By Donn Schaefer
My first childhood memory is of riding. Not a motorcycle, for this memory took place on the frozen prairie. When it is cold enough to freeze your nose hairs with one sniff, but not quite cold enough to freeze spit before it reaches the ground, motorcycles are replaced by snowmobiles.
For some reason, I was too young to understand why, we left the warmth and comfort of my Grandparent’s home to face the elements, or should I say “element.” On the prairies there is only one element, it being Ice. Grandpa, dad and I climbed on the back of a snowmobile and left serpentine tracks in the clean snow. I remember desperately wanting to drive the snowmobile myself because Grandpa made it seem effortless. Of course I was too young to pilot the sled, so instead my pop got to sit behind the bars and almost immediately he managed to tip the beast over – right onto my foot. My double insulated boot came off, and I remember dad trying to coax it back over my frozen toes. Untying the knotted laces proved impossible so we went back indoors, thus ending my first memory. (In spite of my age I secretly knew they should have let me drive.)
Over the years we visited my Grandparents a number of times. They lived within the confines of a lumber mill in Edson, Alberta. Visiting during the summer was always exciting, for scattered around the mill were dozens of abandoned motor vehicles. I guess recycling in those days meant letting the land grow over anything that was no longer wanted. In this case, an army of green tendrils entwined any vehicle that lacked the mobility needed for escape. Lucky for me, I had a captive audience of rusted hulks leaching iron into the soil.
Somehow I got my hands on a screwdriver. When I wasn’t busy shifting gears on broken transmissions, I had a great time taking things apart. Anything that could be manipulated with a screwdriver was quickly disassembled. Usually this amounted to some ancient, knobless, and corroded AC-Delco radio. One day there was a semi tractor parked among the spent vehicles. Clawing my way up the massive step, I could sit in the cabin, elevated above the collection of junked cars. The only higher vantagepoint in the camp was atop the mountain of wood chips.
The semi had bare metal foot pedals, a gangly shift lever, and a key in the ignition. Turning the key partway revealed that there was still juice in the battery. Fortunately my curiosity was not great enough for me to turn the key all the way. The next day I saw a group of men start and drive the truck. Could you just imagine a little kid driving a logging truck? After first writing this story, I found out that my mom did turn the key all the way when she was a kid. She snuck into a truck, fired it up and tooled around the lumberyard in an ultra low gear. Lucky for her my grandparents heard the ruckus from their house and came to the rescue. Perhaps this is where my dream of driving a semi to school originated. Genetic?
A year or two passed. Summer vacation rolled around again, and with it another chance to play with rusted out cars. This time when we arrived at the lumberyard, there was a new vehicle waiting for me. It was one of Honda’s early three wheeled all terrain vehicles.
This red beauty had three of the biggest knobby balloon tires I had ever seen. Soon I was blasting down logging roads, spinning doughnuts, and sliding through the thick prairie gumbo. My Grandpa claimed it could be ridden right over a lake. “Shore, you betcha. She’ll just keep on a going.” I never got to test this assertion, but had more than a few exciting moments on the Honda.
Getting caught in deep wheel ruts at speed and being forced through giant pools of mud and water brought a new thrill to my life. Almost getting stuck miles from home in a slick earthen basin taught me prayer to the God of traction. I was to later discover that this same god presides over electrical components, post-repair starting, cold weather starting, normal weather starting, carburetor adjustments, and other significant denominations. Kickstarters, on the other hand, are the province of the Devil. “Come on, You can do it. Just a few more feet up and you’ll make it . . . . . Slip . . . . . Come on, You can do it. Just a couple more feet up and . . .. Slip . . . Come on, You can do . . . Slip . . . it.”
I didn’t know what a helmet was, and I no longer remember if this trike had brakes or not. The only control that held any importance to me was the thumb lever that put power to the back wheels. After this lumberyard summer, I knew that engines and wheels were destined to be part of my future. What does an ankle-biter know about money anyway?