Learning To Drive – Part One

How many of you know how to drive? Raise your hand. Of course, we know how to drive. It’s not only a necessity in most of the country, but getting a driver’s license is a rite of passage we all looked forward to at a certain age. But wait a minute! Maybe we’ve been driving for years; but what would happen if you or I encountered a completely different driving challenge?

That happened to me once. It was on a Saturday morning in August, 1986, on the side of a mountain in Jonesville Virginia. Now Jonesville is about thirty five miles east of the Cumberland Gap. A crowd of people stood watching as I got behind the wheel and started the engine. My hands were sweating and my heart was pounding a little as I shifted gears and prepared to drive forward down the mountain. As the vehicle began to move, well that’s when I noticed I’d put it into “reverse” by mistake! 

Now most of you raised your hands before. Do you remember what it was like when you first learned to drive? Of course here in the midwest, most kids get a license at sixteen; sometimes earlier if they live on a farm. I was born and raised in New York City. They made us wait a little longer there. In fact, many New Yorkers never learn to drive – unfortunately some of them own taxicabs!

Nevertheless, once the basics are learned, and with a little practice, driving was relatively easy. We rarely even think about it.

In 1986, I was an adult group leader of a high school work team involved in the Appalachia Service Project. There were four teams from our church that year. We brought with us tools and vehicles and collected building supplies. My good friend Jack, donated the use of his eighteen wheeler; a diesel tractor and forty foot enclosed trailer. So we loaded our materials in the semi, and Jack drove it. There was only one problem. One the way down from Racine, Wisconsin to Jonesville, Virginia, Jack became ill. By the time we arrived in Jonesville, he was burning up with fever and in a great deal of pain. He tried rest and aspirin, but by Tuesday it was clear he was getting worse. So that evening, his wife loaded him into their station wagon and hauled him off to Lexington, Kentucky, to the hospital there. I walked over to their car, to say goodbye. Jack rolled down the window, and reached into his wallet for some bills. He handed me three hundred dollars and said: “Please get my truck home.” And then they drove off.

Have you ever felt really lonely? There I stood on the side of a mountain, my best friend was seriously and mysteriously ill, and on his way to a hospital over three hours away, and just below me on the dirt road by the supply barn sat this truck!

Now this was not a new truck. It was a 1975 International, conventional. “Conventional” means it had one of those long hoods, about the length of your average Toyota Prius. It was powered by a nine jillion cubic inch diesel engine. The exhaust stack was the size of the chimney on a small house! You had to climb ladder-like steps just to get into the driver’s seat. It wasn’t an automatic transmission. No, it had a five speed manual transmission and a little lever on the shift knob with three ranges. When these were used in combination, you had thirteen forward gears and two in reverse. There was a chart on the dashboard showing the shift pattern. It looked like the organization chart of a medium sized company, and was about as easy to understand. The brake pedal looked like “Bigfoot’s” foot print. Of course, the brakes were air brakes. The steering wheel was twice the size of the one in my car. And there were guages, little dials all over the dash. Temperatures of the engine, transmission, axles; pressures in the air tank, vacuum; tachometer, fuel (two tanks). The tanks each held 80 gallons of diesel fuel. The driver’s seat was air operated, so you could raise or lower it and ride on a cushion of air. That was so that instead of fracturing your back when you hit a bump, you merely suffered spinal contusions. And behind all this hung a forty foot long, thirteen foot high bright yellow trailer, with a canvas top and barn-like doors in the back.

I knew how to drive, but this was going to be a little different. I had one thing against me and one thing in my favor. Against me was the fact that the day Jack left me in charge of his eighteen-wheeler was Tuesday, and we weren’t leaving until Saturday. After all, there was work to be done, floors to be repaired and ceilings to be sheet-rocked. So I had four days to think about it. The one thing in my favor though, was that I knew exactly where I wanted to go. My destination was Racine, Wisconsin; specifically the north parking lot of Christ Church, United Methodist. I also knew that the trip would take two days and that the distance was about 650 miles. I knew there was to be an intermediate stop in Jeffersonville, Indiana; at a Days Inn. And I knew which highways would take me there.

If ever there was a time for prayer, that Saturday morning was it. “Lord, I know Jack’s name is on the side of this truck, but it’s really Your truck. Help me to get it home without wrecking or killing anyone. In Jesus name, Amen” My pastor was in the passenger seat, so we were good to go. Then we started moving, backwards!

Next week: “Comin’ Around the Mountain” or “How do I slow this thing down?”

2 thoughts on “Learning To Drive – Part One

  1. As I kid, I sat behind the school bus driver and watched how he did everything, just in case I’d ever have to take over! (Dad wouldn’t get a car with an automatic shift until my sis and I were in college. He said he didn’t believe in them.)

    Liked by 1 person

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