Most all of us remember the first time we got behind the steering wheel of an automobile. For some it was the scariest time of our lives, for others the most exciting. We lived through it though and now we never think of those first days. I thought about those days just recently when chatting with my oldest daughter. She will be 40 next year and she contemplated her mortality a few times, as her older daughter became a teen. I celebrated 50 years of creating terror on the highways of America this year.
When I grew up, we never had a car until I was 14. My father learned to drive after we got our first car. My mom learned to drive at the same time I did. We had the same instructor and took the oral test and driving skill test the same day with the same tester. It was an interesting time for my family. I was 16 close to being 17 when I took the test. The driving part of the test was easy for me, the oral not so easy, but I passed both.
I lived in central Massachusetts when I grew up. To qualify for a driver’s license you had to have 30 hours of practice driving with a certified instructor and pass a written test. I had a class in high school that taught the laws of the road and administered the written examination. I passed that course easily with and A. I went to a certified driving school, where I got my 30 hours of driving behind the wheel. The practice driving occurred in the same area used for the driving tests. My mom and I got plenty of practice driving those streets. The highlight of the drive and the test was a 3-point u-turn on a hill. If that happened successfully, the license was as good as a gift. A side benefit of all the schooling in a classroom was a certificate that lowered the insurance rates for teenage drivers.
I grew up in a small neighborhood that had many private streets. A private street was one, which the city did not maintain or plow in the winter. There was a private street beside my house, where our car parked every night. It was also my practice course for driving. The city police did not patrol private streets, nor were they off limits to unlicensed drivers. This private street was about a mile long and had a big hill. Where our car parked was a long flat area, which had a deep gully on the right and a row of garages on the left. In the winter, a few cars coming down the hill failed to slow down and either hit the garage or ended up in the gully.
The first car I drove was a 1950 Ford four door sedan. It had a 3-speed standard shift on the steering column with no power steering or power brakes and a pull handle emergency brake. It was not, the easiest car to drive on hills, but it was great to learn using it. The other thing, the car did not have, was an electric turn signal. I spent many hours driving up and down that private street making 3-point u-turns on a hill. I mastered that skill in a very short time. Every day when the car was home, I spent at least an hour driving that street. I watched my mom practice occasionally, as she worked days and did not have much time for practice.
One day as I practiced, I came down the hill too fast and left the road heading toward the garage. I missed the garage but not the two-foot high wall next to it. I flew off that wall down onto the side of the street. The car was airborne for a few feet before it landed hard on all four tires. All that happened was my jaw cracked and the shock absorbers groaned with the bounce. That car withstood that shock easily, but I did not fare as well though. I cracked a tooth and hit my head on the steering wheel giving me a slight concussion. I stopped the car and sat in it for a while recovering my senses. I looked around making sure no one saw me. It was the last time I came down that hill too fast. I saw other cars do the same stunt and when they hit the ground, they stopped dead, because the shock absorbers broke and the springs broke or bent rendering the car not drivable.
Practicing in the winter was even more fun for me. Most cars had snow tires and chains to make it up and down the hill. My dad bought snow tires but reasoned that chains only worked on ice. The hill was blacktop and faced southeast. When it snowed, hard packed snow covered the street from the cars driving there. The hill slowly melted for two days after most small storms. Occasionally when a big storm hit it took a week to melt. I practiced on the hill when snow covered it and mastered the u-turn. I was ready for my test. My mom and dad nixed the idea of a driving test in the winter. I felt betrayed but I had to practice more. I practiced as often as I could and mastered every skill needed to drive in snow.
One afternoon I came down the hill making sure to stay away from the garage, but was a little too far to the right and drove down into the gully. Fortunately, the car had enough momentum to move beyond the gully into the backyard of my house and through the yard of the house next door onto the street down from mine. The only thing, I had to do, was drive back up the street, turn a corner after stopping on a hill, going up around another corner to my street. It sounded easy and I had done the type of driving before. I got to the top of the slight hill, stopped and started to turn onto the public street, as a police car drove up the public street. I started to pull out, but stopped to let the police car by. He stopped and signaled me to move on. I slowly pulled out on the public street and drove to my street about a half of a mile. He followed me closely and watched as I turned into my street. I got to my house, stopped and sat there shaking in my shorts. I thought for sure I would get a ticket for my driving skills or lack thereof, but no. I made it.
That spring, my dad had an accident with the car and had to purchase a new one. It was 1962 and I thought that maybe he would buy a brand-new car. He did not but a new car for us was sitting at my house when I came home from school. He bought a 1958 Ford Country Sedan station wagon. It was a two-door car with a standard shift again and no power steering or power brakes. What it did have was a huge V-8 engine. It was a former police car used for high-speed chases and was in beautiful condition. I was in my glory now. What teenage boy in the 1960’s did not want a car that had the power to go over 100 mph? I practiced a lot more in that car than our old one. It was a dream to drive. My dad let me drive with him in the car on public streets and onto the highway to Providence, Rhode Island. I drove that car over 80 mph several times. It wanted to go fast and I made it happen.
I got my driver’s license and now I could drive alone on the public streets. The story does not end here. In my first year of driving, I had many adventures. I will relate one that tested my skills. The first summer I drove, my brother got a job and spent the whole summer away from home. My parents wanted to take a long camping trip to Washington, D.C. I went with them and having three drivers allowed us to get there in one day. The interstate system was in its infancy then and parts of I-95 did not exist. Things went well for the first few days. My dad drove the whole time there and I sat learning about our history and seeing the area.
Our fourth day there my mom got very sick. She could not breathe well and needed hospital care. My parents had health insurance but it was only valid in Massachusetts. We nursed her through the night. When she did not appear any better the next morning, we struck the tent and packed up to go home. We laid my mom on the back seat to rest during the drive. My dad looked at her and handed me the keys. He told me to get us home as fast as I could. Being just 17 and a new driver, which was like telling me it was ok to drive fast and break the speed limit. I got behind the wheel started the car and drove out of D.C, heading north. At the speed limit of 55, the trip took about 12 hours with two stops for food and gas. I took it as a challenge to beat that time. We started at 6:00 am. We stopped for lunch and by 4:00 pm, we were pulling into our home in Massachusetts. I did the drive in 9 hours. My dad was happy and took my mom to the hospital where she spent the next three days.
For me it was something I will never forget. It broke the feat five years later when I drove from Pensacola, Florida to my home in 18 hours with two stops for food and gas in a 1965 Triumph Spitfire sports car. I loved that car. It was my first car that I ever bought.
I had a lot of fun in those first years of driving. I ruined the 1958 wagon one day by driving over a construction trench in a private road too fast. I ruined the front-end alignment so badly that it was beyond repair. We got a 1962 Ford station wagon, which I drove a little bit until I got my first car.
The time that was my scariest occurred when I traveled to Australia. I drove I England so the change of driving was not new to me. Most cars I drove were automatic shift, so it was easier to transition. My first trip to Melbourne was a treat. My rental car was a standard shift and it became a challenge some mornings commuting to work. About four days into the trip Mother Nature tossed in a new twist called rain. I ended up having many horns blared at me for erring as an American would. I will never forget the experience.
As my daughter and I sat talking about these adventures, she shook her head in disbelief. Her only comment was that she hoped her daughter could learn to drive from me as she did. I laughed and told her it would be a fun adventure.