Always Slow Down at Stop Signs

Valerie Forde-Galvin

© Copyright 2021 by Valerie Forde-Galvin

Photo of Laurie.

This is my story about learning how to drive. I was taught by my father who managed to pass on to me his driving skills along with a healthy perspective on navigating through life.

My father taught us to drive. He was an excellent teacher, passing along a body of empirical knowledge dating back to the invention of the automobile. After all, he'd been a young man when cars first came on the scene, learned about them from the ground up. He understood the internal combustion engine -- pistons, spark plugs, carburetor, crankshaft, fly wheel, gears. When you learned to drive on a 1925 Ford Model T Roadster, you had things under control. You knew where the parts went and how they worked. Traffic was light and cars were slow. In case of a breakdown, there was plenty of time to pull over and fix things with whatever you had available : a wrench, belt or handkerchief. When it came to cars, Lawrie pretty much had everything covered. (Yes, we called him Lawrie. He was never Dad, Daddy, or Pa.)

When it came to driving however, Lawrie was a bit of a free-wheeler. He and his friends were pretty typical for any era, eager to explore the latest fad which, several decades before computer games, was cars. Like all kids, they learned fast and then went on to find ways of having fun with their new fascination. The stories he told of his youth were pretty tame by today's standards. Speed was not a feature of those early cars so they didn't go drag racing or play games of chicken. Instead, their idea of fun was being towed in back of a Model T while on skis or a bicycle. Considering the times – no helmets, no knee pads, no safety precautions – this activity was dangerous enough.

Now I don't want to give you the impression that our driving instructor was laissez-faire about driving. Not at all. Lawrie had three daughters and he wanted to prepare us to survive out there on the Massachusetts highways under all the horrible driving conditions that New England weather might throw at us. We learned how to downshift and use the lower gear to get better traction on icy roads. Mind you, this was before four-wheel drive. Hell, this was before front wheel drive. But Lawrie made up for that lack of control by keeping heavy buckets of sand in the trunk to weigh down the back end. In some cases this sand could come in handy when faced with an icy upgrade, assuming you had the opportunity to stop and sprinkle sand on the road ahead. There were times later on when, recalling my father's wisdom, I would use sand, kitty litter and, in one case, a throw rug to manage a steep slippery driveway.

We were constantly reminded that in Massachusetts you didn't have a prayer out there on the road if you weren't aggressive and alert. You couldn't trust the other guy. “No one plays by the rules so you must stay alert when driving. You have to pay attention,” Lawrie warned us. “Always slow down at stop signs because you can't assume that other drivers will stop.” Although this reasoning might seem questionable now, in the nineteen-fifties it made sense. Some drivers in our state regarded the stop sign as merely a suggestion to slow down while others disregarded it completely. If you didn't take the initiative, you'd be stuck at the intersection forever.

So Lawrie taught us to “read” other drivers. “Watch the front hood as they approach the intersection. If it dips, then you know they're applying the brakes so you take the advantage and go first.” Who else would notice something like that? The man was psychic. As I would later learn, the DMV does not follow his logic.

We didn't have blinkers to signal turning. With the driver's window cranked down (nothing automatic there either), you signaled with the left arm, extended straight out for a left turn or bent up at a right angle to indicate turning right. It was considered polite to wave another driver on if you sensed that they wanted to pass you. Arm extended with palm facing backwards showed that you were about to stop. The extended third finger, although not in the drivers' manual, was also in use. You didn't have to be psychic to figure out that gesture.

My father had no use for automatic transmission so we learned the hard way with the stick shift. Let me tell you, stopping at a traffic light partway up a hill was no picnic. Once the light turned green again, the trick was to avoid rolling backwards. Between clutch, brake, and gas pedal, you had to manage some pretty fancy footwork.

As a mechanic, I'm sure Lawrie would have no use for today's computerized cars. Where are the moving parts? Back in the day, with a little inspiration and improvisation, he could fix any engine component. When a car didn't start because the battery was low, he taught us to put the car in gear and coast downhill until the engine caught. Later in my poverty years, I stretched out the life of a few car batteries that way.

When a carburetor needed cleaning, he taught us the “Italian tune-up”: take the car out on the highway and run it at just above the speed limit for half an hour or until you smell the carbon burning off. It wasn't pretty and I apologize if Lawrie's reference to the Italian culture was ethnically offensive but the process worked. While his methods were unconventional, I have to admit they kept the engines of our old cars running even as their bodies were rusting out.

Not surprisingly, my father even had a solution for rust. Although auto body wasn't his specialty he could work wonders with liberal applications of Epoxy, Bondo, or even duct tape. Our cars were always colorful. Picture a transplanted hood and the occasional mongrel door coated in primer, precariously balanced fenders slightly out of alignment, and random body parts as well as the entire undercarriage festooned with splotches of Bondo. Somehow, in spite of their piebald appearance, our cars always passed inspection. With two brothers on the police force, I suspect my father knew the right people.

I had so much confidence in my father that I guess I felt just a little bit above the law. Certainly my father knew more than the DMV. Maybe I didn't feel the need to study the manual too closely. Maybe I felt that I had just naturally inherited his driving skills.

I flunked my first driving test. And, yes, I went through a stop sign. Perhaps I was intimidated by the armed state trooper conducting the test. My mother's presence in the back seat didn't help either. Unlike my father, she was a timid driver. She was also a frightened passenger who nevertheless had earlier felt the need to improve my driving skills. Whenever she rode shotgun during my student driver days, her teaching style had been to press her feet down hard on the floorboard and scream “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph” at the approach of any car. (We were Catholic and repeating this litany was our go-to response in any emergency.) No wonder I messed up that first time. I needed more of Lawrie's confidence.

After my disappointing experience with the DMV, I was ready to give up. I figured I'd use public transportation for the rest of my life, abandon all travel plans and maintain a pretty much sedentary existence. My father would have none of that. I was not surprised to hear him say, “Get back up on that horse.” Persistence was already an ingrained family trait.

Acquiring a license to drive is one of life's milestones. My father was not going to let me fail this rite of passage. Although I was too young to fully understand this, my father knew that getting my license would open up the world for me. He knew that I needed that sense of independence that comes with having my own set of wheels. No matter how much I whined, he wouldn't let me give up. No excuses. I had to call the Department of Motor Vehicles and schedule a second appointment to get my license.

I didn't realize it then but it must have cost him a day's pay to accompany me on my second try at the DMV. This time I passed my driving test. This time the state trooper didn't frighten me. With Lawrie around, I would not be intimidated by any officer of the law no matter how much firepower he was packing.

Thus I became a licensed driver. I was now one of that dreaded elite: the notorious Massachusetts driver. I became proficient in navigating the one way streets of Boston. I parallel parked on Beacon Street. And, with grim determination, I even conquered the infamous Route 128 where I learned to swear and use hand signals creatively. Despite my successes on the road, though, I never did experience my father's ease in handling a car or, as I called it, Lawrie's joy of driving.

Fortunately he didn't need anyone to share his enthusiasm about cars. For Lawrie, driving came naturally; driving was fun. The automotive experience was pretty much his life, having worked as a mechanic and crane operator at the Hingham Shipyard during World War II and then later running his own auto repair business. It amazes me to think that, after a lifetime of working on cars, he still enjoyed driving so much.

Incredibly, during his sixty years of driving, Lawrie never had an accident. Maybe he could read cars after all. “Do what you love and the money will follow” goes the old expression. Well, with his love of cars, my father did manage to support his family throughout some pretty lean years. I only wish I had done as well with my life.

As my father could read cars, I would eventually learn to read people but not until after one dysfunctional marriage and several failed relationships. Maybe I should have listened more closely to the subtle wisdom hidden within his driving advice. Looking back, I think that in his own way my father was trying to teach me something about life. I was still basically just a kid, wrapped up in my own imaginings, unaware of the world around me. At the time, I read a lot of self help books preaching trust and love. Life looked that simple to my twenty-year old mind. I believed that, if I were trusting and loving enough, I would attract people of a similar nature. I was wrong. People didn't read my signs; they had their own set of rules. Could it be that my father, this cynical middle-aged guy in greasy overalls, knew something I didn't know?

I guess the point is this: in life, as in driving, stay alert and assume that not everyone knows or obeys the rules. Even if you should actually stop at a stop sign, you can't necessarily rely on the same behavior from the other driver. You have to pay attention. Expect at least a little unpleasantness, anticipate some breaking of the rules, be on the lookout for possible road rage. And, anytime you falter, just get back up on that horse and try again. When I finally incorporated his principles of driving into my own world view, life became easier to manage. I found that a healthy dose of cynicism combined with awareness kept me safe and accident free. There's only this one bit of my father's advice that I ignore: I now make it a point to come to a full stop at every stop sign.

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