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The educational route with Rip Van Winkle

Three months ago, I went to the funeral for the father of several friends of mine. One of them is Janet, a classmate from high school. She is not just any classmate, though. Janet is the one who was in the car with me for driver’s ed. That is a relationship that can be extremely good if the two of you end up improving the work of the other, extremely bad if there is too much one-upmanship or a competitive nature between you, or somewhere in between.

Right offhand, I don't recall a whole lot about our driving experience, so it must have been pretty good. The one thing I do remember was our first time out on the open road. Our school had two instructors for the driving portion of the class. One of them was a by-the-book guy who was in the car and taught the classroom portion of the course and nothing else. The other one was a history and government teacher who had a few free periods when he would handle the car portion of the class, but never taught any of the classroom portions. He was a tad more free-wheeling than the other instructor. They were sort of a Major Frank Burns and Captain Hawkeye Pierce pairing.

For instance, during the first session behind the wheel, students would usually get familiar with the car and maybe do a few laps around the parking lot to make sure they knew how to operate everything and let the instructor get a feel for their skills. That's how Major Burns worked. Pierce, on the other hand, would size you up on the way out to the car and, if you passed his eyeball exam, he'd have you drive downtown to get his dry cleaning, or over to the car dealership to check on his personal car's service work being done, or maybe to the bakery or the hardware store.

Surprise, surprise, Janet and I ended up with Pierce. He would also tend to pump you for all kinds of information as you drove — how soon would we start planting, how much was this or that farm renting for, who farmed this place, what we were up to on the farm recently, not to mention any list of things going on at school or in the neighborhood. Since he lived relatively close to me, he figured the education thing was a two-way street for him in this deal.

When it was time to head out to the open road, the plan was to avoid the major highway in the area — Highway 9 — and head to Highway 139 instead for some less congested work. That was more of a minor blacktop with lots of curves to it than the more heavily traveled Highway 9. Both Rand and McNally would send their 15-year-olds down 139 instead of 9 to start their learning curve, as it were.

When it was our turn to drive, I ended up in the driver's seat first. A couple miles into our trip, after about the third 90-degree curve that I took at 55 mph, Pierce looked at me with a smirk and asked, "You've driven this before, haven't you?"

Oh yeah, lots of times. It's the route The Chairman and I took to get to Coldwater Creek to go trout fishing all the time. I almost always had to drive in those situations, and no one wants to show up late for trout.

We kept making good time down the road, never really slowing down to a blue-haired-old-lady pace through the curves. Pierce was looking pretty comfortable and relaxed. He rested his right elbow on the door and then sort of propped his chin up with his hand as we kept motoring.

We made it around the last curve outside of Kendallville when I looked over at Pierce, fully expecting instructions to turn around at the next corner. No such instructions were given. Pierce, as it turned out, was sound asleep! Curvy roads in a sweet ride like we had will do that to you. I looked in the mirror to get Janet's attention and shrugged at her about what to do. She returned the shrug. Neither of us wanted to be the one to wake up Hawkeye, so I kept driving.

A couple more miles down the road, we came upon the state line. The thing that was going through my head was that I had an Iowa learner's permit, and I was driving an official government vehicle, I figured, which would surely be some kind of massive violation when we ultimately encountered The Heat in Minnesota. That meant kidnapping charges and I'd ultimately end up at a federal facility in Kansas spending all of my best years turning very large rocks into very small rocks.

My worst-case scenario did not come true. As with most government entities, interagency cooperation and communication is in short supply. When the state of Minnesota laid out its road system in another century, and the state of Iowa laid out its road system that same century, the two straight lines did not meet up perfectly. They were off by a few yards. Rather than re-grade or re-route either one to meet in a straight line, they added a nice little zigzag on the Iowa side a few yards or so before you got to the border. Perhaps it was meant to make Iowans stop and think if they were really, really committed to making the trip to Minnesota. Or maybe it was designed to make us just a little dizzy before we got there so that things would make more sense once we did.

Either way, it was not a straight shot from one state to the other. That minor change in course was juuuuust enough to cause Pierce's elbow to slip off the door as I zipped through the curve at 55. He jerked his head and looked around to see where we were right as we sailed past the elaborate "Welcome to Minnesota" sign.
"Let's pull in up here and turn around," he said as he pointed at a field driveway, as though that had been his original plan all along.

Janet and I hopped out of the car and traded places, exchanging a knowing glance as we passed. She and I were probably both wondering how far we might have gone had it not been for that last curve.

Our answer came later when we were discussing our adventure with other classmates. One of them had moved to Cresco after he had his license already. He originally came from Marshalltown in central Iowa. His school put three students in the car with the instructor for their driving portion of the class. When they did the highway portion, they went out to beautiful four-lane Highway 30 and headed west. It wasn't long before they realized their instructor had fallen asleep. No one wanted to be the short straw who had to wake up the instructor, so they just kept driving.

The Highway 30 corridor in central Iowa is not exactly the Bonneville Salt Flats, but it's sure not Highway 139 to Kendallville, either. Curves are hard to come by. Sharp curves that wake up a dozing instructor are even harder to come by.

All three students chose to keep quiet in the car. Their instructor finally woke up and realized it was time to switch drivers and turn around. By that time, they were west of Boone, almost 70 miles from their school! When they got back to school, their instructor had to provide them with tardy slips for the class they showed up late for, plus the TWO others they missed before that one.

Obviously, more schools should have a driver’s ed fleet of vintage Volkswagen dune buggies like the GuyNo2Mobile. My experience has shown that no one falls asleep in a buggy!

Guy No. 2

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