Put Pedal to the Metal and head for the Top

ed Hill was about 18 miles from the front door of my childhood home in West Virginia. That is not far by today's measure, but when you're traveling in a 1928 Studebaker Touring Sedan that is fond of burning out bearings on every downhill run, you begin to wonder not only when, but if you're going to make it. At least I sometimes wondered; it never occurred to my father that we wouldn't get there.

Starting the first Sunday in May, my mother put the wicker picnic basket on the mohair-covered back seat between my brother and me, folded the Indian-patterned lap robe over the silk-cord rail, and climbed the running board to her place beside my father. We left right after early church. We had to if we hoped to make it to Red Hill by noon.

The amber, spoked wheels contrasted nicely with the polished black body. When my father cranked open the windshield, we felt the cool rush of air across our faces. Somehow, the mohair upholstery scratched less.

In the toolbox fastened to the running board were a fan belt, two quarts of oil, two spark plugs, a bearing, and a tube-repair kit. With these things, plus a jack and a good spare tire, we hoped to make the trip there and back in a reasonable time.

Climbing Red Hill was an art my father knew well. ''See yourself at the top!'' he shouted as he made a run for it. We knew not to say a word as we watched the red climb higher in the radiator gauge on the hood and listened to the engine roar at nearly full speed.

Soon, it was time for the agonizing decision only my father could make: Would he let the motor labor in high or shift to second gear as we neared the top?

To pull Red Hill in high gear was a matter of pride; to shift to second was to admit partial defeat. But to remain in high courted a burned-out bearing and extensive repairs. No one dared offer advice. We waited and watched and wondered.

If Dad stayed in high gear, we held our breath as we coasted down the other side, listening to the familiar knock that told us a bearing had blown. Dad had to calculate his chances.

If we got down the hill safely, it was only another turn until we came to our picnic grove, a meadow shaded by two massive oaks. It was a place to take off our shoes and feel grass between our toes, to lean against the rough bark and eat a ham sandwich, and to scamper off after butterflies and run back for lemonade in the green Aladdin jug; a place to read ''The Captain and the Kids'' and ''Bringing Up Father,'' to eat soda crackers and cheese and dill pickles; a place to think about all week while we waited and hoped it wouldn't rain the next Sunday.

More often than not, we had a flat tire, but my father always waited until after the picnic to patch the tube and put it back on the spare. He knew that car even better than he knew himself. We left soon after lunch so we could make it home before dark.

As I look back, I see now that my father was presenting to us an idea he held strongly and considered basic to success in life. ''Take care,'' he said, ''and make sure your first choice is as right as you can make it.''

At the time, though, I was content to revel in the boundless affection I felt for him. In spite of all his determination, my father wasn't arrogant. He never claimed to be able to climb Red Hill in high gear every time, just most of the time. All he told us was that if we ever expected to climb any hill, we first had to see ourselves at the top.

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