I never actually drove when I took Driver’s Ed. I showed up for the course sophomore year and got an “A”; it’s too bad I couldn’t drive the book. I didn’t drive, as I was AWOL sixty days during the second half of the school year. This isn’t exactly true, as I had a heart murmur that got me (finally) out of Physical Education. The down side was I missed the driving instruction.|
I was a senior before I learned to drive; I wasn’t too interested as I had an idea of how wrong things could go with me at the wheel. My physical abilities had peaked in my cowboy stage when I managed to twirl a rope for two seconds before knocking off my glasses. (I found this very irritating, as it was something that never happened to Roy Rogers.)
But any misgivings I might have had were put aside when my niece Linda and my nephew Dick moved to Greenup that fateful year and volunteered to get me up to par. Our relationship was more like that of cousins, as I was the youngest of seven children, most of whom—including their mother, my sister Betty—had left home before I was born. The three of us had grown up together in Hidalgo, IL (population: 100, about seven miles south of Greenup).
Dick, a freshman, had learned to drive shortly after he got out of diapers. He was remarkably patient with his Uncle Dan, although an occasional caustic remark would escape him. Sometimes he rode in the back seat with his head in his hands as though he didn’t want to see the next near miss, while Linda sat up front with me. The idea was to get me good enough to pass my driver’s test. This was more of a challenge then, as we all drove manual transmission cars. We didn’t call them that, of course. The preferred term was “straight shift,” or if you were really cool, “straight stick.” There were a few bumps along the way, but I didn’t cause any serious injury or property damage.
I did somehow manage to run over my Dad. We had stopped at a gas station where I dropped him off. He got out the car and was just getting ready to close the door when for some reason—continual nervousness behind the wheel, probably—I decided to back up. This command decision caused the car door to swing around and hit him in the head. Now you know why Dad wasn’t my driving teacher. He never said a word to me about the incident. He just gave me a look and went about his business. In later years he would tell family members about this and by then he seemed to think it was funny.
So you can see Linda and Dick had their work cut out for them. My first problem was taking off—my clutch work was such that the car would die every five seconds. We spent several sessions in which we never left the back yard.
One afternoon Dad came out of the house just as Linda and Dick were getting ready to send me out on the mean streets of Greenup. Mom was right behind him, continuing a conversation that he was trying to escape. He stopped when she said, “Dad, I’m worried about that boy driving.”
“For crap’s sake they haven’t got him out of the back yard yet!”
Mom was always concerned something might happen to me, and I always was afraid it wouldn’t.
We were soon cruising the main drag of Greenup. I didn’t think of it that way, as I was worried about my gear shifting and the possibility I would run over something. This was a legitimate fear as the highest praise I would get after a training session would be: “Well, at least you didn’t hit anything.”
At first we just drove up and down the main street, Cumberland Avenue. Greenup, then as now, had a population of fifteen hundred. We lived at 606 East Cumberland, which meant it was six blocks to the “You are now leaving Greenup” sign. By the time I got shifted down to third gear, we were out of town.
My maiden tour through town gave Linda and Dick pause, as we had a brush with the law. Greenup was a lawless town, as we had no police force. But the law of sorts managed to show up that afternoon. I had gone about three blocks and had passed the IGA Foodliner, the cultural center of town, when I managed to miss a squirrel only by climbing the curb and crashing into an outside display at the dime store. Dick was roused out of his near- miss head- in- hands position and started yelling. Even Linda was a little excited. “Oh, my gosh. Are you all right, Dan?” I was fine except I was dying of terminal embarrassment. But everybody was all right; no harm had been done to the dime store or its fine display of picnic baskets and lawn chairs.
So all would have been well had not a local citizen been alerted. His name was Ted, a retired policeman. At times, he forgot he was no longer on duty. He (naturally) decided to spring into action the afternoon I jumped the curb. He was wearing his official police cap and his old black trousers. He would have been more impressive had he not been unshaven and wearing a formerly white, tobacco juice stained T-shirt with a child’s toy badge pinned to it. After deputizing a bystander to watch me, Ted ran into the dime store to get a pad and pencil so he could write me a ticket. Of course a crowd had gathered by then. (Ted’s arrests always made good entertainment.) There was no chance this wouldn’t get back to my folks. Linda and Dick talked Ted out of hauling me in despite several locals who egged him on. He gave me a very stern warning ticket instead, or as stern as it could be written in a first grader’s notebook.
After this fiasco, which was known to everybody in the two-county area before dusk, I begged off the training sessions for a couple of days. Linda (Dick was neutral) kept after me to try again, which we did after I smoked three Marlboros in a row to build up my courage. The next couple of sessions were luckily uneventful, as the local merchants had almost canceled their sidewalk sale after my dime store caper.
It wasn’t long before we started going out of town, which usually meant a trip to Toledo, population eleven hundred, five miles away. The focal point of our existence, Cumberland High School, laid half way between the shining cities of Greenup and Toledo. It was bathed in splendor, just off the highway, surrounded by cornfields.
Leaving town made me an even more cautious driver. Learning to drive to other communities was important, as more than likely I would find a job out of town—but not too far out. I didn’t want a long commute, as I would still be living at home until my folks threw me out. (This never happened.) Still driving would be a requirement. I was sure Linda and Dick wouldn’t be around to chauffeur me the rest of my days. Sometimes when I was waiting to get out on the highway, Dick got a little impatient, “Dan, you don’t have to wait for the whole darned town to go by!”
After a few more practice sessions, Linda and Dick thought I could probably pass my driver’s license exam. We pulled up at the house. Mom and Dad were curious how things went. Linda said, “Dan did fine”. Dick said, “Well, he didn’t hit anything.”
Dad (bravely) went with me to take the test. I remember the driver’s license examiner noting shortly after I started that I might slow down, as it was not considered good form to knock over the town’s new parking meter. Otherwise things went pretty smoothly. I was mightily relieved. On the way home I said that I was glad to have it over with. Dad allowed that it was something that had to be done. He was pleased, I think, even if he didn’t say so. He was glad I would be able to take Mom to the store (the IGA was always referred to as “The Store” as in “Do you need to go to The Store?”).
When we got home, Linda and Dick were waiting. Dad (with a wink at Dick) said, “He didn’t hit anything.”
So the three of us had wheels, as Dad let me use the family car occasionally; it wasn’t long before we were planning a road trip. We decided to go to Hidalgo.