Life on a farm in Arkansas in the 1950s offered a wonderful childhood for me, but I knew it was a hard life for my parents. Any new expense meant difficult decisions about how the minimal cash was to be spent, and even though I never felt deprived, I knew that I just didn't ask for things that cost money. It was also understood that when something broke, if Daddy couldn't fix it himself and it wasn't absolutely essential to us, it very likely would stay broken.
I knew that one of our most important possessions was an old red Ford pickup. It was our connection to the rest of the world, as well as the vehicle that my father used to do the dawn-to-dusk work on the farm. I had an older brother and sister and a baby brother, and every Sunday morning we would dress for church, then crowd into the cab of the truck for the trip to town. I was the smallest besides the baby, so I sat next to my dad because I caused the least interference with shifting.
I was a shy, skinny, bookish sort of child, and while I often played with my brothers and my sister, I learned that solitude could be a delightful time when my imagination was totally free. One of my favorite places to take a book and be alone was the seat of the old red pickup. One warm afternoon I was enjoying this favorite spot, reading a little, but mostly daydreaming. My finger was absently tracing the knobs and lines on the dashboard, and finally wound around to the speedometer.
The glass on the speedometer had long since been broken out, maybe even before the pickup joined our family. I often watched the red needle as we drove down the highway. It was fascinating to watch it climb the circle of numbers, sometimes getting as high as the 50 at the top. It never approached the numbers going down the other side to 90. I wasn't sure why, but I knew that this was all somehow an important part of Daddy's truck.
As I traced the circle with my finger, I bumped against the needle and realized that it wasn't moving. I knew this wasn't right, that it was supposed to go up and down on the numbers. It must be stuck. So I nudged it, then nudged a little harder, and was rewarded by a little pop as it came loose from whatever had held it prisoner. And I was delighted to see that it not only moved freely now, but went all the way to the 90 and back! Not only had I fixed it; it was better than it had been before!
I couldn't wait for Daddy to get home so I could show him the wonderful thing I had done. He would be so surprised! But it was hours before he came home, and I had gone on with my seven-year-old life and forgotten all about it. It didn't enter my mind until that Sunday morning.
After scurrying around to eat breakfast and finish chores and dress for church, we piled into the truck as usual and started off down the dirt lane to the highway. Daddy and Mom were talking about something that held no interest for me at all, and my eyes went to the speedometer. I remembered then, and burst out delightedly, "Daddy the red needle was stuck and I fixed it for you!" I looked up to see the surprise and joy on his face, and the surprise was definitely there. I saw him look quickly at the speedometer, and his expression told me the truth. I had not fixed his truck, I had actually broken it.
I was horrified. I stopped breathing, and I didn't know how I could start again. After what I had done, anything Daddy would say now, however gently it came out, could only crush my seven-year-old heart. I had meant it to be a wonderful gift, and I realized as I watched his face that it was actually a costly mistake.
I could feel the tension in the sudden silence. I braced myself for the scolding that would surely come even from my gentle daddy, and knew it would cut deeper than he could know.
His face went through a series of expressions, and he gave a little sound that was something between a short laugh and a helpless sigh. Then the corners of his mouth turned up to a smile, and the words came—"Thank you, sweetheart."
And that was it. No scolding, no stern reminder to not touch things I don't understand, not even a look of disappointment. He picked up the conversation with my mother, and not a word was ever said about my awful blunder. The world had not fallen in around me. My heart slipped from my throat to its usual place, and I began to breathe again. By the time we reached town I was ready to greet my friends and put this thing behind me.
The speedometer needle never was fixed, but somehow the red truck continued to faithfully do its duty for the family.
That moment was buried under all the experiences of growing up and carrying on with life as an adult. I don't know what brought it to my mind many years later, but when it surfaced I was overwhelmed by the realization of what had really happened.
While I didn't form the conscious thought at the time, I grew up knowing, without a single doubt, that I was more important to my Daddy than anything he could ever possess. And years later, when my own children made mistakes that were disappointing or costly, I found that I could look past the action to see the tender heart of the child, and set my priorities right. Today I don't remember any of the "things" that were damaged or lost. But I have two sons who are self-confident and gentle of heart, and that is worth it all.
Gayle Ely lives in the mountains of Northern California with her husband, Frank. Together they raised two sons, and they are enjoying three grandchildren. She retired recently from her position as secretary/registrar of Kidder Creek Camps, a Christian camp for children and teens near her home.