Fear Driven: A Girl and Her Grain Truck

I was the only kid in Driver’s Ed that drove herself home after class. Granted, it was just a mile on private property from the mailbox, but I made every second count after the instructor and jealous students (all city kids) dropped me off at the end of the lane. Traditionally, students practiced driving to their house during each session. But, in my case as a farm kid, our entire session was spent getting me the 18 miles outside town. Dropping me off at the mailbox meant 15 minutes saved for my classmates.

In rural areas across America, you’ll find a variety of cars, pickups and scooters left at the end of farm driveways. And at the end of a long school day, Driver’s Ed class, or sports practice, you can witness a flurry of farm kids on a gleeful cruise home over those final miles. Where I come from, most kids start driving years before they get to high school so they can help out on the farm. It’s a healthy blend of fun and responsibility for the kids and endless source of nail biting for their parents – mine in particular.

In my family, hitting the ripe, old age of 14 meant driving a truck during grain harvest season. It was a rite of passage, unlike junior prom in every way. My grain chariot was an ‘70s Autocar semi with a healthy past life as a logging truck. Our family unloaded on the go, meaning that the combine didn’t stop harvesting to fill the grain bed. Rather, you waited for a nod, a hand signal, or what sometimes seemed like an eye twitch from the driver. Then you worked a thousand physics formulas in your head and pulled under the moving grain auger, working the gearbox to accomplish the right speed at the right angle. We didn’t have radios to chat, so I got very good at reading my dad’s patient movements. Pull forward. Slow down. Stop. Clean the grain off the cab roof.

My route from the field involved a steep grade out of a deep canyon, followed by a series of frantic double clutches to gear low enough to enter our elevator. Hills in the fields dictated the need to white-knuckle the steering wheel along a healthy dose of cliffs and unhealthy dose of gravity. The days started early and ran long. Seven A.M. meant revving the engine and waiting for the the little red warning flag for the air brakes to slowly drop to the takeoff position while I read my Archie comics. And Psalms.
I reserved my Bible readings for the days when I would have given my right eye to wake up in relatively- flat Iowa instead of the less forgiving terrain of the Pacific Northwest. If I was expected to battle vertical drops, then I at least wanted God on my side!
Within the first week of harvest driving solo, I decided two things. First, I was probably going to die before my Freshman year. Second, If I did happen to survive, I at least had it made with impressing the guys:

  • Cute top with long sleeves to prevent itching from barley dust…check!
  • Freshly washed truck cab…check!
  • Unexpected macho skill for a freshman girl…check!

As long as I never had to drive that old truck to the high school to prove it, I would be just fine!

Despite my Bonnie Bell-glossed bravado, my family was all too familiar with my inclination to occasionally overreact. In one of my more memorable moments, I became convinced that a minor air leak was sure to render the parking brake useless and send the truck careening into the grain elevator, causing what would undoubtedly be the worst grain-truck calamity in a five-county area.

Unwilling to leave the truck, I worked The Full Panic Method of Attraction – shouting and flapping my arms – until my Grandad and my mom, driving a twin to my own truck, descended from the field. It turns out their poor hearing couldn’t discern the soft “hisssss” of escaping air that spelled certain disaster to my fertile young mind. Their concern turned to bemusement and they dismissed my demands for wheel chocks the size of Volkswagens to hold back the tide of destruction from my unfettered truck.

I remain convinced that is was only through sheer luck, and perhaps a small measure of divine intervention, that the old Autocar sat right where I left it for several hours. It didn’t move an inch. Of course, in retrospect, the grade might not have been quite as steep as I remember it.

Turning 16 and getting a bonafied driver’s license meant I was able to move grain on the highway. Autocar and I always dressed to impress and we gave folks plenty of time to look. Safety was top priority, so my max speed, loaded with 500 bushels in the bed, was about 30 mph. I rolled up my long sleeve shirts to flash my awesome biceps, toned from a death-clutch on the massive steering wheel. Sometimes I even chewed a wheat straw to complete the image and ease my hyperventilating. One day a Geo Metro passed, the driver no doubt expecting to see someone in the cab of the grain truck who was old enough to fight for their county. As their cab ran even with mine and we exchanged glances, their vehicle lurched heavily to the left and sped off into the distance. Not exactly the reaction I was looking for, but I could live with it.

The Autocar was eventually sold to another family operation, years after my last drive behind the wheel. It was tough to see the legend depart from our machine shed, but I can’t help but grin when I think about the new driver. Hopefully it’s a young girl, a farmer’s daughter in barrettes and a cute long-sleeve shirt who found inspiration in the Bonny Bell lipgloss, chocolate wrappers, and Archie comics under the seat. I hope she has as much fun as I did and adds to the vast treasure trove of memories and Bible verses that must haunt that cab


About the Author

Anne has worked in agriculture since she was old enough to sweep the floor of the family machine shed. She writes about rural & outdoor life from Montana, where she and her husband chase two children. Her experience ranges from picking apricots in 100 degree weather to discussing ag trade with the Ambassador of New Zealand.

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