Driving Lessons at 13

Early driving lessons came in the clutch when milk delivery was on the line.

| January/February 2017

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?”

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