chapter 43

Drivers Education Class

    After the cockpit incident I made a strict rule that Johnny would no

longer be allowed to do any work on the airstrip. From that day on he

would be a flagman. Just a flagman. That's all. He would spend his days

standing in fields waiting for an airplane to show up.

    I never exactly explained this new rule to Johnny, I was just always

careful that he departed the airstrip first thing in the morning, and stayed

away until quitting time. All the crew agreed that it was a great idea.

Nobody wanted to go through another one of those "Johnny in the cockpit"

scenes again. But this proved to be one of those rules that didn't always

work. Some days it was simply impossible to get Johnny off the airstrip,

and we learned to get along with him the best we could.

    The best solution would have been if Johnny had been competent to

drive a pick-up truck. But Johnny wasn't much of a driver. He could drive

a little bit in a dangerous sort of way, and I let him drive my old pick-up

around the air-strip when he needed to do loading or unloading chores,

but I had never turned him loose on a public road. I had let him drive

short distances inside a field a time or two in hopes that with practice his

driving would improve, but I was afraid to turn him loose alone with a


    I explained to Santos and The Kid that we were just going to have to

plan each day in such a way that they could drop off Johnny in one field,

go on to flag another one themselves, and then later in the day remember

to pick him up. This would present problems, but we figured we could live

with it.

    But I had the nagging feeling that sooner or later I was going to need

to send Johnny off by himself in a pick-up truck.

    Just about that time my old pick-up truck finally gave up the ghost. All

summer it had needed new tires and new brakes, and had had a


troublesome transmission. When it finally blew an engine one hot

afternoon, I found myself in the strange position of not having enough

money to have it fixed, but having good enough credit to buy a new one.

    So I bought a new one. It was the first brand new pickup I ever owned.

It was a GMC Sierra 1500 Series with a V-8 engine and a lot of fancy

extras. It was destined to serve me for many years and to be finally put to

rest after over 250 thousand miles. It was a darn good truck.

    So one bright morning I had a brand new pickup parked on my air strip.

The Kid quickly claimed it as his own. This addition had the unexpected

disadvantage of sending the signal to several farmers that, since I could

afford a new truck, I could obviously wait a little bit longer on the money

they owed me.

    But the new truck only compounded the problem with Johnny. My new

pickup had an automatic transmission, just like my old one. But my flatbed

had a hard-to-shift four-speed. Johnny could hardly master an automatic,

and I guessed that a manually shifted truck transmission was beyond his


    I explained to The Kid and Santos that from time to time we might have

to let Johnny drive the new pickup. They wouldn't hear of it.

    "I don't think so," said Santos, shaking his head in his sad and careful


    "Hell no!" said The Corpus Christi Kid.

    "Okay, okay," I agreed. "Only one of you guys is going to have to give

Johnny some driving instructions on a four-speed."

    "I don't think so," said Santos, sadly shaking his head.

    "Hell no!" said The Corpus Christi Kid.

    "Okay, okay," I said. "I'll give him some driving instructions." Santos

just shrugged. The Kid just laughed.

    But I didn't give Johnny any driving instructions. I was too busy for that

kind of nonsense.


    Not long after that we came to a rare no-fly day. It was just too windy.

It wasn't too windy for me to fly, it was just too windy for the spray to

effectively penetrate the crops. I would have flown in a hurricane if I could

have found some farmer who would pay me to do it. But nobody wanted to

pay when he could see a large portion of the spray blowing away across

the fields and disappearing into thin air.

    So we had a no-fly day. I lashed the airplane to the ground, put The Kid

to hauling water in the tank truck, and sent Santos off in the new pick-up

to do customer relations work with the local farmers. Santos was very

good at customer relations, although he did not know this.

    Mike and his wetback helper were busy repairing equipment and having

a general cleanup around the air strip. Johnny was in the way.

    I decided that this would be a good time to give Johnny a little practice

at driving the flatbed truck. I called him over and explained to him that I

wanted him to drive up and down the airstrip a few times to get used to

operating that old truck.

    Johnny thought this was a wonderful idea, and immediately climbed

under the steering wheel. I stood outside and tried to ask him if he had

ever driven a truck like this. Johnny nodded his head vigorously to all my

questions and repeatedly cried out, "Si, si, bueno. Si, bueno. Okay! Okay!

Si, bueno, si, si, bueno!" He was very happy at the prospect of operating

that old truck, and he grinned, and rolled his eyes, and laughed like a

Wal-Mart Santa Claus.

    I finally gave up trying to talk to him and told him to drive down to the

end of the airstrip, turn around, and drive back.

    I would stand there and watch.

    Johnny didn't waste any time. He immediately turned on the key and

hit the starter button. The truck was still in gear. It gave a lurch, and a

jump, and rocked back in its tracks.

    "Hey!" called out Johnny. "Hey!", and he grinned at me and called out,


"No bueno! No bueno!" Then he looked at the gear shift, and looked at me

and cried out, "Hey!, Okay!, Okay!", and clapped his hands, and grinned,

and made exaggerated motions at the gear shift, and pointed at it, and

stared at it, and stared at me, and grinned, and shook his head in mock

exasperation, and kept saying, "No bueno, no bueno," and started making

clucking "disapproving schoolteacher" little noises.

    Then he got hold of the gearshift with both hands and yanked it out of

gear. This accomplishment greatly pleased him, and he grinned at me, and

pointed at the gear shift, and started banging it back and forth to prove to

me that he really had got it into neutral.

    He grinned at me some more, and kept pointing at the gear shift, and

made it plain to me that he had successfully accomplished the difficult task

of placing the transmission in neutral. Johnny wanted me to fully

understand that he was in complete control, and that there was no need

for my intervention. "Okay!, Okay!", he called out to me reassuringly, and

got ready for another try.

    I took a few steps backward and started hoping for the best.

    Johnny hit the starter button again and the motor roared to life. He had

the gas pedal pressed clear to the floorboard, and when the motor started

he yanked up his foot like it had been burned. As the motor settled down

to idle he grinned at me in triumph, clapped his hands, and cried out,

"Okay!, Okay!" Johnny was ready to get down to business.

    About this time I realized that I should have moved the seat all the way

up before Johnny got into the truck. He was perched on the edge of the

seat, hanging onto the steering wheel, and stretching to reach the foot

pedals. But I wasn't about to get involved now.

    Johnny was staring at the foot pedals. He pushed first on the brake,

then on the clutch. Then he began tentatively to press the gas pedal. His

head was ducked down as he was watching his feet on the pedals, and I

suspected that he was attempting to remember what all those pedals were


used for. Fool that I was, I took this to be a good sign.

    Johnny started gently revving up the motor. It was clear to me that

somewhere in his cloudy mind there were memories of having operated a

vehicle with a manual transmission. Johnny was having a great time

revving up that motor. He kept nodding to me vigorously and revving

repeatedly. He was like a biker sitting on his Harley Davidson in front of

his favorite beer joint.

    Johnny got ready for another try. He sat upright in the seat, gripped

the steering wheel with both hands, and started gazing out the windshield

and all around. Then he tucked his head down and stared at the foot

pedals some more. Then he regained his upright position and grinned at


    "Okay!, Okay!", he called out, revved his motor a few times, grabbed

hold of the gear shift, and jammed it in first gear. He had failed to push in

the clutch. The truck reared up like a steer just slapped with a hot

branding iron and started making a series of hops and lunges down the

dusty runway.

    "Hey! Hey! Hey!" called out Johnny, and I could see that his head was

tucked down and he was staring at the foot pedals. His crippled foot was

still on the gas pedal and every time the truck made a lunge, his foot

made a stab at the gas pedal. Each new lunge the truck made was a little

bit greater than the previous one.

    When Johnny had taken his right hand from the steering wheel in order

to jam the gearshift into gear, all his weight was suddenly left hanging on

the left side of the steering wheel. Accordingly, the truck was starting to

make a left turn that was becoming progressively tighter. That left turn

was rapidly bringing the bucking truck onto a collision course with my

mixing rig.

    Mike and his helper had been watching this exhibition and grinning and

laughing as it unfolded. However, when the truck headed their way they


suddenly stopped grinning. Their eyes got big, and as if on signal they

made a run to hide behind the 4,000-gallon water tank. I started running

toward the anticipated crash site.

    At the last possible moment Johnny's head jerked up and he could see

the mixing rig rearing up and down in front of his windshield. He started

yelling "HEY! HEY! HEY!" and frantically started cranking the wheel around

with both hands. The truck bucked across a two-inch hose, flattened

several five-gallon cans, and knocked over a fuel barrel. But it missed the

mixing rig by a good six inches.

    Johnny had now diverted all his attention to steering the monster,

which was good. He got the truck more or less straightened out and

headed down the airstrip making spastic "S" turns first one way and then

the other. Also, his concentration on steering had relaxed his crippled foot

on the gas pedal, and the lunges were slowly decreasing. This was also


    I had stopped running, and went back to hoping for the best. But then

that idiot Mike and his idiot helper emerged from hiding and started wildly

applauding and running along after the truck. "Hey, Johnny! Hey, Babe!

Hot Stuff!", they hollered out as loud as they could. Then they started

howling and whistling and clapping their hands.

    When Johnny heard this, he just naturally stuck his head out the

window, grinned, and started waving madly. "Okay!, Okay!, Okay!", he

screamed back over his shoulder. The minute Johnny started looking

backwards and waving with his left arm, the truck started making an

ever-tightening turn to the right.

    I started off down the strip again, screaming at everybody in sight.

Nobody was listening. All I could think of was getting that truck stopped,

killing Mike, and hauling Johnny out into the middle of some 500 acre

grain field and leaving him there for the rest of his life.

    About this time the truck came to a stop and the two spectators climbed


on board.

    Mike had taken over the role as instructor. I saw this as a good thing. I

knew that Mike had a little bit of gumption and figured he might be able to

avoid a total catastrophe. Then I remembered that Mike was the only guy

in the whole outfit who didn't know how to drive.

    I went back and got comfortable in the shade of the big water tank.

Mike had climbed into the right seat of the truck. His wetback helper had

climbed up on the bed. Between the three of them they got the truck

headed back down the strip, and were puttering along smoothly. I could

see that Johnny had his head tucked down and was staring at the foot

pedals. Mike had reached over and was steering with his left hand. The

wetback was leaned over the side calling out instructions in rapid fire

Spanish and pointing, and giving signals with his free hand. It occurred to

me that he was probably the only one of the three who knew how to drive

a truck.

    After they had gone about a hundred yards, Johnny pushed in the

clutch and the truck rolled to a stop. He was attempting to shift to second

gear. This was a 1958 model truck with a heavy-duty transmission that

did not have synchronizers. To be smoothly shifted, it had to be "double

clutched." I knew it was a lost cause. Mike also had his hands on the

gearshift and they seemed to be arguing about what they should do with

it. The wetback also had his opinion, and was winning by presenting a

more forceful argument than either of the other two. His confidence was

no doubt based on the fact that he knew what he was talking about, and

nobody else present did.

    A few moments later Johnny revved up the motor and yanked out the

clutch. The truck vaulted into the air again and took off! They continued

down the runway, everybody hollering at once, and everybody trying to

get his hands on the steering wheel. After about another 100 yards the

truck slowed to a stop again. I could tell Johnny was attempting to shift to


third gear because I could hear all the jamming and crunching of the

gearbox. I was convinced that he was going to grind my transmission into

little pieces about the size of breakfast cereal.

    As the truck came to a stop, a big argument unfolded. The wetback was

standing outside the window and making a long speech at Johnny, who

was making a long speech right back at him. Mike was just sitting there

laughing and clapping, and occasionally calling out, "Hot damn!"

    All this argument was taking place in Spanish. When on their own, the

only time these guys used any English was for cuss words. They could

argue for hours in full speed Spanish and about every 10th or 20th word

would be an English cuss word. The clear advantage to this was that it

greatly increased their vocabulary of profanity. I think they used English

cuss words based on the same theory employed by real smart people like

William F. Buckley, Jr., who love to sprinkle their conversation with Latin

phrases. This not only leaves your adversary impressed, it also leaves him

confused, a clear advantage.

    Although I could not understand what those guys were saying, I had a

pretty good idea what the argument was all about. The argument the

wetback was advancing was that, since the truck was now stopped, they

should abandon their attempt to get it into third gear, and start all over in

first, or maybe second.

    Johnny's position was that since he had already driven the truck in first

gear, and also in second gear, it was now time for him to drive it in third

gear, and by gosh, that was exactly what he was going to do!

    Johnny put an end to the debate by jamming the transmission into third

gear, revving up the engine, and yanking out the clutch. The truck let out

a howl, spun its tires, jumped about three feet straight up in the air, and

hit the ground with a dead engine.

    Through all the dust I could see that the wetback had jumped back

about ten feet and threw his arm over his face just in case the clutch


exploded. For some reason, it didn't. The wetback's immediate reaction to

this situation further convinced me that he was a man with at least some

experience operating one of these mechanical marvels of the 20th

Century. It occurred to me that I would probably be way ahead if I hired

him as a full-time flagman, and fired Johnny. The wetback won the next

argument, and they soon proceeded down the field trying to get the truck

shifted to a higher gear before it rolled to a stop. They never managed to

do that, to my relief.

    About this time I noticed that the windshield wipers had somehow

managed to get themselves turned on. Nobody seemed to mind.

    When they reached the end of the strip, another violent argument took

place, followed by the wetback getting under the wheel and turning the

truck around. Evidently he was the only one who knew how to get the

truck into reverse. With Johnny back in the driver's seat, they headed

back my way. It was a long trip for me. Every time the truck rolled to a

stop, the gearbox grinding like a sausage mill, the arguments broke out

again. Evidently the wetback was attempting to explain to Johnny that

there was no need to use first gear at all. He was trying to convince

Johnny that the truck would start just fine in second.

    Johnny didn't believe this for one minute. Evidently he had completely

reversed his earlier philosophical position on the proper way to shift a

manual transmission. He had now decided that anytime the truck was at

rest, it absolutely had to be shifted to first gear in order to get underway.

This was more than plain to Johnny. They called it "first gear," didn't they?

    This was one argument I was glad Johnny won.

    When the truck finally came to a lurching stop in front of me, all the

occupants were as happy as a bunch of pre-schoolers in a lawn sprinkler. I

felt like a Doughboy who had just lived through an artillery barrage at




    Johnny hit the ground and started one of his little marches. He led the

other two in their secret chant: "Okay!, Okay!, Hot Damn, Hot Damn!"

This went on for entirely too long.

    Johnny was convinced that he had done a wonderful job, and had

adopted the wetback as his full-time driving instructor. They were both

ready to go for another lesson, "right now!"

    But I wasn't ready for that. As a matter of fact, I never did get ready for

that. That was the last time Johnny ever drove one of my trucks.




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