Try It Again
© Copyright 2019 by Carol Arvo
Teenagers have always looked forward to getting a driver’s license. It is a rite of passage, a dose of freedom, and a first step into adulthood. This story is about my learning to drive experience in the Chicago winter of 1961.
When you were born does make a difference. It makes a difference in the games you played: cops and robbers, marbles and trading cards, Barbie dolls and kick-the-can, or Power Rangers and Barney. It makes a difference in the teenage clothes you wore: a pinstripe suite and wide brim hat, a poodle skirt and saddle shoes, or jeans and Nike athletic shoes. And, it makes a difference in the way you learned to drive a car.
Most people, around 1930, learned as my father did, by the “trial and error” method. One person in a circle of friends, or maybe an older brother, had a Model T Ford. The crank and keys were generally available and, since licenses and traffic were as yet unheard of, it was a simple task to get behind the wheel, shove the clutch forward, step on the gas, jerk or stall a few times, and go almost full out, maybe as fast as thirty-five miles per hour. Many young boys started their driving careers this way. My father was fortunate to secure a job as a helper on a newspaper delivery truck, so his basic driving skills were honed, refined, and improved by his boss, a professional truck driver.
By the time my generation came into its teenage years, somewhere in the late fifties/early sixties, most things related to driving had changed dramatically. Interstate expressways were being built all over the country, connecting state to state to state like a spider building its web, traffic was on the increase, and drivers’ licenses were required; minimum age of sixteen.
Many high schools offered driver education classes. Most of them, like mine, offered a twenty-minute class once a week to read the Rules of the Road book, published by the State of Illinois. The class familiarized us with the questions that would be asked on the written test administered by the State and helped us know and understand the correct answers. A passing grade on the written test was the first of three requirements needed to receive the freedom that all teenagers longed for, known as a driver’s license.
The second requirement was a passing grade on the vision test. Thinking about taking the vision test caused quite a bit of anxiety for those who wore glasses, or those who should have been wearing glasses, but most students passed this requirement with no trouble.
After passing the written and the vision tests, the only requirement remaining was the actual driving test. The only way to prepare for this behind-the-wheel assessment of driving skills was to gain experience by actually driving a car. Driver education in school consisted of learning the Rules of the Road, but provided no practical experience behind the wheel. Students received a driving permit during the class in school, but the task of teaching the hands-on driving became the responsibility of a family member - it usually being assigned to a reluctant father.
Fortunately, since my father was now a professional truck driver himself, and wanted me to learn to drive “the right way,” he wasn’t as reluctant as most other fathers, announcing to me one Friday night, “Tomorrow morning I’ll teach you to drive.”
It was September in Chicago, and since I had my driving permit, I was expecting lessons with my Dad. Because I would be eligible to get my license after my sixteenth birthday, which was in January, and I was taking the Rules of the Road class in school during the first semester, my father decided this would be the perfect time for driving lessons. His reasoning was that if I learned to drive in winter in the midst of Chicago’s snow and ice, I could handle any driving conditions in the future.
Feelings of excitement and anxiety churned inside of me all through the night until, finally, on Saturday morning I was actually behind the wheel of our 1953 Chevy BelAir. Confidence oozed from me like butter. After all, driving didn’t look that hard. I was ready to turn the key, step on the gas, and go! As I soon found out, however, it would be a while before I “turned the key.”
I sat behind the wheel with my father to my right in the instructional, co-pilot section of the front seat. He seemed very calm while, I must admit, I was more than a little nervous. He adjusted the mirror and seat for me, and I stole those fleeting seconds to engrave in my mind forever the look and feel of his strong profile. Once again, I was his little girl about to learn from the one man in my life who possessed more street smarts, more thoughtfulness, and more love than anyone else I had ever known.
Brilliant sunshine and a refreshing breeze filtered through the green, red, and yellow leaves of majestic Oaks and Maples permeating the entire car with the kind of solar warmth that Chicagoans look forward to in autumn. Everything seemed to be ready, so I asked my instructor, “Where’s the key?”
“Key? Oh no. We don’t need a key yet. You have a lot to learn before we turn the key on.” His answer confused me, but not for long. “Okay, now. That pedal by your left foot is the clutch. This stick in your right hand is the shift. When you push in the pedal all the way to the floor, you can move the stick from first to second to third and reverse. Now practice.”
Practice?!? Why do I need to practice this? I thought I was going to learn to drive. Of course, I didn’t voice this thought that was going through my mind. Instead, I pushed the left pedal and tried to move the stick. Nothing happened. I turned and looked at Dad with question marks shooting from my eyes. With a little grin, he said, “Push the pedal all the way to the floor and try again.” After realizing the enormous amount of strength needed for the clutch to reach the floor, my next try was more successful. For the rest of my lesson that day, my left foot pushed the clutch hard and my right hand moved the stick while Dad kept cadence, “First, second, third, reverse. First, second, third, reverse” over and over and over until, at last, he said, “That’s enough. We’ll do some more tomorrow.”
After church the next morning, Dad and I again went out to the car to continue my lessons. The sky was turning from blue to gray with just a hint of sunshine, but at least it wasn’t raining and the streets were dry. Dad drove to the parking lot of our neighborhood shopping center, the National Tea Food Store. In the early sixties, most stores were closed on Sundays, so we had the entire parking lot to ourselves. Dad and I switched places, and I was again behind the wheel. I practiced “first, second, third, reverse” a couple of times before Dad handed me the keys. As they passed from Dad’s confident, weathered hand to my inexperienced, nervous hand, they felt like the keys to the beginning of a new life.
Again, my blood became saturated with excitement making my heart feel like a ball that was ready to bounce out of my body. I quickly calmed down, however, when I listened to Dad and started to concentrate on his many instructions. “Push in the clutch before you turn the key.” So far so good, the car was running now. “Make sure it’s in first gear, let out the clutch a little, and step on the gas a little at the same time.” Dad’s face was serious, but not stern. He understood my excitement and wanted me to understand the seriousness of driving and the responsibilities that came with the privilege. He was a professional driver. He wanted me to be better than any driver on the street.
I followed Dad’s instructions about the clutch and the gas. To my surprise the car jerked, jumped forward a little, and died. At that moment I realized that driving wasn’t going to be as easy as I had thought. Dad once more told me the benefits of manual transmission and reminded me that, if I could drive a stick shift car, I could drive anything, unlike some of my friends who were leaning on automatic transmission cars.
The rest of my lesson was learning to work the clutch and gas pedal in perfect harmony. Over and over, I let out the clutch, stepped on the gas, and killed the engine. Each time, Dad smiled and knowingly said, “Try it again.” An hour later, I was driving from one end of the parking lot to the other, feeling pretty coordinated and comfortable with the clutch and gas pedal symphony. I was manipulating two instruments to perform as one. When my movements were smooth and certain, they allowed our aging Chevy to perform with youthful grace, and I beamed with self-confidence. When I lost my concentration, the dependent instruments at my feet clashed with each other, causing the inevitable jerk followed by the death of the engine, and I heard the now familiar, “Try it again.” I still wasn’t driving on the street, but that would be my next lesson, and my next lesson, and my next lesson.
Street driving was different from empty parking lot driving because of all the things to watch out for and be aware of, like the gas and temperature dials on the dashboard, children running out from between parked cars, side and rear view mirrors, red lights, stop signs, traffic, and parallel parking. In the early sixties, almost all parking in Chicago was parallel parking and it was necessary to master this skill as soon as possible because every destination involved parking. Parking was a big part of the driving test.
Almost every night, Dad and I drove around the neighborhood parking in every large parking spot we could find. Gradually my depth perception became more accurate and the parking spaces Dad directed me to became smaller. Some so small I thought they would accommodate only half of our Chevy. Finally, I was parking with relative ease and had only once scraped the right rear fender on a high curb. Now, I thought, I’m ready to get my license. Unbeknownst to me, however, Dad had more lessons in mind.
During the winter, snow on the streets of Chicago is as normal as snow in Alaska. By learning to drive in the winter, I also learned some tricks from my professional instructor. After he intentionally stuck the car in a snowbank, he taught me to rock the car to freedom using the clutch and momentum, and to always have screening and sand in the trunk as a backup in case momentum wasn’t enough. Maneuvering through snow ruts, I learned to start and stop safely without skidding on the snow. And now, my final lesson: ice.
Thanks to a January thaw, the temperature reached forty-two degrees. A storm that should have been a normal evening snowfall hit Chicago as an ice storm. Twenty degree temperatures immediately after the storm ensured that side streets would be solid ice for at least a few days. (Salt was not wasted on side streets in Chicago.) I begged not to drive until the ice melted, but Dad insisted that I learn ice driving if I intended to continue living in Chicago. I was hesitant and scared. I had learned to drive very well on dry streets, even snow-packed streets, but ice - that was different.
Dad wasn’t working Saturday, so we headed out for my “ice lesson” very early before too much traffic built up. We stayed on the side streets and alleys where the salt trucks hadn’t been. Dad noticed my tense face and tight grip on the wheel. He reassured me with praise of my driving skills so far, and with renewed enthusiasm, I paid attention to every word he said.
We slid from one side of the street to the other. Panic gripped me, turned my body to stone, and made me so tense I could barely move or think. Dad put his warm, reassuring hand over mine on the wheel and his voice brought feeling back to my body. “Easy now. Relax.”
The experience, confidence, and ability in Dad’s voice overwhelmed me. I became calm and relaxed while I maneuvered the car as Dad’s instructional instrument, in harmony with every word he said. I braked and kept going forward. I pumped the brakes and added another element to the concert. I slid, I recovered, I braked, I stopped, over and over, but always paid strict attention to my conductor until we were once again safely parked in front of our house. I was amazingly calm. The experience of driving on ice had become much less traumatic than thinking about it.
Dad’s next words, “We’ll go for your license next week” took five months for Dad to say, but they meant that he was satisfied that I knew the basics of driving as well as the extras he had taught me and that he thought I could handle the responsibilities that came with the privilege of having a license. It also meant that he acknowledged the fact that I was growing up and would soon be doing more things on my own than ever before.
We lingered in the car for a few moments, both of us knowing that our lives were about to change. I was excited and anxious for the change, but looking back, and after having had children of my own, I think Dad was saddened knowing that I was taking one step away from his protective care while at the same time I know he shared in my happiness. I knew then, from the soft look of his loving eyes, that he was proud of me. Before leaving the driver’s seat of the car, where I had become comfortable with Dad at my side, “Thanks, Dad” went beyond driving and summed up the entire first sixteen years of my life.
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