My grandpa’s aunt Rose—born in the late 1800s, witness to Halley’s Comet, and an adult working behind the counter in small town Nebraska before World War I—never drove a car. Or, as she often told me, never a drove a car after that first time.
Rose liked cars, liked to go on long rides in the country with her brothers and sisters, and husband, Harry. She also liked owning a car and, as long as I can remember, kept a vehicle in her garage for other people to drive. Her aversion to driving went back to a lazy, summer Sunday afternoon in 1914 or ’15 when she and her sister found themselves at loose ends. Idle hands looking for devil’s work happened to grab hold of a steering wheel. That neither Rose nor Dala had ever learned how to operate the family’s Model-T Runabout didn’t matter. How hard could it be?
“We were surprised we got the durn thing running,” said Rose. “We thought that would be the hardest part. Otherwise it was obviously just a matter of throwing a few levers around and spinning the wheel in the right direction.” Rose in the driver’s seat, they were off like a shot through an open gate and across a new cornfield, mischievous girls not so different from mischievous teenage girls today. “We tended to scream and holler a lot,” said Rose. They bounded through the rows of axel-high corn, wrestling the wheel, aiming for a far away gate that would get them onto a proper road. “We didn’t really think about how we’d get across the crick,” said Rose.
Apparently there was a bridge.
Apparently it didn’t hold.
“To be fair, we made it to the other side.” Rose and Dala’s memories agreed that they found the road, got the car turned around and steered the “cranky pile of iron” home under its own steam. And steaming it was.
“And dad was even hotter than the radiator.”
They were only slightly ahead of their time. Within a year or two of their tumultuous trek, THE MOTOR GIRLS debuted on the scene, a sequel series to the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s popular MOTOR BOYS. “I never read ‘em,” said Rose.
In the 1980s, when Rose got a new car, she had my grandpa drive her and Dala up and down the street and around to that dirt road, the scene of their long-ago adventure. For the next few weeks, to the raised eyebrows of her old friends, she bragged about the new “Corvette” in her garage. Grandpa told her over and over again that it was pronounced “Corsica.”
In 1992, having taken mental note of Rose’s many stories, Gina and I wrote and produced a play based on them at Presbyterian College called “The Last Rose of Summer.” It was sort of a stream of conscious thing, bouncing between Rose as a girl, a grown woman, and an elderly storyteller. In the photo here, Dr. Dean Thompson plays my grandpa, Biffa Quantz portrays Dala, and Laura Robinson is the scarlet-tressed Rose out for a drive in the Corvette.
The story of that early 20th-century adventure stayed with me, and in my second Jo Harper story, Racing a Dog Star, available from Painted Pony Books, Jo and Frog find themselves piloting a runaway pile of iron.
Within seconds of the first smoky coughs, the engine belched to life, and they were roaring across the open cow pasture, away from the hog shed garage, away from the school, away from all of Willowby.
The auto bumped up and down over a lumpy cattle trail and continued hurtling forward.
Now toward the trees.
Now toward open range.
Back and forth, depending on which direction Frog spun the wooden steering wheel.
Jo had never been so terrified—but so happy, at the same time.
Riding an automobile was fantastic!
“As long as we ain’t killed,” she said out loud.
Above them, the sun ducked in and out of puffy white clouds like clusters of marshmallow balloons, while below, the Runabout sped through the shadows. Jo caught site of a ground squirrel leaping away, while another galloped alongside of them for several yards before veering off.
They were racing all of nature and they were winning!
But Frog’s steering was getting out of control. More than once, Jo felt the entire machine lean too far to the side. She scrambled to think.
Reach for the lever.
That one! The fast-slow lever on the steering wheel.
Or pull back on the brake handle.
No! Reach for the lever. No, the brake.
She’d never traveled so fast in her life. Everything around—the porcupine grass, the dried cow pies, and the brown smudge on the horizon that was Shep’s woods—everything was a blur at 30 miles per hour.
And everything about the automobile was loud.
But she couldn’t jump. Not only was she frozen in place, but now a sharp pain shot through her leg.
“Give me the wheel, Frog!”
Equally full of wild abandon, and equally unqualified, Jo Harper doesn’t drive much better than Rose did, but I’d like to think that she’ll learn the same lessons. But unlike her real world inspiration, I’d like to think Jo won’t avoid jumping behind the wheel again if the scene calls for it.
If she does, I’m sure the spirit of Rose will be there with her, holding her hand, screaming and hollering.