Just the Other Day: The Steering Wheel

I found something that interested me in an online classified advertisement. The fact that it was 200 miles away made it difficult to just run and take a look. That’s one of the few setbacks I’ve found in living so far north, however the beauty of north woods and the ever-changing look of Lake Superior, make it all worthwhile. Especially if you have connections.


I called my cousin Andy, in St. Paul, “Hey, do you happen to have $80 I could borrow?”


“Sure,” he replied, “do you want me mail you a check or something?” I was a little surprised he didn’t even ask me what it was for.


“Nah, you can just pay the guy when you go get it.” He was baffled until I explained what I needed. “I found an antique that I want to buy. It’s in Minneapolis. Can you go check it out?” He said he could. “If it’s in good condition, go ahead and pay the man and I’ll come get it from you in a few weeks.” I gave him the man’s address.


“That’s all the way on the other side of the cities,” he said, “about a ninety-minute drive, or more, depending on traffic. I’m going that way in a few days. Can I go then or do you need it right away?” I told him there was no rush, the guy was holding it for me. About a month later, I drove to Andy’s house to pick it up.


I was pleased to find it more beautiful than it appeared in the photos. Often times the photos in an advertisement make things look better than they really are.  The satin finish on the light oak top was very smooth. Each of the four legs with their lathe turned and hand-carved design, were sturdy and elegant. On the end of each leg was an antique brass claw foot; a strong foot, maybe that of an eagle or a hawk, each foot holding a clear round glass ball in its talons. It was a real bargain for eighty bucks and the most handsome piano stool I’d seen in a really long time.


Most of my life while growing up, we had a piano or an electric organ in the house. I don’t really recall anyone taking piano lessons but my mom played a little. When my aunt Sally came to visit, she played a lot and a few of my sisters taught themselves to play.


We had a piano bench with a lid that opened to keep sheet music under the seat, but we also had a stool very much like the one I had just bought. Never being refinished, it was much darker in color and very well worn. A steel threaded shaft came up through the middle of the stool. Shorter people lowered the seat top by turning it clockwise and tall people with longer legs turned it counterclockwise, raising it to a comfortable height for them.  Although I never learned to play the piano, I had no problem playing with the piano – I pounded the keys, making a racket until Mom, Dad or an older brother or sister would make me stop. Mostly, I enjoyed playing with the piano stool.


I placed the bench in front of the stool, positioned to the left-hand side, then put two chairs behind to create a front seat. I could tip the piano stool back toward me and spin the top in and out. It was just like a fancy Cadillac with a telescoping and tilting steering wheel. I pressed my little shoe on the right claw foot pretending it was a gas pedal – the left claw foot was my brake. I drove that luxury sedan all over town.


Sometimes I would remove the right-hand chair and turn the bench lengthwise to become the long hood of a racecar. I found an old white motorcycle helmet in the garage and borrowed my big brother’s snorkel and blue face mask. With a helmet, proper eye protection and my Mom’s knitted scarf wrapped around my neck, I became Speed Racer, just like the guy on the Saturday morning cartoon.


The left clawfoot was my clutch: the right was still the gas – who needed brakes? Using the snorkel as my shifter, I raced through the gears, heading into the corners at full speed. I turned the steering wheel quickly, hand over hand. The tires were screeching as I tried to control my racecar. Sometimes, going way too fast, my car would spin out. I was ejected from the vehicle and went rolling across the living room carpet.  From my Dad’s closet, I got a long leather belt. I weaved the belt through a back spindle on the chair, then around my waist and fasted the buckle snuggly. Safety first.


I wasn’t always driving a Cadillac or a racecar. With the benches from the dining room table set in perpendicular rows behind me, I became a bus driver.  Or, put the benches together lengthwise and I was a truck driver pulling a long flatbed trailer across the country.


There was no limit to the places I could go and the things I could do with that clawfoot piano stool as my steering wheel.


I looked at the antique I had just acquired and smiled.  I put the new piano stool at the end of the coffee table, pulled up a chair and turned the ceiling fan on high. I tried to wrap my belt around a back spindle (safety first) but it wouldn’t reach. I guess my waist is a bit bigger around than it was when I was seven. Without goggles or a helmet, I started out a little slower, shifting through the gears with an aluminum walking stick in my right hand. Gradually, I went a little faster and then even faster. My trusty dog June, sat in the seat to my right. My hair and scarf blew freely in the wind, as did her ears. My tires still screeched as we rounded the corners, although the pitch was considerably lower. A song played in my head: “Go speed racer, go speed racer, go speedracer, go!”


I heard my wife’s car pulling into the driveway. I put the walking stick in the closet and the chair back at the dining room table. I set the stool in front of the piano where I would leave it for my wife to find as a surprise. I looked at June and fixed her ears; they were still blown back from the wind. “Not a word about this to your mom, okay?”


I looked fondly at the stool with glass balls in each clawfoot. It looked really good with our antique upright piano. I wonder: maybe if I had spent more time sitting ON that old stool, instead of behind it, perhaps I could actually play the piano. I wouldn’t trade those old childhood memories for the world. And besides, with all that practice, I can drive just about anything today.