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Going Steady

Sunny days, drive-ins, and the way it goes

Old enough to drive. Old enough to own a car. Old enough to go steady.

The first Saturday after Jake Terwilliger turned sixteen he went to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get his license. He struggled a little with the written test, but he passed the driving part with no problems. It was a sunny spring day in the Ozarks. They drove his family's old '52 Ford during the test. Jake was used to it by now. 

Before that, he drove the Ford for months up and down the gravel roads in the rural county. He carried his learner's permit with him, and his mother rode beside him as the designated licensed driver. His father was often on call for his job at the rural electric cooperative. That was the reason he gave for telling his wife she should teach Jake while he stayed at home.

They had discussed this all back when their boy turned fifteen and started talking about wanting to drive. "You can make sure he can drive as good as you. That'll do for the DMV," chuckled Pops.

Pops had earned that nickname when he was young, and all his friends and family called him Popeye. He was a short man, but he was as strong as Popeye had ever been. Rather short and muscular. And he always had a squint in his eye as he looked over any situation he came across that he didn't understand. So he was Pops, for short, most of the time. 

Jake's mother didn't mind in the least, Helping her boy was all she had cared about since he was born. She worshiped Jake. Maybe a little too much. At least, some of the other mothers in town thought so. She always compared him to James Dean in looks and attitude. Especially as he matured into a teenager. When they were out on the back roads, it gave her a chance to be alone with her boy. To talk and just enjoy being with him away from the drudgery around the house. She could be more herself, not on guard about saying something wrong.

Jake was short, just like Pops, but he wasn't husky, as his father was now. He was well built and lithe. Jake and Pops often would wrestle out back in the grass. Jake never won, but he never gave up trying. Especially, when he knew his Mums was watching out the kitchen window. She would yell out through the screen with a cautioning voice. "Don't forget he's still young, Popeye. His bones are growing. Please be careful."

Of course, he also practiced driving all sorts of tractors and flatbed trucks and such on the small bits of land his dad would farm each year down in the hollow. Just some truck crops, like strawberries, tomatoes, maybe some hay. And a calf each year slaughtered for the meat. They didn't own enough land to be called farmers. Pops had farmed on the side while working for the co-op all his adult life.

Engines and motors were Jake's love, besides Mandy Bates. She was his first girlfriend. They started dating, sort of, when they began their sophomore year. But it sure couldn't be serious until they were sixteen and he got his license. Until that time they just always stood together in the school hallways between classes, him leaning back against the wall, her with her arms upon his shoulders looking up lovingly as he gazed down.

It was lucky for Mandy that her older sister was so popular in their small school. That made her immediately part of the elite around the high school. Not that there was a huge disparity among the students. But a few were more in than others. Mandy was a cheerleader as her sister had been. Mandy always thought he was cute. Both had been at this school all their lives.

It was lucky for Jake that Mandy had her birthday a couple of months before he did. She could start dating, just like her sister before her, because she was of age. So her parent's had agreed. Jake gave her a locket using a little of the car money he had saved. She loved it of course. She wore it every day making sure her girlfriends all saw it. But Jake was still underage at that time. 

Jake was not usually much of a talker. But with Mandy, he opened up and shared what he hoped would come for him in the future. All about what he would do with his life when he could get out on his own. He could talk to her like he did with Mums. About what he felt and what he figured he knew about the world. The two teens looked into each other's eyes and then separated whenever an adult walked nearby.

Part of this semi-dating was sitting together at the home basketball games. At a home game, Mandy would always take time to sit with Jake's mother. That's how it was done around there. The girls tried to be friends with their boyfriends' mothers. But, being a cheerleader meant she could only sit in the bleachers during parts of the games. Most of the time she was on the court with her cheerleader friends. Two school buses would always travel to the away games, as well, and young people would sit with special friends in the busses and the gymnasiums of the away school.

True dating didn't go on until the boys could get their cars. They might double date with another couple who had a vehicle, but it wasn't the same thing at all. With a vehicle, they drove into the nearest town to the drive-in movie, or cruised the Dairy Delite, or simply drove up and down the main drags. Just looking to see who was out and around on a Friday or Saturday evening. 

And there was parking to think about. You couldn't park when on a date without a car. There were several good parking places around the county. The boys learned from the older guys where those spots were. Just quiet, seldom used dirt roads, back and beyond away from farmhouses or the lights of the small towns around there. Sometimes reputed to be haunted. But you couldn't park if you didn't have a car.

He had his license now, and the next thing was buying the convertible he'd had his eye for months now. Like most of the youths around the county, Jake earned some money cutting grapes, picking strawberries, catching chickens in the huge poultry barns, and bailing and bucking hay. All the extra money he earned helping with such harvests across the landscape he put aside in his car fund. Savings for his wheels and Mandy.

The 1954 Mercury needed some work, but that was not a problem. In fact, that helped when he made his bargain with the owner for about fifty bucks off the asking price. Jake's dad had taught him to always jew down on the price. Jake spent tons of time helping other guys work on their cars learning all about every model he could as time passed. The Merc' he wanted just needed a few parts to get it running like a goose across a pond.

They could be used parts. There was a junkyard a few miles away. He and a pal found what he wanted soon after putting down the earnest money. They had to fix it up at the owner's pole barn before driving it off to show Mandy after first showing it to Mums. Mandy loved it, just as much as Mums had loved it. After she had told her boy to take care, He was basically grown up now.

Jake picked Mandy up from her place the first school day that followed. They could do that now that he had his own wheels. He combed the Vitalis through his ducktail 'do as he waited for her, revving the motor a little until she came skipping out of the old farmhouse her family lived in. She quickly climbed into the front seat and sat on the right passenger side. "You can scoot over, Mandy. I'm not gonna bite." He grinned.

They'd never been in a car alone before. They had to start out right. She smiled and moved over to sit in the middle of the bench seat. "Just remember, I'm not going to sit on your lap," she giggled. Her short skirt rode up on her thighs as she leaned toward him. She made sure her legs didn't impede his shifting the manual transmission as she held her knees together. He had used a small polished piston for his gearshift knob. As he drove into town, he shifted and then casually moved his right palm to sit gently on her leg and give the thigh a soft pat.

When they arrived at school he was so proud of the job he did fixing up his car that he popped a few wheelies in the graveled parking area across from the brick two-story high school building, Some students were standing around waiting for first period. The reaction of his buddies gratified him. And he was happy to see that Mandy was pleased, too, sitting next to him with her left arm upon his shoulder and her right hand crossed overlying upon his thigh.

That weekend they got to go into town to the movie in his convertible, with the top down. The day was warm and fresh after rain during the morning. Mandy wore a large scarf over her sprayed hairdo to keep it from blowing out. When they found a spot in the drive-in movie lot, she took it off while Jake combed his hair back into place. Then he put the top up for a little more privacy in the car for later. 

Jake went up to the concession stand for some drinks and snacks. The sun was only just below the horizon off to the left of the theater. It would be dark in about thirty minutes. Down just below the painted movie screen, in the small playground, several youngsters were still playing with screeching and running going on. Parents were happy for the peace and quiet as they sat in their cars listening to music playing over the speakers hooked in their rolled down side windows. 

He said hello to a few buddies and watched a couple of guys threatening to fight. He didn't expect anything would come of that. It seldom did. They were just showing off to the small crowd gathered for treats and meet and greet. He was soon off to join Mandy. When he got back to the 'Merc, he found her chatting with a friend standing outside the open passenger side window. That girl giggled and tripped off to join her own boyfriend as Jake approached.

Jake handed Mandy her soda and snack through her open window. He walked around the rear of the 'Merc to the driver's side door and got in, smiling at his girlfriend. He was sitting comfortably with her now scooted over to the middle of the seat. He reached into his shirt pocket and took out a small box.

"This is for you. It's time we started going steady. Don't you think, Mandy? It's our time now." He smiled hesitantly. They had not really talked about this. But he was pretty sure. She had to want to go steady. Mandy took the box and opened it.

"Yeah," she squealed, and slipped the ring onto her finger, "of course. Of course, Jake. We've always been steadys. That's how it is, hon." She turned the ring around in the dim light from the screen that was leaking into the car. But she could see enough. She put her arms around him, held both hands together to feel the ring and she leaned forward slightly, waiting for him to kiss her.

It was official. Jake was old enough to drive. He was old enough to have a car. He was old enough to go steady. He had it all now. He returned the kiss trying not to mess it up. Trying to kiss her right. The movie kept flickering and jumping as the cicadas sounded loudly outside and the teens tried to be young adults. 



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