by Janet Riehl
The lessons of childhood are never forgotten.
A girlhood in rural Illinois wasn’t bad preparation for life in upcountry African nations. “Up country” meant the northern regions innermost from newly built capital cities. My training as a future African driver began on my family’s farm at four years old⎯old enough to sit on my father’s lap⎯his left leg, to be precise. He held me firmly around the waist with a sunburned arm that sprouted a crop of sun-bleached hair. From this early training, I learned the body rhythm of the stick shift dance. Clutch in while revving to the desired speed. You know when to let it out when your body vibrates at a particular rate and you hear a certain sound. My father’s thigh muscles underneath his overalls tightened and slackened in the rhythm of this dance.
Steering with Pop, my small hands rested on his large ones moving the John Deer tractor down the road to pull out a neighbor stuck in the mud. My dad kept the same tractor going through the years with little more than spit and bailing wire.
Pop is a knight of the roadway, his conduct guided by a simple code of ethics⎯get those stranded back on the road. He collected stories of his road knight adventures like other gentlemen store fine aged wine: the one where the road washed out under the flooded creek; the one where he came mighty close to delivering a baby by the side of a road, but luckily didn’t have to. From my father, I leaned to carry jumper cables, jack and tire repair kit. He taught me how to use these implements of rescue, too. “You never know,” he told me. “The right tools might help someone else⎯or they might help you.”
Teaching rescue skills was the opening gambit in my father’s school of driving. While mother was anxious when I drove with her, cringing beside the door and jamming down on an imaginary brake, my father was cucumber cool.
Pop taught me how to drive in every conceivable weather and road condition. Driving on ice, for example, required chopping your brakes and having the wit and courage to steer into the skid when every bit of you wanted to steer the other way. We drove on the flats, up big, long hills, around 100 degree curves, through ruts and potholes. We lurched over the back roads of our place. Later I graduated to parking lessons in a deserted asphalt bank lot.
Thus prepared, during my first year in Northern Botswana’s safari country, I learned to drive a jouncing Land Rover. Fortunately, Maun Secondary School reserved one Land Rover just for staff trips and errands in Maun, the nearest village, or Riley’s, the nearest watering hole and only true community center where all races and classes mingled. Usually, the rented Land Rover waltzed over the paved road into town before we engaged the four-wheel drive for cruising through sand tracks on the side streets while shopping for groceries and other supplies.
While I’d learned certain rudiments of bush driving during my first nine months in Northern Botswana, it wasn’t until my father and mother came to visit that I learned how to double-clutch. With me at the wheel, my mother in the middle where she’d feel safe, and Pop by the window dodging thorn branches, we barreled along a thin slip of road towards Moremi Wildlife Preserve where the road grew softer, changing from packed earth to ever-deepening sand.
In such terrain there’s not a road in the ordinary sense such as a regulation width with a smooth surface. Whoever gets there first cuts the track. This disparity in axle widths can make for strange road-fellows. The five-ton cattle truck before us far out spanned our sleeker safari vehicle’s axles. As we entered its rut of influence, our wheels began to slosh in the wider track.
“Pop, hold onto Mom. This is gonna be one rough ride until we get out from behind this wide-ass truck spoor.” We began an undulating dance worthy of a snake charmer⎯right side climbed up the sand groove, then slunk down as the left side rode up its companion. Up and down, up and down, over and over again: now hitting the upside and now the downside of the larger truck spoor until my mother’s eyes began to flutter as if she might faint. I gunned the accelerator to the floor wildly cranking the steering wheel left as I fought to free the rut⎯over the mountain of sand and onto untracked ground. The Landrover jerked to a halt. I turned off the motor, collapsed against the seat, and started to pant, frightened that we’d be stuck way out here⎯nowhere. “Pop, will you drive?” I begged.
“Nope,” he declined. “The truck is signed out in your name. Besides, I know you can do it. You just need to double clutch. That’ll get us through this mess.”
Fortified by his faith in me, I gathered myself for yet another driving lesson. After a pee in the bush, casting a glance all around for snakes, and a long drink from our canteen, I listened to my father explain the theory of double clutching. “It’s really not too hard, you just have to get the feel of it. Push in the clutch as usual, and then slowly start to let it out as you rev the engine. Then, about midway, push the clutch back in again. This time, pop the clutch and ram down the accelerator. If we were on pavement, you’d pop a wheelie, but in this deep sand double clutching will win you the extra power you need to cut through.”
I rehearsed his instructions and he confirmed that I’d mastered the theory.
“Now, get out there and try it!”
Back on the road, I ran into a rough patch. He talked me through the clutching maneuver. Damn, if it didn’t work! I felt like the toughest safari veteran around.
Three years later, while organizing a sewing center for young women in a village outside Gaborone, the capitol city in Southern Botswana, my parents paid their third visit to Africa. This time, my dad taught me how to ford a river. Because I still didn’t own a truck, the English Quaker woman staking the sewing center where I worked loaned us her Ford pick-up. It was a toy truck, really, considering the road conditions it faced, yet conquered, daily.
Once again, trundling along Botswana’s sand track roads, the three of us took our familiar positions: Pop on thorn patrol, Mom in the middle, and me at the wheel. We went to visit a friend’s farm at the lands. Halfway there, the road abruptly ended in a swollen river, reappearing on the other side.
My dad knew what to do. We parked. We waded across the stream to determine its depth. We measured the height between road and carburetor then matched that measurement against the height of wetness on our pants. This distance was crucial. If the carburetor got wet, then it was all over. We’d be stalled in the middle of the stream, motor dead. Comparing the two measurements it looked as if there would be a small margin of clearance between the water we’d be fording and the precious carburetor spark. Thus assured, we embarked on step three⎯turning the truck into a ship.
Mother waded across the small road river, camera held high. There she stationed herself to take the historic photos of the baby blue truck surrounded by swirling water and, finally, resting firmly on land, water in backdrop, or so she hoped.
Again, I begged my father to drive. Again, he demurred. But, he sat next to me in the cab, speaking softly as he might to a skittish mare. “The trick here,” he murmured, “is going slow and smooth. Don’t rush and don’t jerk the clutch or the wheel. Slow and steady does it.”
I started the car and waded it into the water, which rose around its tires. I kept driving. The water began to catch the truck body. I lost purchase on the riverbed. The truck started to swim downstream. “Easy does it,” my father crooned. “Wait a tick and we’ll find land.” I wanted to scream from the tension⎯or, to whinny and toss my head away from the bit of my father’s soft words. But he soothed me, master horse tamer that he is.
The tires did find purchase on land three feet downstream from where we entered. Rubber grabbed at the stream gravel as I drove out. Just in time for mother to snap the last historic photo.
Janet Riehl is a writer who lives in Kelseyville, CA. This story won the Bronze Award for Family Travel in the First Annual Solas Awards.
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