A ride of passage in a flatbed Ford

As a teenage girl growing up on a farm, I felt I had a lot to prove. One of three daughters on a dairy farm, I was often in search of a chance to show my father that I could hold my own.

A chance came when I was just 16 and fresh to the world of driving. My father gave me the job of taking a load of corn to the Monroe County Farm Bureau Co-op to be ground. His assignment showed his trust in me because I was going by myself. His assignment also showed great faith, since the vehicle I was to drive was a 1954 flatbed Ford.

The '54 Ford presented many a challenge to all drivers, new or experienced. Already 30 years old, the truck was decidedly broken in and downright cantankerous. The driver's-side door would pop open on the gentlest turn, screeching out of reach and creating a hazard to passersby.

I felt dwarfed by the immense circumference of the steering wheel. The gear shift had long ago lost several pins and swung wildly at my side, just waiting for me to try to find the right gear. And then there was the flatbed. The flatbed stretched for 16 feet - it seemed like miles - behind me.

Father threw eight bags of corn onto the truck bed. He grunted a few words of instruction in a language known as "mumble," and I was off. Driving from one side of the county to the other, I rounded a curve and the door screeched open at my side. I reached out, pulled it closed, and found third gear, just as if I knew what I was doing.

But all my confidence sank into my toes as I pulled into the Farm Bureau Co-op and saw the farmers standing around the grain mill. They stood in clusters, some talking while others leaned against the building, waiting for something to happen. I fumbled with the gear shift until I found first gear and pulled alongside a tall man, the only one to acknowledge my arrival. I told him of my errand and assumed he'd whisk away the corn and return with it ground.

He paused for dramatic effect and spit near the Ford's front tire. He pointed toward an opening in the grain mill and said, "Yep, missy, just pull around and back her into the mill and we'll grind the corn."

My jaw must have dropped as I studied his words. He had said, "back into the mill." Back into the mill! Could he not see that the opening to the mill was perhaps two inches wider than the width of the flatbed? Could he not see the gear shift spinning by my side? Could he not see the flatbed stretching out for miles behind me? Could he not see the terror in my eyes?

No, he could not. He had already moved into the mill. I looked to the other farmers. They had been standing casually about, talking or resting, but now it seemed they were moving off to a safe distance. Some still talked with heads bent close, probably placing bets on whether I would take down one wall or two.

I took a firm grip on the gear shift. With determination, I ground it loudly into reverse. I backed away from the building and then began to move forward in a wide arc. As I steered the Ford into position, I realized my father had been to the grain mill many a time. He knew exactly what he was putting his 16-year-old daughter through. This was a chance to prove that I could hold my own and complete the task.

When the long vehicle was lined up with the entrance to the mill, my trial lay clearly behind me. Since the rearview mirror was long gone, I looked out the back window and saw that I had underestimated. The opening to the mill was a good four inches wider than the flatbed. From the dark depths of the mill, I saw a man's hand beckoning, waving me back.

And so I steered the Ford back into the mill. Inch by inch the mill grew closer and the hand beckoned. With teeth clenched and a sweat breaking, I braced myself for the sound of metal against wood. I steered the behemoth ever backward. I sighed audibly when the end of the bed entered the mill without incident. Finally the guiding hand motioned "halt." I had done it. I had backed the truck into the crevice.

At that moment, all my stress turned into jubilation. I pushed the screeching door open and leapt onto the flatbed. Grabbing one of the bags of corn, I pulled it toward the gaping hole in the floor of the mill. But the man who had been my guide said, "Nope, missy, we'll let Jed get it from here."

Jed was a teenage boy about my age who'd been standing in a side door, watching my progress. He had been idly observing with a look of skepticism, but now that look changed to one of, "Got to get to work," and I took that as a sign of respect.

I leaned against the cab and took that moment to watch the loitering farmers. I looked to see if any money was changing hands. But it wasn't. Perhaps the betting on my success or failure had been a figment of my imagination.

The bags were soon loaded back onto the flatbed. A thump on the cab was my only farewell, and I was heading the Ford in the direction of home. A sense of accomplishment was my company, and I savored my victory.

My father had not been there to see firsthand, but I was coming home with the corn. And since I was not coming home with a bill for damage done to the Farm Bureau Co-op, we both knew his trust had not been misplaced.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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