After a stop at the grocery store, we hurried back to the farm, hoping to get some mending done before it was time to start cooking supper.
The mending consisted mostly of replacing buttons, patching those three-cornered tears that happen when someone gets snagged by a barbed-wire fence, and reinforcing the worn out pants pockets of the men who insist on carrying heavy key-rings and hand tools in them and then complain because they lose their favorite pocket knives and all their loose change. There was also the occasional ripped-out seam, too-long pants, or broken zipper to deal with. Having recently completed a clothing construction class and receiving a satisfying A for my efforts, I volunteered for the zippers, seams and pockets– things that could be done on the sewing machine.
Grandma’s sewing machine had one significant difference from the machines in the home ec. room at school and my mother’s hefty White Rotary. Grandma’s machine was operated by a foot treadle. After more tries and frustration than I care to admit to, I managed to master the trick of controlling whether or not it sewed forward or backward when I got the treadle rocking smoothly. There was no lever to control that factor as there was on the electric machines I’d used. It seemed to be a matter of chance until I learned to help the drive wheel get off in the proper direction just at the right moment. I’m sure Aunt Opal could have completed the machine mending in much less time than it took me. On the other hand, it gave her time to catch up on a backlog of hand mending and– oh, yes– she was thoroughly impressed at how quickly and neatly I could put a new zipper in a pair of pants, entirely on the sewing machine.