Saturday, January 25, 2014

Bring The Car Back Around, Please: Driver's Re-Education

Approximately eleventy hundred years ago, when I was sixteen, high schools offered Drivers' Education classes.  A whole herd of us paid our forty dollars to the secretary, handed over our parent-signed cards, and made plans to show up from 6:30 until 9:00 in the evening for as long as it took to fulfill the requirement and "get our temps."  I got mine, no problem (except for the gruesome movies of car accidents with people's blood foaming out of their mouths like cherry Icee).  I went out for my driving time with a strange old lady instructor whose idea of driving practice was to do all of her errands:  we picked up her dry cleaning, went to the post office, drove by her bridge partner's house to see if she was home, and once, even dropped off a little brown bag containing what we later found out was her stool sample to the hospital lab.  I shared a car with Esther, and we tried not to laugh as we drove and drove and drove.

And after all of that, I sort of...stuck.  My parents didn't feel the same urgency I felt to get me out on the road, let alone get my permanent license.  It was incredibly frustrating.  I asked them both to take me out driving.  "Oh, not now, maybe later," they'd say.  If we were in the car coming home from school, church, an errand, I'd say, "Hey, let me drive home!"  And Mom or Dad would say, "Next time."

Next time never came.  I had to renew my temporary license every six months to keep it current, and I did, three times.  Three times!  Before you laud my Patience, don't.  It was Spite.  Pure, unadulterated Spite.  It cost them time, inconvenience, and whatever the fee was each time I renewed.  And I was hoping it kept reminding them A) that I had yet to have a driver's license; B) this was ridiculous; and C) they were wasting time and money.

Suddenly, The Time came.  And when I say Suddenly, that is precisely what I mean.  One day, my (not yet canonized) mother said, "Nance, your father and I are planning our vacation up to eastern Canada.  We'll be leaving on the same day you start your classes at community college.  So!  You're going to need to get your license.  I'll practice with you, and your brother will help you with parallel parking."  I had mere weeks.

Mere weeks and the family cars, which consisted of a 1967 Chevy Impala and two 1969 Buick LeSabres, all fine for driving, but not so nifty to parallel park.  But this wouldn't be a problem, my mother assured me.  We would borrow a car belonging to my sister's roommate!  It was a Chevy Nova, small and easy to park.  Did she need it during the week?  Yes, but she would be happy to trade cars for the weekend so that I could practice with it.

I was overwhelmed by all the machinations and arrangements.  I felt pressured by the deadline.  Still, the final result would be that I WOULD HAVE MY DRIVER'S LICENSE.  At age eighteen, every single one of my friends had been driving for years.  Years!  And I was always their passenger, forking over gas money and thanking them for rides.  If all went well, those days would be over.

My mother, to be fair, is an excellent driver, far better than my father ever was.  Dad saw most traffic laws as guidelines when it came to his own driving.  He coasted through stop signs if he saw no one coming, and he was turning right on red decades before it became permissible by law.  He invented the wide left turn.  As a matter of fact, his left turns were so very wide that once, when he was taking the dog to the park for a run and Dusty was perched with her front paws on the edge of the open window, he turned left down 33rd Street and she fell right out of the car.  Dad told us later, "As soon as I saw what happened, I pulled the car over and got out.  There she was, just sitting on the tree lawn, looking up at me.  I felt all of her legs and her back to make sure she wasn't hurt.  I felt terrible.  I had her walk a little bit, and she was fine.  So we got back in the car, and she ran in the park like usual.  From now on, I'll have to keep that window at least halfway up."  And it was a stop street, too.

But I digress.

Mom and I practiced driving, mostly in the blue Buick.  Which was unsatisfying because not only was the cable to the speedometer loose, rendering the speedometer unreliable, but also because said cable produced a constant chirping noise that drove me jaw-clenching crazy.  When we got the little yellow Nova, I practiced driving and parallel parking, the latter eluding me completely.  My brother was the Soul Of Patience, but I have no sense of spatial relationship.  "Use your mirrors," he kept reminding me helpfully.  "For what, for what?!" I kept crying inside my head.  There was something about thirds and something else about something, and I was ready to hit everything I saw at full ramming speed.  It was all the worst.

But it had to be done, and I had to take my test.  I did, and I failed parallel parking.  I hit a cone practically the minute I put the car into reverse.  I didn't dissolve into tears because it was exactly what I had expected.  What I didn't expect was the reception I received once I got home and Mom and Dad wanted a confab with me in the kitchen.  What it amounted to was this:  D Day (Departure Day) was fast approaching, and I was kind of tossing a monkey wrench in their vacation machinery.  I would therefore need to call the BMV ASAP and schedule another test.

So much for sympathy.  And wallowing.  I remember feeling very put upon. Things didn't get any better when I called to get my testing appointment.  There weren't any available for the next two weeks.  I needed one well before then.  The clerk checked in other cities.  "We have one available in Sandusky next Saturday.  How is that?"  I booked it and thanked her and went to tell my parents that someone would have to drive me forty-five minutes west in order for me to try and pass a parallel parking test so that they could go to Canada the following Monday.

My dad took me.  It was ungodly early, and he drove (of course), so I slept.  My test administrator was a kind woman with blond braids.  I must have looked like I wanted to chew my limbs off or something because she said, "Try to relax and take your time.  There is no time limit for this.  You can take an hour if you need to, okay?  You can do it."  I had never heard anything so ridiculous in my life; I was certain of it.  There was no way I could do it.  Then I was seized with an astonishing realization.  I could name about a dozen kids I knew who were a lot stupider than I was who had gotten their license.  Kids who were real idiots.  How hard could this be?  I took a deep breath and started the car.  What followed probably looked like a super slow motion YouTube video of a one hundred-year old woman trying to parallel park a car.  For approximately seven minutes.  It was gut-wrenching and epic.  It was nerve-wracking and suspenseful.  It was so intensely...intense that my knuckles ached and my head hurt.  I passed.  I passed, and the blond-braided woman simply patted me on the back and said, "Great job!"

We walked into the test center and she nodded and smiled at my dad.  I wanted to collapse into a knot of bones and sweat, but I couldn't.  My knees wouldn't bend anymore.  So I tottered over to get my picture taken and sign my Real Driver's License.  My picture looked like I wanted to throw up.  Probably because I did.

Without even asking, I knew to climb back into the passenger seat for the trip back home.  I had a headache anyway.  I didn't drive again until it was time to go to school, and on the first day of classes, I locked my keys in the car.  Driving became a chore for me; I hated it and almost feared it.  My poor sense of direction compounded my distaste, and I wondered why anyone drove at all, beyond necessity.

My dislike of driving continued until my husband gave me a GPS as a gift.  That one small device took away my fear of being endlessly lost.  When I stopped working, that took away my distraction and stress.  I gave myself a road test, a solo trip to visit friends in Virginia.  I passed.

Now, driving is freedom to me.  I chauffeur St. Patsy around, do all the shopping, run errands, and go meet friends all over the place.  When I hear stories about elderly people who fight against giving up their driver's licenses, I empathize.  I understand what it will mean for them.  Waiting.  A whole lot of waiting.  And being on someone else's schedule.  Feeling like a kid again.  Giving up.  All terrible feelings that I can remember.

Our early experiences go on to shape us later in life.  What I've been happy to learn is that those attitudes and interpretations don't have to be forever.

image here


  1. Anonymous3:23 PM

    Wonderful story. Can't imagine how frustrating it must have been for you to not get your license immediately after taking the class.

    My mother saw me more as a potential chauffeur than a child, so she did anything & everything to help me learn to drive. Therefore, I got my license about as quickly as a kid can.

  2. I wasn't in any hurry to get my license, but my parents seemed to think it was important so I got it at 16. Two memories:

    1. The driving instructor always had us drive to a local drugstore where he would leer at the pinup posters.
    2. He told me I shouldn't gain anymore weight because I wouldn't fit behind the wheel (please note that, while I wasn't the least bit svelte, I probably weighed around 130 pounds at the time).

    Also, we had a VW Bus - manual transmission. That was fun to learn to drive! I took my cousin's Pacer for the test.

  3. Does it please you or horrify you to know that, at least in California, parallel parking is no longer required to pass your drivers test? It horrifies me, because I think a student needs to be able to deal with real life.

    I got my license at 17 I think. I lived in a semi small town, (250k people is big, but spread out, with country roads not far away). I don't think I got to be a good driver until I got my own car perhaps 2 years later. I loved driving. I still enjoy it at times, but not when stuck in traffic or merging lanes or so on. And to be honest, I do not enjoy parallel parking. I got good at it in San Francisco, when you had to squeeze your car into a small spot on a hill, quickly. But I've never liked it.

    My memories of my driving instructor (also in HS, also paid for by the longer the case) are that she had some good advice *Blinker, Mirror, Blind Spot", and that she used to take us out for treats, like donuts or Taco Bell, which she would then eat in front of us.

  4. Nance..

    I've been around so long that
    when Moses came down from that mountain he was carrying the Ten Commandments and my driver's license.

    Not much frightens me on the road but there is one bad curve that we had to take to get to our son's house in Connecticut. It is the ramp that takes you from I-287 in White Plains,N.Y. to the Sawmill Parkway leading to Connecticut.

    The ramp is one tiny lane wide and has a 180 degree curve in it. That's not too bad but it's elevated and if you went over you would drop about 60 feet to the highway below.

    Protecting you on this precarious curve is a barrier about 10 inches high made of what looks like chicken wire.

    So, my husband, Roy, would always drive this part of the route so I could close my eyes as we traveled over it.

    As you know, poor Roy passed away in May and now I have to negotiate that curve myself and it scares me to death. My son asked me how I manage it now that Dad is gone and I tell him I do exactly what I have always done..I CLOSE MY EYES! So far, so good..

  5. Yes, as J stated, I did not need to learn parallel parking in order to pass my driver's test. I was able to pass the first time, driving my friend Michelle's car, which I had never driven before. But it was automatic, so we all figured I had a better chance with it than the stick shift Honda that was slated to be mine.

  6. My dad took me into the garage and, pointing to the car, said: "Do you know what this is?"

    "A station wagon, " I answered.

    "No. It's a two-ton death machine, " he stated emphatically.

    And thus, began my long teenage saga of having a license and never being allowed to drive the family car anywhere. The end.

  7. Rainbow Motel--I hear you. My driver's license was merely my ticket to school and work. Period. Heaven forbid if I wanted to drive my friends (for a change) to a movie or out to dinner or anyplace for an evening. The answer was always NO. I didn't get full driving privileges until I was out and married!

    Gina--A road test and parallel parking were the requirements back in my day. Now, in OH, they are a road test and something called "maneuverability." I have no idea what that is, but everyone says it is worse than parallel parking. I can parallel park now, but I would rather not.

    Nancy--Oh, the dreaded I287. Parts of that are hideous. I also hate the hairpin turns, esp. on the PA turnpike, climbing up and racing down the mountains with the huge semis. And my driver's license isn't on a stone tablet, so I'm not nearly as experienced as you are! LOL. After a drive like that, I end up with such shoulder pain for days because of being so hunched up and strained. I should try your method and close my eyes.

    j@jj--See my note to Gina. I don't think all the extr baloney like parallel parking and maneuverability should be part of the test, really. Backing out of the parking spot and pulling back in is enough of that. Learning to parallel park and maneuver should be part of the driving class.
    As far as good advice from a driving instructor, mine kept intoning, "Look for dark and light spots in the road." She just kept saying it over and over and never said why. She also kept pointing out culvert markers. She was a goofy old bird.

    Bug--Ugh. He sounds like a perv. I hate the way some adults take advantage of teenagers in a power situation. Maybe he'll go to hell. LOL.

    Oh, I remember Pacers! I always thought they were so cute and bubbly looking. I feel like there is no way you could fail a driver's test in a Pacer with all those windows. What a great idea.

    Ally Bean--Thank you. You know, I tried that very angle with my parents, who were forever running to a local convenience store for one thing or another. "I can go to Convenient whenever you need anything!" I said brightly and helpfully. "That's right, you can," they said, while continuing to completely ignore and stonewall me. So I've simply added it to my Gigantic Journal Of Wrongs and moved on...mostly.

  8. Not to rub anyone's face in it, but I could be on the Olympic parallel parking team. I can park a car in a space with mere inches to spare in front and behind, and still be right next to the curb. It's always been that easy for me and I aced it on the driver's test, as the space they gave you was big enough to park a Mack truck.

    Not that I want to be on Top Gear, but I know how to drive like a race car driver. That came from owning a 1984 Nissan 300ZX that looked like an F-16 fighter plane cockpit when you sat in the driver's seat. I LOVED that car and it could take curves at speeds you don't even want to know about, and which I did on a regular basis. That could have something to do with the number of speeding tickets I got at that time in my life. Motherhood changed all that...

  9. I didn't get my license until I was well past 20, thanks to growing up in Germany where the driving age was 18. I left for Uni in the USA when I was 17 and spent the first year on a campus in Boston where no freshmen had cars anyway. It took a transfer to a more suburban campus in VA and another year of school to realize a license was something I needed, but I finally did it. Fast forwarding, it took me almost a year to get up the nerve to drive in Seoul, and my parking has never been better (no space, tons of cars.) Best thing is that I've become so used to backing into a parking space (everyone does here for a quicker getaway)that I can zip backwards into any parking spot on the first try. I guess we all have to have something to be proud of. I still hate to drive, though. Love public transportation.

  10. MsCaroline--Oh, gosh. I hate backing in and out. For me, it's still and always a nightmare, even out of my own long driveway. When we first moved in, Rick used to walk beside the car and hold the wheel, steering me down to the road. Sigh. I think so much of it is confidence. And habit. I still contend that men love love love to use Reverse. It's like a Guy Thing--they have to do it.

    LaFF--Well, you are just a Born Driver. Bless your heart. My son Sam is the speed demon in the family. He drives a cute little Mazda, and he's forever calling me and telling me, "Hey, Mom. My insurance just went down. Another speeding ticket fell off!" He used to work in downtown Cleveland, and he couldn't resist the straightaway of I480. I speed on the turnpike and I90, but not at the clip he does. (And I've never gotten a ticket.)

  11. I've been chuckling ever since I read this post the first time. Lovely, lovely story. We all have our own, and our own driving fetishes, and they make great stories.
    I cannot, absolutely cannot, understand why my step-grandsons refuse to learn to drive. Their ten year old sister has already picked out the the car she wants for her first one. And her grandpa, with a gleam in his eye, says maybe he will get one for her. I figure to take a long trip around that time because his daughter, mother of the future driver, may hunt him down with a taser.
    I was at the drivers' licence bureau at 9:00 am on my 16th birthday.
    Wonderful post and equally wonderful commentary.

  12. My licence is on stone tablets too. And don't get me started on parallel parking. I am a reluctant expert, due to my father's insistence. But I hated him at the time.

  13. I did the high school drivers' ed for my temporary licence, but it was my dad who taught me to drive. Just to give you an idea of how much fun this was, he started off by drawing a diagram of the engine of the car so I would know how things worked. When it came to parallel parking, he took me down to my high school which had posts that could be moved around to practice this. After about half an hour of going around the little cul-de-sac and getting better and better at this, he started moving the posts closer and closer so that there were only inches on each side of the car. I did not see him do this when I was making my u-turns in the cul-de-sac, and kept thinking I was getting worse and worse. Which of course, I was. Part of his drivers' ed course was also learning how not to be a useless female who could not change a tire. So I got to learn that as well. And not just one, of course. To really have it down pat, we rotated all four tires.

    When it came time for me to buy my first new car, the oil crisis of 1973 meant that learning how to drive a standard transmission was going to be a big deal in terms of buying a cheaper car and saving on mileage. I hated learning at first, but have not regretted it since, and still drive a standard.

    Took me 3 tries to pass my driving test. One failure was totally undeserved: the cop said that I had not looked in the rear-view mirror before changing lanes. Which I had. But you don't argue with the DPS cops. The other failure (the first time, actually) was totally deserved: I made a hard left instead of a wide left, turning into three lanes of cars coming at us head on. Since I had gone to another place the second time around, I decided to go back to the first place for my final attempt, knowing that if I did not pass I would not be able to drive back to college with the used car I had just purchased. Guess who was there to give me the test? The same cop who watched me drive into the oncoming traffic. I was hoping he wouldn't remember. He did. And I finally passed it that time. Possibly because he felt sorry for me, or possibly because I didn't do anything nearly as stupid that time.

  14. Ortizzle--Your father...what a Treasure. My dad used to infuriate me by bothering me with ways to make things easier; yours, with ways to make things harder! Your parallel parking practice could be an episode of Candid Camera. Bless his heart.

    By the time I got to you rotating all four tires, I felt so sorry for you, but I was (forgive me) laughing and laughing.

    I wonder how much the testers allow for general nervousness when newbies get behind the wheel? Certainly something life-threatening has to be a fail, but I would hope they are a bit generous and kind-hearted.

    Finally, I am routinely amazed at how much we are alike. You couldn't return to college if you didn't pass! Ditto.

    Mary G--Thank you so much. I know lots of teens who have no interest in driving as well. It's a hipster thing, maybe. Or maybe it's just a laziness in general. I really don't pretend to know. Lots of moms and dads are too eager to chauffeur, maybe, in the interest of knowing where their teens are. Where I live, public transportation is exceedingly poor, to the point of being nonexistent. I'd think they'd want to get a license.

    I'm not an expert at any facet of driving, so be grateful to your father. Because I'm such a latecomer, I am an exceedingly careful driver. That's about it.


Oh, thank you for joining the fray!

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