As a boy growing up in America during the mid sixties, I will have to admit that I looked forward to receiving my drivers license more that I did my first kiss. Not that the first kiss wasn’t highly anticipated, but the biggest right of passage that I lived with at that time was obtaining a driver’s license. And, as we were told in drivers ed class that driving in America was a privilege not a right.
So I guess in many ways I have been intrigued by driving and the associated freedom that it implies ever since I was a young teenager.
My first experience with driving was sitting beside my grandfather and shifting gears for him as he drove. He worked for the railroad and had a big truck with one of those four-on-the-floor shifters with a big round handle on top. I remember visiting him most every summer and sometimes going to work with him.
The next step in my drivers education was still siting beside him, but this time I learned to steer the truck as well as shift gears. I remember my shaky hands and always trying to over-steer the truck. His wise council to me was this: you don’t need to constantly move the steering wheel back and forth (ie: over steer) but let the truck guide itself and only use your hands to gently correct the trucks sideways motion. This is a lesson that impacts me every day and that I passed on to my four kids as well.
As history would have it, the next and almost final step with my grandfather was actually sitting behind the wheel and working the clutch while he shifted and I drove. This was really exciting until I hit a red light at the top of a steep hill. As you can guess, panic ensued and my only focus was keeping the clutch and brake pushed in so that I would not roll back and into the car that was right behind me. Without so much as a moment’s hesitation, my grandfather pulled up the handbrake and told me that when the light changed I was to carefully let out the clutch and give the truck some gas as he gently let the handbrake loose and we moved forward and off the hill.
His deft handling of the situation impressed upon me the fact that there was a solution to many of life’s situations and not to give up at the first sign of trouble. This was another life lesson that I was able to pass on to my kids as a part of their own drivers ed with me in the passenger seat. I would always take them to a hilly part of town and hope the light would go red just in time for us to put this lesson to use. Yes, all of my kids learned to drive in a manual shift car.
Learning to drive with my grandfather took place way before I drivers training and I received my license. It really was a kinder and gentler time.
Another part of my learning to drive history involved my mother’s mother who lived with us after her 2nd husband passed away. She had a lime green automatic Plymouth with push button shifters on the dashboard. She was not a very confident driver and one summer I went with her to visit my relatives in Terre Haute, 400 miles from home. She was the type of driver who went slow and would never cross over a lane to get gas or get something to eat. I was 14 1/2 or 15 at the time and remember talking her into letting me drive. As we lived in Port Huron, we took I-94 and had to drive through Detroit on the way to Indiana. I remember getting caught in rush hour traffic on the expressway and her telling me to be careful because I didn’t have a license and what would happen if we were involved in an accident. I promptly told her that I was confident that I wouldn’t run into anyone and she replied what if someone ran into me. That was an outcome I had not considered and you can bet I paid an extra amount of attention until we were out of the stop and go and on the open road again.
Fast forward to the summer of 1965 when I took drivers ed with several of my class mates. As I remember it was 2-3 hours a day for a couple of weeks and we learned to park and drive in traffic and all the rest. The emphasis was driving defensively and always being ready to react in time. The last day, a highway patrol officer showed us a film of accident results with one image of what it looked like after a head broke through a windshield. It was not a pretty site and an eerie calm subdued the darkened room we were in. After all the time I had been driving illegally and thought I knew how to drive, a light came on and I realized after seeing that horrific film, that all I knew about driving was the manual/mechanical part of driving a car. What I didn’t realize until that very moment was the responsibility being given to us 16 year olds. That driving was as much a mental exercise as it was a mechanical function. And that very thought probably saved my life and many others from that day forward.
As I age, I am grateful that I have driven for almost 53 years without an accident although I have been in many situations that could have been very bad had I not been able to react in time because of those same “defensive” driver tactics. That, and as Amy Grant once sang, the angels watching over me and my family.
But that is a story for another time and another ride. Enjoy yours today.