One passes many milestones as you travel through life and raise your children to be responsible adults. One of the most significant rites of passage is getting your driver’s license and then much later teaching your children to drive. Both can be terror-filled and exhilarating experiences…often at the same time.
For myself it was a relatively drama and accident free experience. Back in the 80s driving school was not required, but you had to pass a written test and a driving test after you turned 16. There were even provisions for driving younger if you worked on a farm. I did indeed work on farms and started driving much earlier, though I never took a test or got a legal permit to do so—no one did. My first driving experience was on a small white and yellow International Cub tractor on Seltman’s farm pulling a small yard wagon around. This was a pint-sized tractor originally designed to replace a single horse, and typically had a 10 to15 horsepower engine. I don’t know what its top speed was, but I got passed by a turtle once. This, of course, made it the perfect vehicle for a teenage boy to first learn how to drive. I was around 12 or 13 years old when I learned to drive the Cub and it was great fun tooling around the yard picking up piles of raked grass or leaves, much more fun than actually raking the grass or leaves. Best of all was taking it out on the road and opening up the throttle to a blazing 8-10 mph. The Seltman’s dog trotted alongside, like a police escort making sure I didn’t do anything stupid.
From there I graduated to the bright orange Allis Chalmers tractors on Moore’s orchard: the classic WC and WD45 models. The WD45 was newer and had 40-45 horsepower and could hit 15-18 mph in high gear and full gas. That may imply thrills, but it seemed like I was flying down the road in an open cockpit, the wind in my face, no seatbelts, and in the case of the WC, no brakes. Talk about learning how to slow properly, try driving a vehicle without functioning brakes. I had to downshift to slow and then literally stand on the brakes to get it to stop. This was my first experience driving on the road, even though I never took a driving class or received any training. That’s how farm kids rolled back then. Today you would have to attend a 40-hour course, take a test, sign three pages of liability releases, wear a helmet, a seatbelt, and use a phone app to navigate. Back then Mr. Moore just turned to me and said, “Take the WC and the sprayer down to the Bullittsville orchard. I’ll be there around noon.” It was an hour’s drive, and the easiest money I ever made, driving full throttle down the road with my hair blowing free in the wind, waving at all the pretty girls, and trying not to hit dogs or mailboxes.
The next step in my driving evolution was driving Mr. Moore’s big ol’ silver Chrysler sedan across the orchard to pick people up for lunch. It was a beast, with a 350 engine and a trunk capacious enough for five or six bushels of apples or 3-4 people, depending on the mission, and if I gave it a little gas I could easily fishtail while maneuvering around the trees. This was my no-cost version of the skid control training that I paid $150 for my kids to take.
So, after several years on tractors and cars on the farm—without incident mind you—I finally reached the magical age of 16 when teenage boys get the freedom to drive. That’s the rosy view. The side you discover quickly is that those boys’ parents wanted them to get their license, so they could work, run errands, and pick up little brothers and sisters. Within weeks of turning 16 I had passed the written test and had my temporary permit. The only problem was our family only had just one car and my dad had it at work when I got out of school, so I rarely got to practice. So, the drive to Seltman’s on Saturday to work on their farm, and to Immaculate Heart of Mary church on Sunday were the extent of my “supervised training” in our 1976 Dodge Aspen station wagon.
Finally, the day arrived for the formal driving test and my nervousness seemed like it might paralyze me. However, I got through driving portion fine, but when it came time to parallel park the station wagon, I failed miserably because I hadn’t really practiced. Living in the country on a dead-end gravel road didn’t create much of a need for parallel parking. It’s like my daughter Madison’s cell phone; the phone functional has probably never been used, but she does send 6000 texts a month. After failing the parallel parking the first time, I found some orange cones and diligently practiced every chance I could get until was finally ready. However, the day before the retest I was pitching in a Conner High School baseball game and a batter hit a line drive that nailed me in my left shoulder, taking me out of the game. I got hit a lot because I only had two pitch speeds: slow and slower. The coaches claimed they timed my pitches with a sundial. It was only a slight exaggeration, but my saving grace was that I didn’t walk many batters, which gave the fielders behind me plenty of opportunities to make plays, and they did. The morning of the driving retest I could barely lift my shoulder but decided to take the test anyway. I did fine on the driving portion and managed to parallel park the car, though it was about two feet from the curb. Prior to the test I told the patrolman about my baseball incident, and I think he felt sorry for me and gave me a passing score. I was now ready for the world. Because of the many years working on farms, picking apples, raising tobacco, and putting in hay, I had saved up some money and soon was the proud owner of a baby blue Chevy Vega with dark blue racing stripes, which was ironic since it barely mustered enough power to get to 70 mph.
It had four on the floor, an after-factory cassette player, and cool rims. They don’t make cars like that anymore—probably because no one would want one. Add a girlfriend and twelve pack of beer and I would be the talk of the town, or country in this case.
Normally, one might conclude that my driving test days would be over after that, but not so. Throughout my military career, whenever my driver’s license was expiring I would get it renewed in whatever state I was currently living, and then when I was stationed in Alabama I obtained a new license there and for the next 10 years was able to mail in a form and fee every five years to get a new license. When I moved to Ohio at the end of my military career, my Alabama license came up for renewal once more, so I mailed in my form and fee and waited for my new license to arrive in the mail . . . and I waited, and waited. Finally, after two months I got a reply from the good state of Alabama stating that they had changed their licensing procedures and for security reasons I could only renew my license in person at one of their BMVs. Those who claim that Alabama is stuck in time are wrong! They are just 20 years behind. Since I was not inclined to drive a thousand miles to get a new Alabama license, I headed off to the Ohio BMV ready to write a check for a new license, but instead I got some bad news. Since my Alabama license had expired, I had to take both the Ohio written and driving tests. I wasn’t worried about the written test, but the driving test was a different story. Ohio has a maneuverability test that requires driving around cones going forward, and then backward. Much like parallel parking in the country, I am not sure why you need to drive backwards around cones. I follow the Satchel Paige philosophy of life, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” Memories of the failed parallel parking flashed in my mind and I had worried visions of utter humiliation. So, with great trepidation and angst, I studied up for the written part and took the test, only missing one poorly worded question. After passing the written test and getting a mug shot, I joined line with a half dozen vacant looking teenagers to get my “temps.” As each teen reached the desk, the clerk read off some information and handed over their temporary license and off they went with their parent and a big smile. For me, the clerk started into the recitation she gave a hundred times a day and without looking up she advised me that I must have a licensed parent in the car at all times when practicing. I calmly advised her in my middle-aged voice that my mother was 83, lived in another state, and had never obtained a driver’s license. She sheepishly looked up, I smiled, and she handed me my temporary license. I wasn’t allowed to schedule the driving portion of the test for 90 days, so for three months I drove illegally without my Mom in the car: call me a rebel. Over those months I did set out some cones and practiced the Ohio maneuverability test. I still don’t know why driving backward around cones is a necessary driving skill in Ohio; I’d be happy if my fellow Ohioans would just use a turn signal once in a while or quit texting their BFF what they had for lunch. Finally, the day arrived for the driving test and as I was walking towards my car with the patrol officer I made sure she knew I was in the military and why I had to take the driving test. Trolling for some sympathy, I hoped she would forego the maneuverability test. She didn’t. In fact, I had that first before the regular driving. She instructed me to pull up to the maneuverability course, and then to start. Looking in front of me I saw multiple courses next to each other and cones everywhere, and I couldn’t tell where exactly she wanted me go. I felt like the driver in the movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World when the young kid told the con artist to drive the car across the small river. He looked at the kid in astonishment and said, “This is a car not a canoe.” I was thinking the same thing; only a canoe could fit between those cones, so I asked, “You want me to drive this SUV between THOSE cones? Fixing me with the clear unsympathetic eyes of an official, her stone cold voice replied, “Did you not practice this test? If not, we can end the whole thing right now.” I anxiously replied that I had, but the cones looked much closer, but I hesitantly pulled forward past the cones, which was the easy part. Then I had to reverse course and drive backward without knocking over a cone, which was the hard part. While backing up I brushed up against one of the cones, and it wobbled for a moment, my fate and dignity resting in its orange glory. But joyfully, it did not fall, and I continued, with my pride intact. She did deduct a point for grazing the cone, but I passed the test and once again could legally drive without my 83-year-old mother in the car.
The following year it was time to teach my first child to drive and I was all too familiar with the procedure having just gone through it, but for a teenager the process had a lot more rules and cost me a lot more money. First, after taking the written test and getting the permit, I had to enroll her in a driving school to the tune of about $400. It was admittedly, money well spent, but then I had to log every minute of her driving and she had to complete a minimum of 40 hours of driving, 10 of which had to be at night, before taking the driving test. So, after my daughter aced the written test, we began teaching her to drive. The first time out I took her to a local park, which had a long circular drive, a speed limit of 25 mph, and a flat road without ditches, a perfect place to learn, or so I thought. At first, all was fine as we slowly circled the park going 15 mph while dogs overtook us, but then an oncoming car approached, and my daughter panicked and drove off the road—I mean completely off the road—and refused to drive any farther. As she was trembling, I took over. She did not attempt to drive again for four months. Finally, she mustered the courage, so we began to practice in school and church parking lots and eventually graduated to subdivisions. About this time she completed driving school and we continued to log hours until she reached the magic number of 40, which was about 36 more hours than I got practicing with my Dad. We also rehearsed the maneuverability test repeatedly and quickly she was better at it than me, especially the reverse part. The time finally came for the driving test and she passed with flying colors, without any teetering orange cones. Soon thereafter, we went car shopping and had our eye on a Kia Soul.
They had great visibility for a young driver, which I liked, and were a bit off the main stream, which she liked. She in fact wanted a black one so she could tell everyone that she had a black Soul, but we settled on an olive one. She quickly covered it with hippy peace-loving stickers, which was fine, as long as I didn’t see any pot smoke. The only thing disturbing me now was how much my insurance increased when I added a teenager on to my coverage. Why does the term highway robbery come to mind each time I pay the bill?
My other daughter was in no rush to learn how to drive. She had everything she needed in our basement: TV, video games, virtual reality, and microwave dinners. She was not compelled to venture out into the real world where it occasionally rains and snows. After much cajoling and threatening to take her cell phone, we finally convinced her to get her permit and begin practicing. Like my first daughter, it was not without fits and starts. I had assumed that since she was Level 10 on Mario Kart that she would have some instincts on how to drive, but video games do not equal reality. Nevertheless, we kept practicing and eventually she was ready for the big test. I had to work, so my wife took her to the testing station that morning. That afternoon I was expecting a celebratory text, but none arrived, so I inquired. My wife replied that there was good news and bad news: the good news being she passed the dreaded maneuverability test, but the bad news is she failed the remaining driving portion. Undaunted, we practiced for another month and tested again. Once again, the results were not good. So, we kept practicing and practicing and practicing some more, and as they say, the third time was the charm. And once again, my insurance policy went through the roof.
So now my days of being a driving student and instructor are over. I suspect that when my grandchildren are old enough to drive, cars will be driverless and will be able to park themselves and drive backwards flawlessly, and this rite of passage will be a thing of the past like rotary phones and manual typewriters, a relic of previous generations. Pray to God that the network doesn’t go down!
This month’s video song is Drive by none other than the Cars. It is not only a fitting song, it’s also one of my Mom’s favorites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FkdleIkFyo