For Farm Kids Like Me, the Fields Were Where You Learned to Drive

Steering the tractor in low gear was the first step towards getting my driver's licence.

I grew up on a farm in eastern Alberta and, as a farm girl, I was introduced to driving at a young age. It would have been the late ’60s, and I wasn’t even in school yet, when I first had the opportunity to drive the combine. When a field had been harvested, both the combine and the grain truck needed to be moved to the next field. One day, when I was with my dad, he put the combine in the lowest gear and instructed me to follow him across the open field. He then hopped off the combine, got into the grain truck and led me to the next field. The excitement of driving, even though it could hardly be called driving, was a bug that caught me early.

My next experience with driving was only a year or two later, but it was not as pleasant. My oldest brother enlisted my help with picking up bales. They needed to be stacked in one place for easy access during the winter months, as they would be used to feed the cattle. He would hitch a wagon up to a tractor, and with me as his assistant, off we went to the field. He put the tractor into its lowest gear, and instructed me to steer the tractor and wagon between the rows of bales. His task was then to walk along beside the wagon and place the bales on the wagon. In theory, this should have been an easy job for me. However, my brother was not as easy going as my father, and if I erred in my steering and ran over a bale, there would be some very loud reprimands shouted in my direction. Not one to take criticism well, I would start to cry. As the tears streamed down my cheeks, my vision would blur which meant I did not see the next bale as clearly and so, as expected, I would run over that bale as well. The vicious cycle of shouted reprimands, more crying and further damage to the bales made for a very unpleasant afternoon. After that, there was no more driving a tractor for me.

From Field to Highway

Years later when I had acquired my learner’s permit, I was once again eager to get behind the wheel of a vehicle, but this time I wanted to do more than just steer.

My older sister had acquired a Datsun in the mid-1970s. She only owned the four-door car for a few months before she had an accident and crumpled the driver-side front panel. It was still drivable, but within the year she purchased another car. The result of this new purchase meant that her Datsun came out to the farm to be used as a general runaround vehicle. It was used for anything from helping to herd cattle to being a loaner vehicle for cousins who had come for a visit from England.

Once I had my learner’s permit, I was allowed to take the Datsun out to the field to practice my driving. My younger brother and sisters would often accompany me on these little forays which felt like such grand adventures. The summer I was 15, knowing that I wanted to get my driver’s license the next year, I spent as much time as I could practicing in the Datsun.

At one point, I had the brilliant idea that I should practice parallel parking. I had driven out to one of the cleared fields and decided the best way to practice parking would be to have my younger brother and sister act as pylons, which I would then attempt to park between. In retrospect, this was probably not one of my better ideas. Thankfully, I didn’t drive over either of them.

I did get my driver’s license when I was 16, and that summer, I had my first job working in the village of Paradise Valley, a short 13 kilometres away from the farm. This required me to drive into town each day, so I was given the Datsun to drive for the summer. It was most exhilarating to have that freedom; I felt so grown up.

A Datsun’s demise

The Datsun had seen some rough days at that point. Once when Dad had used it to herd cattle, one of the heifers had decided it didn’t like being herded by a vehicle, turned around and charged the car. The crumpled side panel now extended to the front of the vehicle and the hood required a makeshift repair just to keep it closed. My brother installed a bolt through the hood and closed it with a nut that had a couple of pieces of rebar welded on each side. The hood looked like it had miniature horn, which just added to its charm.

The Datsun’s clutch was also in dire need of repair, but as the car was on its last legs, it wasn’t worth trying to repair.

One day, the family was going to the lake for a picnic and an afternoon of swimming. My friend and I tied a large tire tube onto the roof of the Datsun, and we then met the rest of the family at the lake. As we made our way to the lake, the wind was so strong that the tire tube on the roof put up enough resistance to slow the car down to a crawl.

On the drive home, I took a different route so I could drop my friend off before heading home. The road had a very steep ravine, which I didn’t realize was there until I had already started down the hill. The opposite side had a rather daunting hill to climb, and with the clutch pretty much useless, I had visions of us getting stuck at the bottom of that ravine and having to hike for help. Somehow, that poor Datsun was able to make the climb, and with a great sigh of relief, we were able to complete our trip.

The Datsun didn’t last too much longer after that summer. Eventually it was parked out behind some of the farm buildings, where it joined other vehicles in similar shape. It was the first car that I got to drive, and the hours of fun I had behind the wheel were an adventure I’ll never forget.

Next, read the sweet story of a farm truck that was truly one-of-a-kind.

Originally Published in Our Canada