New driver and progress

Published 7:36 pm Tuesday, February 3, 2009

There is a new driver in town!

It seems like yesterday that my brother, partner and next door neighbor had his first child. My niece, Bailey, turned 15 today and is off to get her learner’s permit tomorrow. You can feel her excitement as she is about to pass one of the true milestones in American life—learning to drive.

It wasn’t so much of an issue when I was growing up. We started driving around the peanut mill and the farm years before we turned 15. A stick-shift pickup on the backroad to the swimming hole was my driver’s ed car.

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From the day I turned 15, I drove every single mile if our family was traveling somewhere, whether I wanted to or not. We had a 18-mile commute to school in Dothan, so part of my daily course was to navigate the Ross Clark Circle. Atlanta, Birmingham and Panama City helped me gain confidence that first year.

The day I turned 16, I got that long-awaited license, which declared me finally legal on the highways. That night there was a heavy storm. My mother brought me the keys to the car and said, “Aren’t you going to Dothan tonight?”

I remember how surprised and shocked I was as I took the keys. I barely heard her warning me to be careful as she went back in the house.

I often have said that this was the moment when I first felt someone really put their trust in me. Thankfully, I didn’t have to make the same choice with bad weather when my children turned 16, but I would like to think I would have done the same thing. My parents prepared me and taught me, and they trusted me to do the right thing.

I would like to say that I was always careful, but that wasn’t always true. A teenager behind the wheel of a car is not the same as an experienced driver. I did my share of stupid things that could have had terrible consequences. But 38 years later, I still remember that rainy night and the trust my mother put in my hands.

Of course, it is different when you are a parent or uncle or grandparent. I have had the great fortune of watching Bailey, and her brother, Davis, and her sister, Addison, grow up right next door to me. I love them like they are my own and want to protect them from any harm the world could bring their way.

You have a year to get ready, Bailey. You’ll occasionally get mad and frustrated at your parents. You will think you know more than you do and wish they wouldn’t tell you how to do everything. But soon, you’ll be given that key and it is just as much your responsibility as theirs for you to be ready.

Good luck!

The railroads

Long before people were learning how to drive automobiles, the trains were transporting people around the country. The railroad was crucial to the early growth and success of both Seminole and Decatur counties.

I have been fascinated with trains since I was a small boy and discovered that generations earlier a train had passed through the back of our lot in Cottonwood. All that was left was part of a bridge across the small creek in the nearby woods. But it was enough to spark our imaginations about that train and where it had gone out in the world.

When I first moved to Donalsonville, the railroad did some major repairs on the main line through town. It seems like scores of workers were pulling out the old railroad ties and replacing them, straightening the rails, and then driving the spikes back into the new timbers. It was backbreaking work. The workers lived in a converted boxcar that was parked on the siding at the peanut mill as they worked their way through town. Tough, rough men doing a tough, rough job.

The railroad is once again doing repairs along the main line. This time is very different. There are more machines than there are workers. The yellow machines look like some creature from Star Wars as their arms bend and fold out in all directions. They creep along the track pushing and pulling the ties out and replacing them with precision. Even after stopping to watch I couldn’t figure out what some of the machines were doing.

It is still a tough job, but at least the workers enjoy a hot shower at the local motel at the end of the day. The railroad work is like a lot of things from our past—more work is done with less people. I think they call it progress.

Speaking of progress

Speaking of progress, I wish I could say that our government is making progress on straightening out our economy. The stimulus bill has passed the House without a single Republican vote in spite of the president’s courting their support. It is now in the Senate where some version will pass. It will then go to a conference committee where the real wheeling and dealing will be done.

I sense the public is becoming more than a bit frustrated with the stimulus package. I understand that something must be done, I am just not sure that we know what that is.

I do know that the bill has become laden with pork and spending that has nothing to do with our economic recovery. It is becoming a wish list with no accountability on those spending the money.

Fifty-million dollars for the National Endowment for the Arts; $6 billion for mass transit funding; $600 million for new cars for federal employees, in addition to the $3 billion we already spend for vehicles; $150 million for the Smithsonian Museum repairs; $6 billion for new university buildings; $650 million for digital TV conversion coupons; $83 billion for income tax credits for those that don’t pay any income tax, and $10 million for biking and hiking trails.

Some of these things are programs that are near and dear to my own heart. I believe in arts funding, park funding and museum funding. I just don’t know that I believe they should be disguised as stimulus spending in a bill that is approaching a cost of more than $1 trillion.

We need some big picture politicians to think out of the box and consider how to best spend this unprecedented amount of money in a way that has lasting effects for our economy. We won’t get such an opportunity again in my lifetime to spend such a sum in ways that can correct some of our negligence in the past and replace it with a solid foundation for the future.