Viewing the Countryside from the Way Back 

Dad shifted the car into high gear, then leveled the speed. We were going about 25 miles per hour. Birds were passing us.

That was the speed of Dad. In the car, around the house, doing just about anything. He was very methodical. Maybe careful is a better term. And that made him slow. At least in my mind as a kid.

If any of us kids asked for a ride somewhere, we would have to endure an “ugh” and his eventual rise from the couch. Sometimes it was faster to just ride our bikes or even walk. He had two cars during most of the time I was growing up and the oldest car was the local errand car. The “good” car was a station wagon and was reserved for highway trips and Mom’s shopping.

We knew exactly when he would shift gears on his old “three-on-the-tree” cars. We were in high gear before we passed by three houses. And he didn’t skip second gear. People who did that irritated him because they’d wind it out in first gear, then shift directly to third. It was hard on the car and wasted gas, he reminded us.

Now, he spoke with some authority on cars because he was a driving instructor. All the driving instructors that I was aware of were school teachers. I remember inspecting the driver ed cars when he stopped home for lunch in the summer. It was really neat checking out the options and deeply inhaling that new car smell. They even had radios which his cars didn’t have until AM radios became standard and by then FM was the thing to have.

I think the driving he most enjoyed was driving the backroads. And, of course, we kids had to go along. This meant potentially hours of riding about 25 miles per hour and looking at scenery comprised of farms, woods and a variety of crops rising from the soil. At that slow speed we often rode in the flat, hard “way back” of the station wagon with the rear window open.

Most of the time we rode the Wisconsin backroads on warm summer evenings near his hometown of Strum when we vacationed at our cabin there. We kids were fine riding the Wisconsin backroads because most of them were paved. Minnesota did not have a lot of paved backroads. I think Wisconsin still leads in the paved backroad contest.

Have you ever tried to have a conversation in a car while riding over crushed shale, especially riding in the way back? And I swear those cars were purposely designed to pull all the road dust possible right into your face. Usually, Dad would stop and crank up the rear window on dusty roads. If the weather was hot, we soon got the worst of it since the car did not have air conditioning. At least on blacktop roads we could keep cooler with the window open and breathe the car exhaust fumes.

As the rides wore on and it started to get dark we’d stop at what seemed like every small bridge over a creek so we could hear the frogs. I thought, how could a biology teacher who taught sophomores how to dissect frogs enjoy listening to them on a summer evening? Years later when he and Mom raved about stopping to listen to the frogs on an evening drive it occurred to me that there might be some history behind this going back to their dating days.

Many of the backroads included hills and curves. At 25 miles per hour, we barely noticed them. But if we remembered the road and knew what was coming, we’d beg Dad to “go fast” over the next hill. He’d speed up to 50 and we’d feel like we were weightless for a second as we sailed over the crest. On a good hill with a head of steam you might lift off the floor and hit your head on the ceiling. Great fun in a car with no seatbelts. Cornering was similar, leaning sharply to our right or left.

On some stretches of road in those days we’d pass numerous dairy farms, the barns still lit up with the evening milking. I’m sure the farmers were looking forward to a chance to clean up and rest after another long day.

Part of every drive included stories about people who had lived on these farms. A farm might have changed hands several times over the years but to my folks the farms were still known by the names they remembered. And in that part of Wisconsin they were Norwegian names such as Gullicksrud, Halverson, Dahl, Olson, Thronson and Peterson. Spelling of the names varied. And their first names could be anything from Arvid to Trygve. So we expected to hear Dad say something like, “Yep, this was the old Einar Gunderson place.”

When we had gotten bored with the rides, Mom would tell us to watch for deer. We’d occasionally see one or two, way off in a hayfield at the edge of a woods. As darkness increased, though, we became sleepy. So with our remaining energy, we collectively begged the folks to stop at the root beer stand in either Strum or Osseo. We often won those pleadings unless Mom had some dessert at home.

That was acceptable if it included ice cream.

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