Like a Bat Out of Hell

Clara Ford was at home one day in 1919, I assume doing whatever it is that Clara Ford typically did at home, when she was informed by police that her husband Henry had gotten into trouble with his car. Evidently, he’d been driving “like a bat out of hell,” as one does, I suppose, when one essentially invents the modern auto industry and is probably showing off for one’s grandson who is also in the car.

And worse, he’d been doing so without a driver’s license.

The charming story about Henry Ford and his run-in with the police is shared by the Henry Ford Museum, where you can also see Ford’s first driver’s license, which obviously the above image does not show. Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

That in itself is not as terribly shocking as it first sounds because Michigan only started issuing licenses that year. And after his run-in with the police Henry Ford, at the age of 56, went ahead and got one.

At the age of 56 I think it’s fair to expect that a person is wise enough and cautious enough to be trusted with such power. In fact, that probably happens well before the age of 56. I for one am pretty responsible behind the wheel at a mere 43 years of age. I can’t say I’ve never been pulled over, but it’s been a rare occurrence in my life as a driver. And though I’ve had my license since the tender age of 16, I don’t believe I’ve ever driven like a bat out of hell.

Still, in the last few weeks, 16 has been striking me as incredibly young for the responsibility of driving. Because my oldest son recently hit that milestone.   

A lot of young’uns aren’t pushing so hard these days to get their driver’s license the moment they can. In 2018 there were approximately 227 million licensed drivers on the road in the United States, but only about 25% of sixteen-year-olds were among them. That was down from nearly half in the mid-1980s. I have no idea why so many of the kids aren’t as anxious to get behind the wheel these days, but that was not the case for my son.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that 227 million people were actually on the road at the same time. Can you imagine the traffic jam?
photo credit: Shawn | Shiyang Huang Traffic jam @ Beijing via photopin (license)

He wanted to drive. Actually, I think he’s been wanting to drive since he was four years old, strapped into a car seat in the back, and asking me remarkably intelligent questions about the rules of the road. True story.  

It wasn’t exactly a shock that when he turned fifteen and was old enough to take the written driving test and receive a learner’s permit in our state, he was pretty excited to do it. And he’d been studying since the age of four, so it also wasn’t shocking that he pretty easily passed.

In that year of learning, first in an empty parking lot, then back roads, busier streets with traffic circles and stoplights, lonely highways, and eventually busy interstates where he merged like a pro and stayed nicely centered in his lane, he became a fairly competent driver.

Then he turned sixteen and he wanted to take his driving test so he could get his license. He passed with no trouble. And then on the very day I celebrated the sixteenth anniversary of the first time I ever held my squirming, squishy-faced baby boy, I watched that same kid back out of the driveway and disappear down the street in a car that he was driving all by himself to his martial arts class.

Still what I see.
photo credit: Frank Hemme Hacer camino. via photopin (license)

It was the most anxious moment of my life.

My husband, also anxious, quickly decided he needed to run an errand and followed him. I was grateful, because until that moment, I was pretty sure I might also have an errand to run, and I was relieved when I received a text a little bit later letting me know the car was safely parked at the school.

My son really is a good driver and I become more comfortable each time he returns home safely. I can’t guarantee that he doesn’t drive like a bat out of hell, but I know he never did in his year of permit driving and so far, the police haven’t indicated that that has changed.

I don’t know if these bats are flying out of Hell, but they do seem to be in a reckless kind of hurry. photo credit: USFWS Headquarters Mexican free-tailed bats exiting Bracken Bat Cave via photopin (license)

At least he had to pass a test. Henry Ford didn’t. Michigan only began driver testing in 1931. That is better than the Great State of Missouri, which was actually one of the first to issue licenses for drivers, in 1903. It was another 49 years before the state began testing.

But despite what I sometimes suggest when I am not-so-silently judging the other drivers on the road from the privacy of my own car, they seem to do a pretty good job of it now.

So maybe, depending on the kid, 16 isn’t such a bad age to issue a driver’s license? I don’t know. But I suppose I’d probably worry about him at any age. Maybe even if he were 56.

Four Wheels and a Hint of Danger

In the wee hours of the morning on July 4, 1896, Henry Ford smashed the brick side of his shed with an axe. That might sound a little extreme, but after months of work the inventor and future business superstar was finally ready to test drive a new creation he called the Quadricycle. The trouble was it didn’t fit through the door.

Ford_quadricycle_crop
If I saw this coming down the road I’d probably get out of the way. Ford’s Quadricycle. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

With the exception of a brief breakdown due to a faulty spring, the rest of the test drive was more or less a success. Ford’s friend and assistant James Bishop rode ahead on his bicycle to warn carriages and pedestrians to get out of the way. Ford fired up his four-horse-powered gasoline engine and tootled along behind in a 500-pound frame with four bicycle tires, no breaks, little steering ability, and a “horn” made from a doorbell.

Thankfully, he improved on the design a little through the years.

Can’t you just picture that first test run? I can imagine the look on Henry Ford’s face as he raced through the streets of Detroit at a whopping twenty miles per hour. It must have been a mix of elation at the beginning of a dream coming true and the terror of barely controlling something powerful enough to kill you and everyone in your way. It’s probably the same expression I wore many years ago the first time I got behind the wheel of a car and it actually started moving.

permit driver
Our version of a crier on a bicycle. Trouble is you don’t see it until he’s already driven past.

My oldest son recently got to have that experience. He turned fifteen at the end of last year and in the state of Missouri that means he became eligible to test for his driving learner’s permit. Because his birthday falls so late in the year, we decided it would be wise to get the permit as soon as possible so he had a better chance of gaining plenty of experience on icy winter roads before the state considers granting him a real license at age sixteen.

But because we didn’t have anyone on a bicycle to warn everyone to get out of the way, we decided to start in a large, empty parking lot on a dry, sunny day.

I’m not sure what expression I wore when I handed him the keys that first time and took my place in the passenger seat. I’d like to think I conveyed calm reassurance. We took a little time for him to get familiar with dashboard controls, mirrors, break, and accelerator. Then he turned the key for that first time, put the car in gear, and took his foot off the brake.

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How I see my teenager when he sits behind the wheel. photo credit: Alex E. Proimos Learning to Drive via photopin (license)

As Henry Ford probably was more than a century ago and as surely every new driver has been since, my son was nervous and a little unsure, but also really excited to discover the sensation of wielding so much power.

That afternoon he drove us around and around the parking lot, practicing turning, breaking, and parking. Then I made him work on backing up, another thing Henry Ford’s original Quadricycle couldn’t do.

When we were both a little more comfortable, we took the lesson to a few quiet back roads. He even drove us home and parked in the garage without incident and with very little cringing or pretend break stomping from me.

My son is still a little uncertain behind the wheel. He’s got more to learn and will need a lot more practice to gain the confidence required to be a really good driver, but he’s attentive and teachable and determined. I’ve no doubt he’ll get there. I just hope he never feels the need to take an axe to the side of the garage.

SmokeFrontCover
Coming soon!

And . . .These days, when I’m not teaching my son how to drive, I’m preparing to launch a new book, coming February 4th. Follow this link to get a peek!

Follow the Arrows

As the summer wears on, and my children increasingly have trouble entertaining themselves, I find myself struck at the genius of my mother. It was well-known in my house growing up in Smalltown, Illinois, that it was a very bad idea to utter the words, “I’m bored” in front of Mom. Her response would, without fail, be, “Great! The toilets need to be scrubbed.”

photo credit: Mykl Roventine via photopin cc</a
photo credit: Mykl Roventine via photopin cc

But every so often, if one of us had a friend or two over to play and we found ourselves in a lull, she would take pity on us and come up with these amazingly creative ideas, from fun little games to large scale projects of awesomeness. One of my favorites was a game she resurrected from her own childhood in Even Smallertown, Illinois called an arrow hunt.

The idea was that one person (or one team) would take a piece of chalk and go somewhere in our Smalltown neighborhood to hide. Along the route, the hiders marked a chalk arrow every time they changed directions. The arrow had to be clearly visible, though it could be in an unexpected place, and the final arrow pointed to the spot where the hider(s) would be found.

The game was a hit. It killed a lot of otherwise boring summertime hours, no toilets were scrubbed, and my friends and I discovered all the nooks and crannies of the nearby park and neighborhood landscaping. And I got really good at spotting a trail.

So did pilot Jack Knight on one dark night in 1921 when he completed a successful flight from Chicago to North Platte, Nebraska. This was important for two reasons. First, it was the first (and possibly only) time anyone ended up in North Platte on purpose. Second, Knight’s flight had been a test for the US Postal Service.

A relatively new technology, airplanes offered the promise of efficient coast to coast mail delivery. But navigation was still in its infancy with pilots relying on landmarks to guide them. This meant that night flying was pretty much out.

It's possible this man has no idea where he's going.
It’s possible this man has no idea where he’s going.

That is until someone had the brilliant idea to use postal workers and citizen volunteers to man a series of bonfires along Jack Knight’s dark route. His success led to the (slightly) more sophisticated plan to dot the Transcontinental Air Mail Route from New York to San Francisco with 50-foot steel, gas-lit beacons mounted into giant yellow concrete arrows on the ground.

Each arrow pointed toward the next beacon, around ten miles or so away depending on topography. Congress thought it was a great idea and by 1924 there were giant arrows pointing the way from Cleveland, Ohio all the way to Rock Springs, Wyoming. And because the Postal Service realized there weren’t a lot of reasons to stop in Rock Springs, Wyoming, the route was extended over the next few years, eventually reaching from New York to San Francisco.

air mail route
Transcontinental Airmail Route

Of course it wasn’t long before fancier navigation systems developed and pilots began to feel that radio frequencies were somewhat more reliable than the old fly-real-low-and-follow-the-arrows system. During WWII, the steel beacon towers were dismantled and repurposed, putting a practical end to the dotted Transcontinental Air Mail Route.

But the arrows are still there. Their paint is faded and they may have a few cracks here and there, but many of them that haven’t become the victims of development are still there to be found by the odd eagle-eyed traveler.

So we’re almost to the countdown to the start of school. I am not as creative as my mother and my boys are spending their childhood in Not-So-Small-Suburb, Missouri so even in our very safe neighborhood, I’m not terribly comfortable with the idea of them chasing arrows through the streets. My solution for summer boredom is to plan the big family vacation for the end of the summer, as a reward of sorts, for making it this far. And now I know as we pack up for our trip west, we’ll be following the arrows after all.

Arrows go left. Arrows go right. Follow in the morning, or follow them at night.
Arrows go left. Arrows go right. Follow in the morning, or follow them at night.