I learned to drive in one of the most cantankerous, hard to drive, pile of crap, vehicles ever. It was a late 1960’s Ford Econoline Pickup, basically the same vehicle as the junky Econoline Van, but with the back end cut off and replaced by a truck box.
It was horribly designed and implemented. The engine, passengers, and most of the weight were located in the front of the vehicle. Since it was a rear wheel drive vehicle, having very little weight on the back wheels made for horrible traction, especially on ice.
The design was so bad that the kingpins were too small for the vehicle. The kingpins sit at the end of each side of the front axle and represent the pivot points for the front wheels when you turn. These kingpins were so horribly under-designed, they continually wore out. The result was an incredibly stiff steering wheel. It took both of my 14 year old arms pulling hard to make it turn.
That was an annoyance when the roads were dry, but it was downright dangerous in icy weather. When you drive on an icy road, it’s very important to be able to counteract sliding by turning into the slide. If you can’t turn fast enough, well you can guess what happens.
South Dakota roads, even the gravel mile roads, have ditches. These are deep depressions on each side of the road varying anywhere from 3 feet to 20 feet deep, usually depending on the width of the road. They remind you of what an English moat around a castle might look like. Ditches hold the snow that is removed by massive snowplows that clear the roads.
Farmers still need to get to their fields with their tractors, wagons, and other machinery. Therefore these ditches have small bridge-like structures made out of dirt, that span the distance between the road and the field. They’re called field access roads.
My brother and I were traveling to a town nearby in the Econoline Pickup, for a reason that escapes me, when we came upon an ice patch about a quarter of a mile long, spanning both sides of the road. I anticipated it by slowing and turning the steering wheel so that the front tires were as straight as possible. The last thing I wanted, was to get into a slide with this piece of junk.
It didn’t work. Even though the steering wheel was straight, the wheels must have been slightly turned. That coupled with the fact that I was still slowing down, made the back end of the truck, try to catch the front, ever so slowly. It was like watching a movie in slow motion as the vehicle started drifting to the left.
I quickly yanked the wheel left and I heard the front end make a popping sound. The truck slowly stopped going left, and accelerated to the right. The front wheels had stuck, then gone too far, sending the back end the other way. I manically tried to turn the other way, the front end popped even louder this time. The slide to the right stopped, but was immediately replaced by a quicker one to the left.
Again I yanked the wheel back the other way but it was too late. The rear of the truck came around so that we were sliding down the middle of the road perpendicular to traffic flow, staring down at the steep ditch straight ahead.
There was nothing I could do at this point but hold on. I saw my 12 year old brother put his left hand on the mid-engine cover, and right hand on the door, bracing himself for impact. He nearly lifted himself off the seat as the sideways motion of the vehicle subsided, and translated to forward motion down the ditch.
I slammed hard on the brakes, but they were of no use. The rubber tires slid on the road as if they were ice skates. We plunged down the steep slope, the entire windshield filled with the image of the far side of the ditch. It was a forgone conclusion that we would impact the far side and be launched through the windshield. We weren’t wearing our seatbelts because the truck didn’t have them.
Luckily the foot of snow on the down slope slowed our progress, and the deeper snow in the bottom of the ditch lifted the nose of that overweight junker just enough that we flew up the far side of the ditch and stopped with a barbwire fence stretched tightly across the windshield. Even better we had split the distance between two wood fence posts.
We spun our heads to look at head other and smiles broke out. We were just happy to be safe.
We backed down the ditch and tried to drive out, but the slope of the ditch was too steep. We could travel laterally along the ditch, but when we tried to go up the slope, the truck slid back down. One of the field access roads was about 100 yards ahead, so we gained as much speed as possible along the road side of the ditch and hit it about 20 mph. The truck got air as we flew out of the ditch and landed back on the road. We were slammed about the cabin as we landed, but we were just happy to be out.
The rest of the trip was made without further incident, but to this day, whenever I see an icy patch on a road, I remember that barbed wire fence stretched across the front of that truck and remember what could have happened.