Back when I was a kid (I know, that makes me sound ancient - but really I'm not), the legal driving age in my state was 14. Due to the fact that we were very rural and a lot of families depended on their young children to be able to drive farm equipment, we climbed behind the wheel early.
Knowing that kids don't have the best depth perception or driving skills, my parents started both my brother and I out driving our firewood rig - a 1942 Dodge Power Wagon (military version, of course). Now, this was no ordinary power wagon. It was a classic. It had a massive winch on the front, perfect for dragging trees out of the woods, a wood plank covered flatbed and mammoth steel bumpers, front and rear. It sat high off the ground, making it a scramble for little kids to climb into, and had a gear shift that must have been 2 1/2 feet long. And best of all - it had no brakes.
Long before my brother and I were old enough to drive, we went on many wood cutting excursions in our power wagon. My dad would find a likely place to fall a couple of trees, drive within striking distance (hopefully not within falling distance!) and begin an afternoon of sawing logs and loading the rounds into the back of the power wagon. With careful stacking, we were able to load about a cord and a half of tamarack onto the flatbed and begin our descent off the hill. This is where the fun began.
As I mentioned, our power wagon didn't have any brakes. This was an interesting experience on the best of days, but when the truck was loaded down with a cord and a half of wood and headed down a hill that didn't boast so much as a dirt road, it was awe inspiring.
Necessity became the mother of invention (we really did need the firewood) and my dad came up with a working solution to his braking problem. He ran over trees. Well, not just trees, he also ran over stumps - really anything to slow his descent. And he couldn't just choose any stump or tree, they had to be the right ones. If the sapling was too small, it just bent and did nothing to slow the truck down, however, if it was too big, it shook the truck and upset our firewood in the back, spilling it all over the hillside. Stumps were even trickier. They had to be the right height and have the correct amount of decomposition. If they were too rotten they just flew into microscopic pieces, but if they were too fresh or too tall - well, you get the picture.
After the first hair raising descent down the mountainside with our power wagon careening around full-grown Douglas Fir trees while mowing over the less fortunate saplings, my mother swore to never, ever step foot in that vehicle again - or at least until it had proper brakes. From that day forward, we had a new system. We would all go together to the hillside to cut wood. Once the truck was loaded and we were ready to begin our descent, my mother and I would head down the hill - on foot - and my dad, with my brother beside him, would get into the cab. As my dad steered (and hit all the right trees) my brother would man the emergency brake, pulling it at just the right time to avoid certain death. Mom and I would always get a head start, but by the time we were nearing the bottom of the hill, we would have to duck and cover as the truck flew screaming past, so as not to be hit with flying firewood. Oh, those were the days!
And so, when I was 12, my mom and dad decided it was time for me to learn the finer points of driving - in our 1942 Power Wagon - with no brakes! Smart parents, they were. No one ever noticed the little dings here and there that my brother and I put on that truck. Heck, we probably could have crunched in an entire front panel and nobody would have noticed (no, I take that back - Dad definitely would have noticed!). It was the perfect starter rig. It didn't go more than 40 miles an hour, was built like a tank and forced us to become very good at shifting (no brakes, remember?). Oh, did I mention that it had the coolest paint job ever? Woodland Camouflage. Classic.
The other day, Maid Elizabeth said, "Mom, you've got to see this truck!". She showed me an article featuring a beautifully restored power wagon. It was built on an original chassis but had been updated with a new engine, fuel injection and all kinds of other gadgets. For a moment, it made my heart go pitter-pat, but then I read the rest of the article - this new fangled power wagon just wasn't for me - someone had the gall to ruin the whole thing - they installed brakes.