Early driving lessons came in the clutch when milk delivery was on the line.
I was born on a 50-acre cattle ranch, where my dad, an old-school cowboy, ran beef cattle on the 40 acres he inherited from his grandparents. Our ranch was in the Owens Valley at the eastern foot of the California High Sierra. Each spring, riding horseback, Dad would herd the cattle westward into the Sierra foothills for summer pasture. In the fall, Mother rode with him to take the cattle in and bring them out. They camped out along the way, preparing their food over campfires and rolling into quilts for the night.
However, in what locals called a “land grab,” the City of Los Angeles — 250 miles south of our ranch — purchased many ranches in the valley, forcing Dad to sell his precious ranch. The “big city” needed the water that flowed through the ranches from the neighboring High Sierra. “The greatest good for the greatest number” ruled. The burgeoning population of Los Angeles needed the Sierra water, they claimed, more than the valley ranchers did.
After a few years as manager of a foothills apple orchard, Dad gave up his dream of returning to cattle ranching. He and Mother purchased a dairy ranch 60 miles to the south, in the little community of Lone Pine, at the foot of the High Sierra’s Mount Whitney.
I was 10 years old at the time, and able to dependably carry a quart bottle of raw milk to a customer’s doorstop from the Model A pickup truck Mother drove for deliveries. I sat beside her in the passenger seat, and we stashed the cases of raw milk in glass quarts and pints, half-pints of cream, and packages of butter and cottage cheese in the pickup bed, covered with wet gunny sacks. The account book sat between us on the front seat. Every customer had a page, and my first lesson in bookkeeping was making sure the dairy products were properly noted on each customer’s page on the day delivered.
By the time I was 12, aside from making deliveries to our Lone Pine customers, two afternoons a week, Mother delivered milk to Keeler, a little town 16 miles from the dairy. During summers, when school was out, I was chief “bottle runner.” My two younger sisters, 8 and 6, rode along and were left to play in the roadside sand dunes that made a delightful playground about halfway between our dairy and Keeler.
One day on the way back from Keeler, Mother pulled the truck to the side of the road and stopped. “Get into the driver’s seat,” she said to me. I obeyed, but turned to her with a big, “Why?”
She explained that she needed to teach me to drive and give me practice on the less-travelled Keeler road because when I turned 14, she could turn the summer delivery over to me, and I could earn a dollar (one whole dollar?!) for each trip.
Of course, I needed to learn to manage the clutch, gearshift, and brake — all to be operated in sync! After many trials along Keeler road, I got the hang of it, and Mother let me practice over and over, as we headed back from deliveries to pick up my sisters.
“Do not breathe a word of this to anyone!” Mother said, tightening a grip on my arm. “Because you aren’t yet old enough, you driving would be against the law.”
I crossed my heart to keep this precious information secret, and by the time I was almost 13, I was safely driving the entire six miles from Keeler back to the sand dunes to pick up the girls. Of course, we couldn’t let my sisters see me driving, because they would tell, so we pulled to the side of the road before getting to the dunes, where Mother took over the driving before stopping beside the road and honking the horn to signal pick-up time for my sisters.
In a totally unexpected turn of events, the month of my 13th birthday, Mother was rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. In those days, this meant a week in the hospital, followed by at least 10 days of bed rest at home.
That put us in a tough spot for what to do for the dairy’s deliveries of milk. So, Dad took me to the local highway patrol representative, Roland Bell, who at that time was the only official in our little town.
“Roland, Willma knows how to drive, even though she’s only 13,” Dad told him. “She has had lots of practice under her mother’s excellent instruction on the little-travelled Keeler road. I need her to drive the Keeler delivery until the missus is able to be on her feet again.”
With me behind the wheel of the Model A, and Roland in the passenger seat, I took my driving test. I started the truck without killing the engine. I signaled before pulling out into traffic. I dangled my arm out the window when I slowed to park.
Roland gave me a temporary driver’s license at age 13, and for a time, until the driving age changed, I was the envy of all the kids in town.
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Willma Gore lives in Sedona, Arizona, among gorgeous red bluffs and brilliant blue skies. She is a prolific writer, with her byline on 19 children’s books — 17 of them with her illustrations. She has published four novels and her memoir, and she teaches writing workshops. She has moved 27 times since the age of 3. Her husband used to say, “You have to move often to keep ahead of the sheriff.”
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