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September, 2012

Mom's vs. Dad's Vehicular Skills

by Larry

Julia, my mom, did not learn to drive in her teenage years like most of us do these days. In the late 1940s or early 1950s, I believe, a few years into their marriage, she was taught by my father, Leon, who was in some ways not the most patient instructor and who long afterward thought his abilities behind the wheel exceeded hers.

Dad had a motorcycle in his youth and lost the use of it when he had a bad accident which also landed him in the hospital. Painful treatments there by the doctors and nurses left him determined not to submit thereafter to any medical care if it were at all up to him. He managed then with minimal medical attention to live till 83 despite illnesses, hypertension, strokes, and a number of serious injuries from ranch work and proximity to large animals. He had, for instance, a big cow, Baby, a sort of pet. Baby's horns had never been sawed off while she was young. At first I think it was an oversight. Then he procrastinated. Before he and Julia knew it, Baby was fully grown and not about to let them cut its horns. A vet no doubt could have done it for him, but Dad did not want to spend the money. On one occasion, Baby was playing with him, butting him lightly in the chest with her head, and a horn tore several inches into his face, from his cheek up through an eye. I give him credit and am genuinely proud of him, though I think he had a genius for stubbornness. Leon never went to the doctor for this, despite pleas that he do so from Julia, myself, and others.

Leon and Julia next to his car, probably about 1938, in Waco

In any case, Dad had been driving one thing or another, motorcycles, military trucks, bicycles, or cars for quite awhile by the time he was teaching Mom with an older vehicle that had a manual transmission and a tricky clutch. It took her awhile to get the hang of operating that thing, and before she did Dad gave her heck when she would not use the clutch exactly so, and the engine would again die. Nonetheless, once she did get the feel of it right, there was no looking back, and she has kept on driving ever since, even though, once she had the option of acquiring and driving automatic transmission vehicles, that definitely has been her choice.

Still, though Julia had been driving a lot, including by herself managing the move and drive of herself, me, my sister, and my oldest brother, still a toddler, from Omaha, NE, partly at night and through a blizzard, while Dad was stationed in the Philippines, and then also handling all the shopping, or visiting, appointments, and other trips while we were living on our own in San Antonio, TX, plus much of the driving for the family once Leon had returned and we moved to his next duty station, Tacoma, WA, he still maintained that she was a novice at driving and, if there were any issue between them along these lines, that she should defer to him on how the driving would be done. He also was the designated driver if they were going somewhere together.

Yet on long excursions Leon would turn the wheel over to Julia after he had been driving for several hours and was tired. We made such a lengthy trip in about January, 1955, from Tacoma, WA, then down through CA and TX to visit relatives before heading back north and east to see family friends in VA and eventually on up to the Rome area in central NY and Sampson Air Force Base, where he had a new duty assignment.

That particular trip was as noteworthy in its way as sharing the ride with Mom had been while she negotiated blizzard obscured roadways on our prior journey out of Omaha. This time there had been a big Pacific storm just before we had left Tacoma. The rains and wind had been intense. Thousands if not millions of big evergreen trees were down, and the roads were still dangerous after many mud slides. Reddish, rain-saturated earth, rock, trees, other debris, and in a few cases overturned logging trucks were on the thoroughfare.

In many places the passage was so undermined that big bites out of the road had given way, having fallen off into the hillsides or mountain drop-offs. There were also swollen, muddy streams still churning by near us or across the road. We would round a curve to find whole sections of the highway ahead either washed out or partially covered under mud and rocks. There would usually then be less than a full lane left open. So fresh was the damage that highway crews had not gotten there before us to set out warning cones. Driving through the middle of these stretches required finesse and courage.

Finally past that area, I think my folks must have felt relieved that the worst was over. A little while later, we were relaxing and visiting with relations in San Antonio. It seems like we stayed with them that time for about a week. Dad had roughly a month before he must report to his new commander in NY.

So we had set off again in good spirits, this time heading up toward northeast TX and AR, but, as I remember it, also first stopping over in Waco, TX, to see Mama Louise, Julia's mother.

Once we reached AR, it was not long before we were into mountains again. Here the elevations were probably not even as high as in the Cascades of WA or OR, and the area was generally warmer too because farther south. Yet one morning, shortly after Mom had taken over driving on a two-lane road, it became apparent there was ice on the roadway. To our left was a long drop-off.

Julia with her then new van, probably about 2003, in Waco
Julia was not driving fast, but hardly a moment after we understood the situation, the car began to skid. It looked like we would be falling over the edge. She reacted by immediately turning us in the other direction and somehow got enough traction to move us over that way, but we were again sliding, and the right fender plowed into a big guard post. This description makes the accident sound like it took awhile, but really, from first awareness of the icy conditions till the car hit the guard post was probably only 2-3 seconds.

Of course it was upsetting to have had the mishap, but things turned out much better than they might have. Dad walked down the road to the nearest farmhouse and brought back a borrowed two by four with which he pried the fender off the right front tire, so we could drive again, and we continued on our way, though not without a lot of aggravated commentary about how Dad thought Mom should have handled the situation and how he had better drive on that trip from here on out, which he did. Of course, by the time he had gotten the fender off the tire, the sun was well up and the pavement though wet was ice free, so we shall never know if he might for a second or two have lost control in the same circumstances.

What is known is that a few years earlier, with our vehicle going maybe a little too fast for the rainy nighttime conditions and unfamiliar area of another long trip, Dad was driving when we rounded a curve and suddenly there was a man ahead in our headlights. He died from the impact, as it had not been possible to stop in time or avoid hitting him by veering off the road, for once again there was a drop-off.

Following the goring by Baby, Dad's vision was never so good, often showing him dual images. He mostly avoided driving much except on his ranches. He did make an exception once when helping me move a pick-up load of stuff to Val's and my then new house (where we now live). He did not want anybody operating his truck but him, so when we got to a point where he had to merge left, then turn left down a road four lanes over, he simply did the required maneuvers. Unfortunately, he neglected to take into consideration any of the traffic already in those intervening lanes. We avoided being part of a massive pile-up that day only by luck. There was behind us, though, quite a cacophony of screeching tires, squealing brakes, and angry honking.

Mom has been behind the wheel of various vehicles for 65 years or so and, though she prefers now not to drive at night, to my knowledge she has never had an accident after the one in which she hit a pylon rather than let us fall down the side of a mountain.

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