Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sundays with Steve - Learning to Drive

These Sunday's segments are written by my husband, Mr. Jenny. Here's what he has to say about his posts:

I’ve been writing these weekly stories about life in Northern Idaho, as a youngster and as growing into a young man, primarily for our family. And I'm delighted to share them with you. Just between us, I’m anticipating being cranky when some whipper-snapper who may not even be born yet harasses me in 30 years or so with 'Grandpa, tell me about when you were a boy.' That will probably be after the mad cow disease has set in and erased whatever memory is left. So these are the not-so-dramatic adventures of a Baby Boomer in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Learning to Drive

Col. Lynch was harsh in the early morning light, standing no more than five foot six inches or so. I towered over him. It was 5:30 a.m., the normal time he drove down Third Street in the yellow 1955 Chevy, to stop in front of my house and impatiently honk the horn. He expected that I should be at the curb breathlessly awaiting his arrival. I never was. He was perpetually disappointed in all of his students he said, and certainly was perpetually impatient.

He was a retired Air Force colonel, having put his years in late World War II and then the Korean war before returning home to teach snot-nosed kids how to drive. He also taught P.E. at the high school. Teaching teenagers, now that I think about it, probably wasn’t so different for him than teaching new recruits in the military.

That yellow Chevy, now 50 years later a collector car, was not at the time. Four doors, a three- speed manual transmission, canary yellow with signs plastered on the side that said “Lewiston School District” and a two-sided warning sign on the roof, “Drivers’ training vehicle, CAUTION”. The caution sign, while a bit embarrassing, was probably apropos.

The Chevy had a second brake peddle installed on the passengers’ side, and was used often by the Colonel. When using that peddle, I noticed the sweat often appeared on the Colonel’s bald head, and after a few emergency applications, he sweated profusely.

I had just turned 14 that summer, the legal age for a drivers’ license in the State of Idaho if you had completed drivers’ training. That course consisted of two days of classroom time at the junior high school each week, then three days of driving each week as well, with a minimum of an hour per day for each student behind the wheel. The entire course took about a month.

This was two summers before farmer Bob Curtis told me to get into that big 18 wheel diesel and said, “just drive it, you’ll be fine”, it was just four summers before I found myself driving a 60-ton Army tank tearing through the countryside, and it was not that many years before I found myself flying Cesena’s through the Idaho sky. We all have to start somewhere, and for me, it was there, just a few days past my fourteenth birthday, with the impatient Col. Lynch guiding the way.

Col. Lynch (it was never “Mister”, it was always “Colonel”) lived in the neighborhood where three or four of us students also resided. He liked to start the day early -- it’s a good discipline for life he would say, but I thought it was entirely too early for discipline, driving, or anything else. He would pick me up, then one or two others just down the street, to head out for the morning’s required driving time.

I don’t recall the boys having much trouble picking up the manual shifting, braking, nor figuring out the rules of the road. But some of the girls, oh man, they just could not get the concept of gears being shifted, nor of the necessity of stop signs along the roadways. And the parallel parking maneuvers that we all had to master? My, some had real trouble with that. The Colonel used that passenger’s side brake quite a bit that month, and broke into a sweat virtually every time. I am sure the transmission of the bright yellow Chevy had to be rebuilt at the end of the summer.

A week after the driving portion of the class started, my father beckoned to me to come outside of the house one afternoon. He most always came home for lunch each day, followed by a 15 or 20 minute nap. He then drove back to his office, a short six or seven minutes away, and then spent the afternoon driving to customers’ businesses to sell his wares, in that case advertising time on the local radio station. He would end up back at the radio station in late afternoon to enter his days’ orders and complete the paperwork. On Wednesdays during the spring and summer he would leave early to participate in the businessmen’s golf league, but that is another story. This was his routine.

That day he took me outside after lunch and pointed at his Chevy, his business car, a 1961 Belair that was equipped with a stick shift and virtually no options other than a radio. It was the about the lowest- cost vehicle he could find in those years that would work for his high daily usage with many stops. “Here we go son,” he said. Huh? Where are we going, I asked? “You drive,” he said, “Show me how you are doing.” Really? I was nervous, very, very nervous. I was the middle son, and spent my youth, I think, mostly trying to please my father. To drive him, in his car, was a serious challenge.

We climbed in that car, a beige two-door with ugly red upholstery. He handed the keys to me. I inserted the key into the ignition, and hoped I wouldn’t flood the motor and look like the idiot I felt like. The car started smoothly. It was warm out that June day, and the back of my shirt was already soaked through with sweat after just thirty seconds in the car.

I gunned the engine and slowly let the clutch out. The car jumped, stopped, then died. So did I. Oops, I said, starting the car again. Take a breath, said Dad, try again. I did, the car jumped again, but this time it kept running and moved out in first gear. Geez, I was sweating harder than the Colonel. I shifted into second gear, and slowly let out the clutch. It took hold, jumped just a touch, and moved the car a bit faster up the street. Third Street was a quiet paved residential street, rarely were two cars on it at any one time, and that was probably a good thing that day. At twenty miles an hour, I shifted into the final forward gear, and let out the clutch without a problem. Hey, I said to myself, this isn’t so bad, it’s just like driving the Drivers’ Ed car with the Colonel. But the next test was coming, the stop sign at Third Street and Sixteenth Avenue. I think my father was laughing under his breath. He didn’t seem to be sweating, although maybe he should have been.

I brought the Chevy to a smooth stop, then shifted into first gear and gulped, hoping I wasn’t going to demonstrate incompetence once again. I looked left and right, there wasn’t another car in sight. This time I let the clutch out smoothly, with just a little bit of overpower on the engine. The car moved smoothly, with no jerking. Hey, I said to myself, maybe this isn’t so bad at all. I hadn’t had a problem shifting with the Colonel since the first day of Drivers’ Ed, and I was thinking this was just getting use to a different car and clutch.

We drove out to the radio station, where my father picked up his afternoon paperwork, and I took a well- deserved Pepsi Cola from the cooler. “Let’s go,” he said. Back to the house and a boring afternoon, I thought. “You drive.” Alright, I thought, I must not have done too badly. “Yes, sir,” I replied, in my finest Colonel reply.

“Let’s go to George’s furniture company first, then the appliance dealer over on Twenty-First Street, the Chevy dealership downtown, and the Oldsmobile garage next to it, then we have to pick-up some paperwork at three or four other stops, we have a lot of do this afternoon!”

My father and I spent the summer driving, it was grand, at least for me. In July, after four weeks behind the wheel with the Colonel, I got my first license from the State. My mother and brothers were gone for two weeks that month, and I spent every day chauffeuring my father to his job and his appointed rounds through the town.

It was inevitable, of course, that towards the end of summer and as school was starting up again, I whined that line most every teenager as uttered at one time, “Dad, I need a car....”

(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
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Anonymous said...

A fun read Steve. Sounds like you did very well with your driving lessons. I love driving a manual shift car. Bet you have put in many, many hours of driving since that first day in the yellow car. Hugs

Jeanie said...

My driver's ed class was very much like yours with the instructor with his extra brake and the student driver in front and 2 other students trying not to laugh in the back. If I remember correctly there was nary a seat-belt in the whole car.

Pondside said...

I learned to drive from my dad, who wished he'd had a second brake pedal!
When our children were old enough for a license I insisted on a driving school.

Judie said...

I took Driver's Ed in high school, but my dad really taught me how to drive. I almost knocked him out a few times, trying to stop too quickly. I drove all the way across town to the DMV to take the driver's test, and my tester was a grumpy old man who failed me. My dad was sure mad! Later, a friend took me to take the test again and I passed with flying colors!!

H said...

My car has a gear stick (as do the majority of UK cars). I'd hate to drive an automatic. I like to feel that I'm in control of the car, not vice versa! Funnily enough, I don't remember having that much trouble changing gear, even when I drove my boyfriend's old Austin and had to double de-clutch to get into first.

I can't imagine being able to drive at 14 though. Is it 16 over there now? The minimum age to apply for a provisinal licence over here is 17.

Arkansas Patti said...

I didn't have drivers ed but your initial trip with your Dad sure sounded familiar and I rode right along with you. Fun post.

Sweet Lily said...

That's motivating!!