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Learning how to drive … or not!

Bill Haglund
Bill Haglund

My boyhood chum Roger has lived in Paris for the past three decades or more.

He’s an artist and illustrator and has made infrequent visits to his old home town of Alleman.

On his last visit, several years ago, he told me that he doesn’t own a car, doesn’t even drive and hasn’t had a license for almost 50 years.

Well, I guess that’s probably a good thing.

Back about 1960, Roger got a 1949 Chevrolet, one of those old “fast back” models.

I rode with him a few times. Each trip was a pretty unique, often frightening experience.

The most frightening thing about riding with Roger was when he approached a stop sign. The first time I was in the passenger seat headed east out of Alleman a half mile to Highway 69, I was convinced we were both going to be killed.

The highway, back then, was one of the busiest in the state, the main route north out of Des Moines; there were no interstates in those days.

Anyway, I didn’t think Roger was going to stop. I said, “Roger, there’s a stop sign right up there.” I didn’t think he heard me; I know he didn’t see me grab the dash with a white-knuckle grip and push my feet hard against the floor board, as if that would somehow bring the old Chevy to a stop.

Finally, the car did stop, inches from Highway 69 as cars whizzed past in both directions. I swear I saw a look of terror on the driver of a car headed south on 69, a driver I’m sure was thinking the same thing as I about stopping or being killed.

Roger and I both had summer jobs working for a construction company in Slater that year and I was pretty much destined to ride to work with Roger every weekday. I got a little more accustomed to coming to a stop inches away from Highway 69 as the summer wore on. I also learned that Roger didn’t always check his gas tank on the couple of occasions we coasted to a stop along the highway long before we reached our destination.

I also learned that Roger, at least once, pushed the limits.

There wasn’t much to do in Alleman more than half a century ago. If it rained, or if a fall chill had set in, a couple of kids couldn’t really get out the gloves and toss a baseball around.

On those days, at least on a few occasions, Roger and I cruised around town in his old Chevrolet. I’d imagine cruising the streets of Alleman is still a summer pastime for kids in the area.

You could hit every street in town in less than five minutes; repeating the journey seemed senseless. But, we did. We’d drive around town talking about what we wanted to do with our lives, which girls we’d like to date – normal teenage drivel.

One rainy, dreary fall night, though, I finally decided I’d best find something more productive than to ride around town with Roger.

On my last night in the old Chevy, Roger drove toward the school. Alleman had become a part of North Polk and school’s first-ever football field was little more than a patch of grass out behind the long-gone three-story brick schoolhouse, but that’s just where Roger drove.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

Without a word, Roger drove out into the middle of the football field and began turning donut after donut on the wet field. With each loop, I could see a growing area of circular gouges in the playing surface.

It was probably less than a minute that we spent spinning around in circles on the football field. I could tell, though, that we’d done some damage.

“Don’t tell anyone about this,” he said as we drove away. “I could get in trouble.”

Torn between friendship and conscious, I didn’t say anything to my dad that night. Maybe I’d tell him tomorrow, I thought.

No matter. I didn’t have to say a word.

The next morning, we were both in first period study hall when the principal, Mr. Smith, walked in.

“Roger,” he said. “I think you lost this last night.”

With that Mr. Smith handed Roger the hubcap off the right rear wheel of his old Chevy.

That was the last time I ever rode with Roger. Shoot, he didn’t drive much after that either. One day not too long after the incident his old ’49 Chevy vanished.

I never did know what happened to the car.

But, I was sort of happy for mankind that Roger hasn’t driven in the past half century.