Driving Dad Crazy

A selection from the new book, A Tree Grows in Trout Creek, now in publication:

When Dad wasn’t working one of three rotating shifts underground in the Hiawatha Mine, he’d be riding out on M-73 to work on the cottage he was building at Hagerman Lake. There was always some new project to be done, no matter how far along the overall development had progressed.

Wanting company on these excursions he’d win me away from my favorite pastime—reading the Junior Classics—with the assurance of great outdoor adventure. Enchanted with the excitement and enthusiasm that flowed like a fountain of youth from Dad’s dissertations on dreamland, the U.P., I’d throw on my red plaid jacket, blue jeans and brown and white saddle shoes and hurry to join him.

Summer vacation days and Saturdays during the school year were spent riding with Dad in the old clunker as he referred to the 1929 Model A he’d bought for 25 bucks in 1948. When our work at Hagerman was done for the day, we’d go adventuring, searching out new lakes and rivers for fish, chasing down wildlife along old logging roads and exploring ancient Ojibwa villages around the area. In October, armed with a jug of cool water, his shotgun and some shells, we’d prowl for partridge.

One Saturday, Dad and I were headed out to Hagerman Lake. We were loaded down with lumber, tools and tar paper as Dad was building a small fort near the cottage so my broth¬ers Jim and Jerry, niece Wendi and nephews Les and Bruce could have a fort for their cowboy and Indian attacks.

A balmy October morning, it was just perfect for what I had in mind. Driving! Born to be behind a wheel, I started begging Dad to teach me to drive when I was seven. When I was eight, I’d just about worn him down. By the time I turned nine, he just couldn’t take it any more. He gave in, let me sit in the driver’s seat and began hammering into my head the dos and don’ts—mostly don’ts—of driving.

But, that was practically history. Nowadays, I did a lot of the driving. Not that I was exactly legal, but Dad was really careful about us not getting caught. Once outside of the city lim¬its, off US-2 and onto M-73, he’d pull over to the side of the road, switch seats with me and hang on for dear life as I learned the lessons of the road.
Even though I was driving Dad a little crazy, I was getting pretty good at keeping the jerky starting and stopping to a mini¬mum. Why, I could shove that stick shift around with the best of them.

“Now can I drive?” I asked Dad, shortly after we’d passed Meyer’s Packing Plant.

“I suppose, we’re far enough out.” Dad checked his rearview mirror, pulled over to the side of the road and stopped, letting the motor idle as he got out of the car and made his way around to the passenger side.

“No cops out here,” I bragged, slipping ever so carefully past the stick shift into the driver’s seat.

“Now don’t get smart,” Dad warned. “There are game wardens around and they’re plenty nosy, too.” He vaulted into the small front seat, crammed his long lanky legs in and yanked the door shut. “That Hank Sawaski would just love to catch me letting you drive.”

“Yah, yah,” I sputtered.

“Okay, pull away nice and easy now,” Dad instructed. “Not too heavy on the gas. Don’t grind the gears. And no lead-footing down the road.”

“Right.” I was in seventh heaven. I slung in the clutch, shoved the shift into first gear and pulled away from the side of the road.

“And no riding the clutch!” Dad commanded. He looked around nervously as I did a cool move into second, then third and finally took it up to speed.

“No speeding!” Dad yelled.

“Geez, Dad, I’m only doing forty,” I complained.

“Feels like fifty,” Dad grabbed hold of his canvas cap to keep it from bouncing.

“I’m not going fifty. See for yourself.” I nodded at the needle on the speedometer, which was also bouncing.

“Forty in this old clunker’s not the same as forty in the new car,” he shot back. “Pull her back into second. We’re not on a race course, you know.”

“Okay!” I didn’t really care how fast—or slow—we went, just as long as I was in the driver’s seat.

It would be a few more years before I’d be old enough to take the Driver’s Education class offered at Stambaugh High School. But it didn’t matter. I knew how to drive and I knew all the rules and technical instructions. Not only had I been behind the wheel dozens of times, I’d also been watching—researching—the art of driving the back roads. Dad had already taught me to drive. He’d harped on the dos and don’ts of driving so often his words were practically tattooed on my brain.

I could make a list of dos and don’ts a mile long, I thought.

Heck! I could have written a book just on technique. Here’s how it would go:

Rules of the Road, by Coralie Ann Cederna.
1. Don’t grind the gears.
2. Don’t ride the clutch.
3. Don’t lead-foot down the road.
4. Don’t brake going around a curve. To keep control of the car, slow down ahead of time, accelerate slightly before the curve and give it some gas while turning.
5. Try to look inconspicuous, if you see a cop.
6. If he sees you, sit tall.
7. Same with game wardens. They’re a nosy bunch, too.
8. Watch the shoulders of the road. Don’t get too far off the track or you’ll sink in like quicksand.
9. Watch for squirrels, possums and other small critters crossing the road. Never kill anything needlessly.
10. If you drive through a river to cross into better hunting territory, make sure it’s got a good gravel bottom. Make sure the water’s not so high it’ll run up over the running boards. Make sure the current isn’t too swift or you’ll find yourself floating down the river—fishing instead of hunting.
11. If you chase a bear down the road, give it full throttle or you’ll lose him.
12. If a bobcat slinks out from the side of the road, jam on the brakes—not many of those left around.
13. Same with wolves, otters and mink.
14. Be careful when watching flight patterns of geese or you’ll wander off the road, hit a tree or end up in a ditch.
15. Same with eagles, owls and ducks.
16. Don’t get in too close behind a loaded logging truck, or you may find yourself pushing up daisies. Logs could topple off the back of the truck and kill you.
(This actually happened to Dad and me—the logs toppling, not getting killed.)
17. Watch for partridge.
18. When you a see one, slow down. Stop easy. Don’t ever turn the motor off. Let the car idle while Dad gets out, loads his shotgun and shoots. Don’t breathe until you’re sure he’s bagged the bird.
19. Never daydream while you’re at the wheel.

“Hey watch it!” Dad yelled, scaring me half to death.
“What?” I yelled back.

“There’s a covey of quail up ahead. Are you blind?” Dad’s itchy fingers were anxiously caressing his gun case.

“I see them. I see them,” I whispered, bringing the old Model A to a slick purring halt.

“There they go. Ah, nuts. We missed them.” Dad gave me the old eagle eye. “You’ve got a lot to learn about driving,” he grumbled.

“I thought I was doing pretty well,” I said.

“Geez, you’re riding that clutch again! You’ve got to pay better attention!” Dad said.

“Oh, sorry!” I didn’t want to jeopardize my time behind the wheel by not following Dad’s rules of the road. That riding the clutch problem was hard to break. Seemed my left foot had a mind of its own.

“Slow down before you get to that curve, then give it a little gas as your making the turn,” Dad instructed as he’d done a millions times before.

“I know. I know.” I eased down on the brakes with the polished perfection of an expert as we approached the wide curve.

“Now give it some gas.” Dad just couldn’t sit still, while anyone else was behind the wheel.

“I know. I know,” I repeated, accelerating just a little as we sailed around the curve.

“You kids think you know everything. Can’t tell you a thing,” Dad fussed.

“Geez, Dad, I’ve been driving for years. Don’t you think I know what I’m doing?” He, of all people, should know I had this driving business under control. He’d seen me come up through the ranks—novice to know-it-all.

“Oh, I think you know what you’re doing all right, but I don’t think I know what you’re doing, until you do it,” Dad said.

“Trust me,” I oozed.

“Now there’s a good one.” Dad leaned back and laughed right out loud. I’d gotten myself in and out of a lot of hot water in the past couple of years so I guessed he had a right to laugh at that one. Still I didn’t think it was that funny.

“I’ve never had an accident,” I reminded him, swerving just a little left to miss the carcass of a squirrel lying out on the road.

“Geez, watch what you’re doing!” Dad yelled, grabbing onto the open frame of the window with his right hand to steady himself.

“What?” I jerked the wheel back right.

“What do you think you’re doing?” He gasped, slapping his left hand against the old chipped black dashboard to brace himself.

“I was just trying not to hit that squirrel.” It was hard not to laugh. Whenever Dad got that serious, some kind of a crazy alarm went off inside my head, causing me to get the giggles. Maybe it was nerves, but he looked awfully funny sitting there stewing over a little swerve.

“Think it’s a big joke?” He seemed kind of on the verge of laughing himself, but he was working hard to stay serious.

“Nope!” I could only get one word out. I was biting the inside of my cheeks to keep from bursting out with laughter.

“You’ve got to stay on the road, no matter what.” He shook his head.

“I didn’t go off the road. I didn’t go anywhere near the side of the road. I had it under control,” I blurted, tittering the whole time.

“You want to roll us over?” Dad was relentless.

“No!” Now he was starting to get my goat.

“What are you going to do if you see a live animal out on the road?” Dad asked.

“Try to miss it, I guess.” It was obviously a trick question. We’d already talked about squirrels, possums, bears, bobcats, wolves, otters and mink. I wasn’t sure what he was getting at now.

“Are you going to swerve then, too?”

“Sure, uh no, uh—” He had me with that one.

“Say a deer runs out in front of you. The first thing you’re automatically going to want to do is swerve away. It’s a natural reaction.” He was letting me off the hook a little—I wasn’t the only dummy who would try to dodge a deer.

“What you’ve got to do is think. If you got your mind all geared up ahead of time to handle the situation, you’ll be in good shape.”

“Think what?” Was I missing something here, or what?

“Well, just let me finish, will you?” He paused while I slowed down for another wide curve and didn’t say another word until we were safely back on the straight stretch.

“Here’s what you have to do. You have to stay on your side of the road no matter what. If a deer gets in the way, well, you’ll just have to hit him.”

“Hit him?” I couldn’t believe he was telling me this.

“That’s right, hit him. I want you to think about that, memorize it and remember it no matter what. If you don’t, you could end up in the ditch, or worse yet, deader than a doornail.”

“Hit him, huh?” I kept running the scenario over and over in my mind, determined to remember it in case of an emergency arising one day.

“Yah, hit him,” Dad repeated, figuring maybe I’d get it if I heard it enough times.

“What about the car? Won’t it get all smashed up?”

“Well, sure it will. But better the car than you. Got it?”

“Got it.”

“Good.” Dad, a teacher at heart, sat back satisfied, starting finally to relax. We’d just passed the entrance to Bass Lake and were nearly to the Rustic Inn; another words, we were almost to Hagerman Lake. No wonder he was relaxing. He was almost home free. He was almost done riding with me at the wheel.

“So, you think you learned something today?” Dad asked as we approached the driveway to the cottage.

“Sure thing!” I said confidently, making a mental note to add this new rule to the list:
Rule # 20. If a deer runs out in front of you, don’t swerve. Drive like heck and hit it. Don’t swerve. You’ll kill yourself.

I slowed to a snail’s pace, pulled into the driveway and downshifted from second to first gear. Then, easing the old car down the path through the trees, I drove into the small clearing, backed up perfectly and turned the car around so it was ready to leave when we were…

Whenever the orange glow of October begins to bud in topaz tints of gold-green glory, blossoms into tangerine peel profusion, then bursts brilliantly into the riveting ruby-red promise of another Indian Summer, I am transported back to those dazzling days on the back roads with Dad.

With windows cranked down, elbows resting on the bottom of wide open window frames baking in the beating sun blazing down from an ocean of blue sky above, we amble along the gravel roads silently immersed in the colorful casts and hues of the scarlet streaked crimson countryside. Passing the old sawmill on Gibbs City Road, we absentmindedly listen to the machinery pumping, grinding and groaning as it turns out freshly cut slabs of pine lumber and sweet smelling sawdust. Beneath us, pebbles, stones and sticks pepper the underside of the car, spattering the fenders, doors and hood with a lively staccato serenade. Gravel dust swirls up from the wheels, whirls around the side of the old Model A and drifts in through the windows—settling in a misty tan haze on the dashboard.

I reach over and write my name in the dust. CORALIE – 1953. With two fingertips, I strike a smudged line under it for emphasis. I am feeling ecstatic.

“Slow down!” I hear Dad say, “Are we trying to win a race or what? You want to get us in an accident?”

“Good grief,” I mutter under my breath.

“What’s that? What are you saying?” Dad’s simmering temper comes to an instant boil.

“Sweet. This is really sweet! And swell! Just swell!” I give him my sweetest sugary smile.

He gives me a long look, then turns and gazes back out the open window. “Yah it is, isn’t it?” he sighs, a note of nostalgia creeping into his voice. “Indian Summer in the U.P., best place to be in the best time of year. And don’t you ever forget it.”

I slip the shift back into first, press slowly down on the gas pedal and ease the clutch up carefully, never once grinding the gears. Enraptured with the moment, I experience a sudden rush of relief that I’ve been born to this wondrous wilderness. I know I’ll never forget my good fortune no matter how old and rickety I grow to be.

“I won’t,” I vow, carefully tucking away the lessons I’ve learned from Dad and accelerating just a little as we sail away down the rugged road leaving a powdery path of unfurling dust dancing dreamily in the din of the old Model A.

By Coralie Cederna Johnson from the new book A Tree Grows in Trout Creek.


  1. Awesome story. I’m heading for Iron County today to see the bright fall colors and look for a bird or two. Amazing that my grandfather gave me the same exact driving instructions that your father did.

  2. Enjoy your day in Iron County, Paul! Our learning to drive on the backroads, was truly amazing, wasn’t it? If you liked this story, wait ‘til you read all the new ones in the new book, “A Tree Grows in Trout Creek!” It’s quite a collection of memoirs—all straight out of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and as colorful as the autumn leaves! You’re gonna’ love ‘em!

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