Weekend Assignment #124: How did you learn how to drive? How many tries did it take? What was the first car that you bought?
Extra credit: Got a picture of that first car?
See the car in the driveway of this slightly enhanced photo from 1971? That was my first car, a 1967 Dodge Coronet wagon. Not that I owned it back in 1971. I was only fourteen years old. But later when I was in high school, my mom bought a Pinto, and sold me the Dodge for $1.00. I insisted on giving her the dollar, too. The Artful Dodger, as I sometimes called it in later years, came into the family in 1968. I remember reading Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the back seat the day Mom brought it home to our house in Manlius, NY.
In New York State when I was in high school, the written test to get a learner's permit consisted of about ten ridiculously easy questions. It was the road test that was considered hard. My dad started me out driving around the P&C's parking lot in Manlius, late one Sunday afternoon. Then he had me drive home - straight into the glare of the not-quite-setting sun.
My dad's oft-repeated driving advice was this:
"Backing up is the most difficult and dangerous thing you can do in a car." (I suppose that's true if you assume the driver is a careful one, not drunk or reckless.)
"The secret to driving in snow is to do everything slowly." That included accelerating slowly, and decelerating slowly.
After that I took driver's ed, the high point of which was driving about a mile down an extremely snowy rural road as the late afternoon sky started to darken. The word in school was that the road test was easier to pass in the outlying town of Oran than in Syracuse, so Dad drove me to Oran. Problem was, the town's only traffic light was either burned out or barely lit. I came to a complete stop, stared at the entirely uncommunicative signal, and started forward. That was an automatic failure for running a red light. So much for Oran!
My dad sprang for lessons from a driving school after that. Then I went to Florida for the summer.
It was 1976, and my parents had just divorced. My mom bought a Maverick (or was it a Malibu?) and moved to Cape Canaveral. Public transportation there consisted of one bus, pretty much literally. It made a two hour circuit of Cape Canaveral, Cocoa Beach, Merritt Island, and Cocoa on the mainland. It was 50 cents to cross the causeway to Merritt Island, and another 50 cents to get the rest of the way to Cocoa. A couple of times I blew my meager funds on used comics in Cocoa, and then had to walk halfway back - or accept a ride in the 94 degree heat, with 94% humidity. My mom and I both wanted very much to get me licensed, so that I could drive her car instead.
But Florida's driving tests were the opposite of New York's. The Florida written exam was long and tough, and it took me two tries to pass it. Then the driving test itself was a breeze. I just had to drive around cones in a parking lot, park, and use my hand signals. Done! I had my license!
When I got back to Syracuse in the fall, the Dodge was well and truly mine. I parked it on Walnut Ave., which was a pain because Walnut had odd-even parking. I had to move the car daily to avoid a ticket, and spaces were scarce. I loved that car, though. It gave me freedom to go places around town, such as St. Patrick's Church in the west side, where Fr. Ed Van Auken was assigned at the time. There was a gas war on, and a self-serve gas station near that church that briefly sold "Regular" for 27.9 cents a gallon. I had terrible stress backaches, but they always went away behind the wheel of that car, the seat of which fit my back perfectly. The engine ran great, except for one little quirk. Sometimes I had to stick a screwdriver in the butterfly valve to hold the choke open while I started the car. My friend Howard would tease me about this, repeating back my claim that "It's a good car." But it was. It really was.
New York winters are tough on cars, though, and the Dodger had seen ten of them, full of snow and ice and salt and sand. Rust was getting to be a major problem, and not just cosmetically. The hinges to the hood eventually rusted so badly that one or both of them broke completely. One day in the summer of 1977, I was driving on Interstate 481 when the hood simply blew away, sailing over my head and landing (fortunately!) on the shoulder. I stopped the car, walked off a nearby exit ramp and called my dad. He wired the hood down, but that was only a temporary solution. The next time the choke wouldn't open, that was the end of my "good car." My dad had it junked. He then loaned me his Duster for the last two weeks of my summer job, after which I went off to the Clarion Writer's Workshop and met the love of my life.
I didn't personally own another car until 1987.