The perfect distraction

Wakefield in the 1940s was like most isolated rural towns of the day. The only hard surface road in town was Main Street. It went from the high school on top of the hill through the business district, a distance of six blocks. All the other streets in town were dirt with light sanding. A lot of towns didn’t have a paved main street. Once you got out of town the roads got narrow, and the sand was spread on the surface only until they ran out of sand. When you run out of sand, you call this a country road. Most of the roads outside of town were country roads.
Learning to drive at the time quickly divided everyone into two groups, the country boys and the city boys. The country boys, plus Evelyn Wiese and Arlene Feldman, had all the advantages. They started driving as soon as they could reach the pedals. They drove every kind of vehicle in the fields and around the farm buildings. In the fields they learned about mud and ruts. Driving to school they learned about country roads. Any spare vehicle for the day was fine for driving to school. They drove anything and everything, and became accomplished drivers while they were still young and tender.

The city boys learned to drive in a different world. In Wakefield the Main Street was easily 100 feet wide with six blocks of all-weather surface. You could turn a car around in Main street without going to an intersection. You could drive six blocks one way, then turn around and drive six blocks the other, up hill and down hill. As soon as the city boys learned to negotiate Main Street, which was no big deal, they could venture out onto the other streets.

City boys couldn’t start driving till they were 14 years old, then only “to and from school and on errands for your parents, daytime only”. They walked to school because there was no spare vehicle. No provision was made for a place to practice driving if you were a city kid. I was a city kid.

Driving in or out of Wakefield was learning about driving on dirt roads. With moderate use all dirt roads develop ruts and washboards. Ruts run with the traffic. Washboards run across the road from side to side. Ruts develop in wet weather, and washboards develop in dry weather. Both can be hazardous to your health.

I have seen ruts which were six or more inches deep. When ruts are that deep they are frequently filled with water, while their surrounding surface inspires little confidence. It is possible to drive in water filled ruts this deep with a model A Ford, which all farmers had at the time. For a city kid it was a terrifying experience. It is possible to drive in ruts this deep if they are dry, or when they are frozen. They dry only after the sun comes out for several days. After a heavy snow or rain, certain sections of country roads became impassable, except in the winter. On a really cold night after the surface had frozen it was possible to drive on these roads, making them passable from 2:00 in the morning until the following thaw. It was the perfect excuse for staying out late on a date. I would say “Sorry, Myrtle, I just couldn’t get Betty home until after the roads froze”. Myrtle was so understanding she invited me to eat homemade dumplings on Sunday.

Because of ruts and washboards, every county had a fleet of road graders and an operator for each one. There was no way to win with road graders, which were as wide as some country roads. If you came up behind one you could follow it for miles. If it was coming toward you, it was best to pull onto the shoulder and let it pass. If you were driving over the top of hills at high speeds, it was best not to encounter either end of a road grader. It seemed there were always too many graders on the roads, yet there was never one around when you needed it. You just had to learn to drive with ruts and washboards and road graders. These were some of the first distractions you had to overcome when learning to drive.

Dry ruts presented an interesting challenge as most roads had three. There was a right rut, a center rut, and a left rut. These ruts were as far apart as a car’s wheels. With three ruts there were two lanes of traffic, one going in each direction. On dirt roads it was possible to drive at reasonable speeds if you stayed in the same pair of ruts. If you needed to change ruts it was best to exercise a lot more caution. All of this was equally true for traffic coming from the other direction. Everybody used the same three ruts. It would have been far more convenient if there were four-rut roads, but country roads just didn’t come that wide.

For those of you following the mathematics of three rut roads, you will recognize the number of ruts required for two cars. When they are traveling in the same direction only two ruts are required, leaving one rut unused. When they are the right distance apart, the lead car picks up dust, dirt, sand, gravel, water, and mud, and hurls it up into the air. This is deposited all over the car behind. In a single moment it may be impossible to see through the windshield. There were no washers in those days, and the wipers only worked when you were going down hill. For this reason, it was always best to be the lead car whether the weather was wet or dry. I never found a day which was not one or the other.

When cars are approaching on three rut roads the dynamics change dramatically. As is usually the case the right and left ruts are occupied by only one car, while the middle rut is occupied by two cars moving in opposite directions. In California they used to call this game “chicken”. In chicken the winner is the driver who stays in his own ruts. The loser is the one who chooses not to wreck his car today, and jerks his car out of the center rut at the last minute. The 14 year olds in Kansas were a lot smarter then these drivers in California.

As a city kid, I learned my lessons about driving under the worst of driving conditions. After learning to drive the next lesson should focus on distractions while driving. Everyone has his own preferred distractions. Farm kids tend to look at fields and livestock. City kids watch for friends. Today’s drivers are eating sandwiches, drinking drinks, and talking on cell phones. I recently followed a driver wandering across both lanes. You approach drivers like this with caution. She was reading a book at 60 mph. Only yesterday an acquaintance admitted that he reads the morning paper while driving to work on Long Island. These are the distractions some people prefer. My preferred distraction is of a different kind.

In June of 1947, the school year was just over and it was time to make the first trip to the mountains in Colorado. Allenspark was a long 10 hour drive on two lane highways in our prewar 1940 Dodge sedan and in Tojo, an army surplus personnel car. We had a small load of students including Dia Hawes and Lida Kirby. Because the trip was so long and the day traffic so bad, we drove at night. We left Wakefield in the evening and headed west on U.S. Highway 24. After a long evening ride we finally arrived at Limon shortly after dawn. Limon was the only watering hole for miles, and we always stopped for restrooms, refreshments and gas.  Our old 1940 Dodge was like the one pictured below.


Fred was tired from driving all night. The station’s pumps were busy when we arrived, so Fred parked some distance away. He got out of the car, and asked if I would drive the car up to the pumps when one was open. I waited until the proper moment, eager to practice my driving. Then I started the car and headed for the gas pumps.

lidawrhsAt that moment I spotted Lida Kirby walking toward the restaurant. Lida was most fascinating when she walked. I found myself enjoying my fascination rather than where I was driving. Fate placed a 6″ steel pole supporting the roof of the station directly in my path. I hit the pole head-on with enough force to bend the steel bumper and place a perfect V-groove well into the car’s grill. The roof stayed up. I never told anyone why I had run into the pole. The damage to the car was mostly cosmetic, but was still an expensive incident. Later in the week we took the car to Longmont for repairs. It came out good as new.

As for me, I was mostly speechless when Fred said, “How in the world did this happen?” I considered all the usual excuses like mud on the windshield, ruts in the road, or a crazy driver who crowded me over. Unfortunately, the driving conditions were perfect, and I mumbled something like “I guess I just wasn’t paying much attention”. That got me off the hook for fifty years.

Five decades later I discovered my inner 14 year old, still alive and well. He advised me to tell the truth. I had looked for the perfect excuse for my first accident and came up empty handed. The only thing left to do was to blame it squarely on Lida Kirby. In that moment she became my perfect distraction. Fifty years later Grandma Lida is still quite a distraction. Some things never change, but most of the country roads are gone.

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