When I was sixteen, during the 1960 John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon campaign for president, I got my driver’s license. But I had been driving our pickup around on the farm by myself since I was twelve, and well before that I had started driving our tractor. Soon after I turned twelve, Nolen Robert had given me driving lessons by letting me sit in his lap and drive before I was tall enough to reach the brake and clutch pedals and see out over the hood at the same time. My growth was still stunted from my earlier smoking, and maybe from the extraordinary fright of freewheeling on the tractor with him across Highway 13. He was a good driver—except for that freewheeling episode—and a good teacher and a perfect brother.
The rite of passage that came with a driver’s license was immense to me. I could go out with friends, ask girls out on dates, go on errands for my parents to Clarksville or other towns in the area, go to my own dental appointments, or just “go” for the fun of it.
Just before I got my driver’s license, Daddy traded in our old 1950 faded red Dodge pickup, the truck I learned to drive in, and bought a low-mileage 1959 Dodge pickup that was a unique two-tone, royal blue on the bottom half and white above. I had never seen another pickup like it. People could tell it was me coming from a mile away.
With my new license and a pretty spiffy late-model pickup, I was ready for the world. On the long, straight, but hilly Highway 13/48 between Clarksville and Dickson, there were stretches with enough visibility to test the limits of this pickup. Doing this by myself at first, picking times when there were no cars visible behind or in front of me, I found that flooring the pickup at the beginning of a long stretch of road would reach a top end of 107 miles per hour. Classmate Charles Buckner walked up to me at a June 2012 50th-year high school reunion and gestured how he held onto the dashboard of that pickup while watching the speedometer hit 107. His eyes were large as he recounted the experience.
Later with a couple of friends along, I drove these long stretches at night. Seeing no headlights behind or in front, I gunned it and showed them the speedometer maxed out at 107 mph. Then I asked one of them to take the flashlight out of the glove compartment and shine the light out over the hood toward the road. Then I turned off the headlights and drove by the flashlight, exciting my passengers considerably. It never occurred to me that this antic paralleled the stupidity of Nolen Robert’s freewheeling with me on the tractor across Highway 13 when I was eight. My invincibility was special, of course.
A few years earlier we had converted one of our long chicken houses into a farrowing house for producing feeder pigs. When the pigs were about twelve weeks old, weighing about fifty pounds, we loaded them in the pickup and took them to market. Growers, most often from Missouri where there was a bigger corn supply than in our part of the country, bought our pigs and fed them until time for slaughter. Invariably these markets were on Saturdays and we’d get back home by mid-afternoon. I had to clean the pig manure out of the pickup, using soap and water to try to clear out the extra-pungent smell before going out with friends or on a date that night. The lingering aroma from pigs is almost impossible to clear out that fast. There was some advantage in dating country girls in that they were familiar with farm smells.
One night I was driving alone going south on Highway 13/48 a mile or so north of my high school. I entered a long stretch of level highway and was driving at a high rate of speed as I came up behind a car where the road rose up toward a low hill. There was a yellow no-passing stripe on my side of the road but I could see up the hill that no oncoming headlights were visible. Without slowing down I crossed that yellow stripe and passed the car quickly, sped on past Sykes’ Grocery, then past the high school, and turned west on Highway 13 toward Don’s Skating Rink and Café, a place that had become a more popular hangout for my friends than Boogersville Café where Nolen Robert hung out when he was my age. It never occurred to me that some of my friends could have been coming over that hill with their headlights off while I was passing illegally in that lane.
When I got up the next morning to do chores, Daddy was waiting for me in the living room, adjacent to my bedroom. As I walked in the room, he said,
“Sit down, son.”
Something was up. The tone of his voice was different. Daddy was never so somber in the normal course of the day. He said,
“Did you pass a car going like a bullet up a hill in a no-passing zone out there on the other side of Sykes’ Grocery last night?”
He had accurately described the situation in a short sentence, and since our blue and white Dodge pickup was the only one like it anywhere, I had no choice but to fess up. But how did Daddy know? He said,
“Uncle Sterling [Daddy’s brother-in-law] was driving that car you passed and he called me as soon as he got home. He said he knew it was you because of the way our truck looks. He said if a car had been coming the other way that all of you could have been killed.”
Then it occurred to me that some other idiot teenager could have been driving with his lights off in the northbound lane when I started passing up the hill. Uncle Sterling, the former deputy sheriff, was one of my favorite people. He had kept me supplied with pocket knives he took from prisoners years earlier, he had invited me to fish from his pond in his goat pasture, he was always good to me, and he was right to call Daddy. There was no way I could be upset with Uncle Sterling, and Daddy was right to pin my hide to the wall.
Daddy never raised his voice during my interrogation, but there was a directness in his speech and a steeliness in his eyes that rendered me defenseless. Daddy and Uncle Sterling were right.
I didn’t say anything to Daddy about this at the time, but I remembered how upset I was with Nolen Robert when he kicked our tractor out of gear and went freewheeling across Highway 13 years earlier. We could have been killed in an instant, and now I was guilty of something just as stupid. Plus, at the time, Nolen Robert was younger than I was when I passed Uncle Sterling. I should have known better.
Daddy levied no other punishment than his wilting interrogation that Sunday morning. I had learned something important. It stuck with me. One of my rough edges had just got rounded off.
My Problem Child tendencies didn’t go away, they were a part of my basic wiring after all, but I moderated them in some ways after that. I never again drove our flashy Dodge pickup at 107 miles per hour. I never again drove at night with the headlights off while being guided by a flashlight shining ahead.
So many times I could have been one of those teenage highway fatality statistics. So many times I could have taken innocent lives. So many times I could have broken my parents’ hearts.