Reading about Andrew’s recent acquisition of a learner’s permit reminded me of my own driver training. It’s been twenty years (OMG!), but some parts of it stand out clearly in my mind.
I turned 16 in the summer of 1983, but didn’t take driver’s ed until after I’d graduated from high school. I’m not sure why I never signed up. I was still partying at that point, so it’s a good thing I didn’t.
The summer after I graduated, though, I attended AAA Driving School. Heading out State Route 37 with my instructor at my side, I exclaimed, “Wow, I know you have brakes over on your side, but I didn’t know you had an accelerator, too!”
“No, that’s all you”, he replied.
Oh. Ahem. Tippy-tap the break pedal. Well, it was a big heavy car and we were going down a hill…heh. Once I got my permit, my good friend Doug took over my training. He had a little, brown 1981 Plymouth Horizon, so that’s what I did a lot of my driving in. He took me out to the local college’s parking lot and let me jerk and sputter in a relatively contained environment. The car did its share of jerking and sputtering, too.
After one of those early stick lessons, my mom inquired how it went. Doug grinned broadly, sort of clapped his hands together and steepled his fingertips in a familiar Doug-gesture, and said, “Well, Cathy, I learned a few new word combinations!”
The big challenge, as it remains for many stick-shift newbies in our area, was to make it up Jones Road to where it dead ends at Sharon Valley Road in Granville. Jones ascends at an insanely steep incline and ends at a stop sign. Many a student has alternately stalled and burned rubber at that intersection, and I was one of them.
When I was finally ready to take my test, I had to take it in my mom’s powder blue Volkswagen Fastback. It had a really touchy accelerator and handled a lot differently than Doug’s Horizon, plus it was bigger than the Horizon and had worse visibility. I didn’t really have much time to practice in mom’s car, so things were pretty rocky.
I did fine on the written portion of the exam, but the parallel parking test wasn’t quite so smooth. When I had trouble getting the car to go, I manged to gun the engine too hard when backing up, wiping out two cones.
Nervous tears streaming down my face, I asked if that meant I failed, and the officer said it probably would…But I had to complete the test. I was so nervous, I missed a stop sign at the end of the parking lot, plus made a couple other, probably minor, mistakes.
On their own, those marks wouldn’t have failed me, but with the cone carnage…I had a horrible score and was quite crestfallen.
I practiced more and eventually got up the nerve to take the test again. That time, I’m happy to recall, I got 100% on both the written and driving tests.
Once I had my license, Doug let me borrow his car quite often. He’d come by and pick me up at my house before he had to be at work, I’d drop him off at his job, and then pick him up at the end of his work day. It was so cool being able to drive around by myself and run errands. What a gift Doug gave me that summer!
By the time I started attending the local college in 1987, my boyfriend Jeff got another car and gave me his old 1972 1971 Ford LTD. That car was HUGE compared to Doug’s Plymouth. The first few times I drove Fordy-TD, I felt like the hood went clear into the next county!
Because the L was missing from the logo on the trunk, I nicknamed her “Fordy-TD” (pronounced Fordy Teedy). She was resplendent with chalky, oxydized pea-green paint and sported a deep V-shaped dent in the back bumper and trunk from where Jeff had backed it into a telephone pole. But that was okay, for she had massive bench seats that held many people. She made the trek from Granville to Mt. Vernon many Friday nights for a Bible study I attended with friends.
Fordy-TD was a cantankerous old thing when weather turned damp and rainy. Many a time I had to pop the hood and prop open the carburetor’s butterfly valve before the engine would fire and run. I kept a plastic butterfly clip in the glove box for just this purpose. Yes, those chunky hair fashion accessories actually had a noble purpose!
Fordy-TD also had two engine mounts on one side that had rusted through. If you revved the engine with the hood up, you could actually see it leap a little in the compartment. That was fun, like the engine was trying to fly to freedom.
Still, Fordy was mine…Well, sort of.
Jeff took care of the insurance premiums for me and I knew nothing about car ownership. I just bought gas for it and drove it. On my way to a friend’s one evening, I was pulled over by a policeman in Granville. He’d been following me for a few blocks, and I couldn’t figure out what I’d done wrong — hadn’t been speeding, didn’t have my stereo blasting, had stopped completely at stop signs, had used my turn signals. What on earth could it be?
When I asked him what I’d done wrong, I was truly mystified. He said, “Well your tags are only six months expired…”
I lost it, out came the tears. I said, “Tags?!” and then blathered out the whole story of how it was my boyfriend’s car and he gave it to me, how I didn’t know about tags. I honestly didn’t — Looking back, I can’t imagine how, but I truly was clueless about tags. The officer took pity on my sorry visage and said, “I should impound this car, but I will let you drive it — IF you go straight home and don’t drive it anywhere before you get tags!”.
Lesson learned. And how!
I drove Fordy-TD for a year or two, I think. She was a tank, an admirable quality in a first car for a young driver. One morning while I was driving to classes, I veered a little left of center in the fog and sideswiped a n oncoming car. Thank God just our mirrors suffered damage.
Update: As Jeff reminded me in the comments, Fordy-TD was a 1971 model. He also reminded me that her frame was rusted through.
I remember my nice old mechanic, Don, telling me he wouldn’t feel safe driving it any more. I knew it was “time” then. So, I sold her for scrap value, maybe $50 back in the late 1980’s. Her rusted broke when the tow truck’s winch raised her front wheels off the ground. I heard a loud “clunk” and saw her wobble, then straighten as she was pulled away to her doom.