Learning to Drive a Car in the South

Growing up in the South, we learned to drive at a very early age. It could be a tractor, a riding lawn mower or an old pick up truck that has not been “street legal” since prohibition. Street legal is a loose term where I come from, though.

Do you remember how exciting it was when you were first learning to drive a car? You would see other people drive and think, “I cannot wait to start driving!” You would study every move of the driver’s that toted you around town. You would study the street signs and annoy your parents with questions about what each sign meant to the driver. If you do not remember, you probably did it anyway!

When I was a young teenager, I thought driving a car was the best thing ever! I would sit in one of my parents’ cars and play with all the switches and gadgets. I would play the radio, turn the head lights off and on, then pretend it was raining in order to turn on the windshield wipers. Sometimes I would just sit in the driver’s seat and turn the steering wheel and imagine all the places I could drive myself once I got my driver’s license. I would dream about it!

Some of my friends had older siblings that were able to drive us around town. Whenever I got the chance, I would pepper them with all sorts of questions. I would ask how it felt like to drive a car. I wanted to know everything that there was to know so that I could get my parents to believe that I was capable of actually driving a car.

I vividly recall being in the back seat of my friend’s car with my friend, Valerie. Her sister was taking us to the mall to drop us off for a few hours. We would hang our arms over the front seat from the back seat in order to watch her drive. This was before seat belts. We studied her every move as if there would be a test later.

I asked her every question I could think of about driving. I asked her what it felt like to drive. Bless her heart, she was so patient with my rattle of endless conversation and questions. She was probably relieved that the mall was only a few miles away in order to get rid of me.

The day I turned 15, I asked my mom to take me to get my driving learners permit. In my mother’s usual fashion, she stated that just because I had turned 15 did not mean I automatically get to get my permit. What? The DOT law states I was of legal age to drive, so what is up with this horse crap? I knew that mom was going to turn this into another “lesson.” So, here we go!

My mom went onto explain that driving was a privilege and I needed to show her that I would be a responsible driver. How was I supposed to demonstrate this without driving the car and it requires a driver’s permit? How am I to show you that I am a responsible driver if you will not let me drive a car?

Mom said I needed to show her that I would follow the road rules and show that I was going to do what I said I was going to do. I am pretty sure this was a stall tactic. Parents always seem to panic when their kids start driving, don’t they?

This was my mother’s solution. I had to perform a remarkably long list of house chores! What did these house chores have to do with driving? My mom had turned getting a permit into me becoming indentured servant! I cannot even tell you all the stuff I had to do to show my mom that I was “responsible.” Aren’t there child labor laws that prevent parents from enslaving their children? I found the notion that doing chores “would show responsibility” was absolute rubbish, but she had me at “leaner’s permit.” I was at her mercy.

Fast forward six months. I did finally get the permit and started driving. This was after I had turned into Cinderella by doing chores that a serf during the middle ages would not be asked to perform. I can now scrub a toilet to a sparking, white shine! Who knew that scrubbing a toilet was a precursor for a driving permit?

My “united parenting front” parents were in agreement that I needed to learn to drive a stick shift car. My dad said if you can drive a stick shift, then you can drive anything. I told him that I did not want to drive everything, just a car! This fell on deaf ears.

My mom had recently bought a 1989 pearlized green, black topped convertible VW bug. It was her prize possession. It was in perfect condition when she bought the car. It was also the only car that we had with a stick shift. This was the car that was designated to be my stick shift training car. Can you hear the foreboding music of misery and disaster in the background? I did.

I mean, I used to drive a bunch of riding lawn movers when I was a kid. The only thing I ever remembering hitting is an old tree stump. How hard can driving be anyway? Put your foot on the gas and go forward, duh!

Mom drives me to an empty parking lot and starts giving me lessons on how to drive. Fortunately, this was a very large parking lot with few cars, mostly parked near the stores. So, we stuck to the back of the lot in order to ensure that I did not smack into another car. I would like to report, in my own defense, that I did manage not to whack another vehicle.

As you may have guessed, this driving lesson was an epic failure of quantum proportion. In hindsight, I am not sure what my mom was thinking about teaching anyone to drive her precious collectors’ item, VV bug. I think a stock car with bowling bumpers would have been more appropriate.

So, we start the driving lesson in the every so vast parking lot. I would put my foot on the clutch and brake in order to start the car. As it turned out, I kept chocking out the clutch and the car would stall out. This caused the car to lurch forward throwing my mom into the dashboard. Once she swallowed back the small bit of vomit in her throat, she told me to try again. I again tried several times with about the same results. Unbeknownst to me, my mother suffered from motion sickness.

Just like every other arrogant teenager learning to drive, I kept saying “I know, I know” when mom corrected my technique. I was so busy trying to prove my superlative driving skills, that I failed to listen to the instructions.

So, we continued on with trying to teach the “blockhead”, me, how to drive a stick shift. Mom would hold the dashboard on each attempt I made to move the car five feet forward with the engine actually running. I would put my feet on the clutch and brake, then try to put the car in first gear. I would ease off the brake with the car in first gear, then ease up the clutch to move forward. Apparently, first gear was not where I thought is was and the car hurled forward in third gear instead. I slam on the brakes in order to keep the car from moving the one mile per hour it was moving at the time. I am now officially sweating like a sinner in church.

I began to realize that mom’s face was turning green. At this point, she said the lesson was over and that dad would have to teach me how to drive. I was sure she would have back handed me one, but her vestibular system was giving her the spins. If she had tried to swing at me, I am pretty sure she would have fallen over in her seat. We had to wait a few minutes for my mom’s head to stop spinning in a 360 circle in order for us to change seats so that she could drive us home. I am pretty sure she puked when we got home.

We get home and mom has that soft, strained, angry tone to her voice as she explains to my dad about our driving lesson. This is followed by multiple quiet, though not stifled, giggles from my dad. He tries to look serious, but he already knew that mom’s idea of teaching me to drive in her “precious” green VW bug was only going to bring her strain. Dad forgot about the nausea part.

Later that week, my dad takes me to the same empty parking lot. He reviews how to start the car and how to put it in to first gear. I again lurch the car forward throwing my dad into the dashboard. I thought, “this lesson will soon be over, and I will never learn how to drive this freakin’ car.”

To my utter surprise and amazement, my dad just laughed. Sheeewww, I was still in the game!

Dad continued to encourage me and tell me how to work the clutch and gears. However, this time, he kept one hand secured to the right window sill and the left hand braced on the dashboard. Dad was the antonym of my mother with the driving lesson. Meaning, every mistake I made, he would laugh like he was on a roller coaster, which by the way, was not far from the truth.

I did eventually learn how to drive, but I would not say that I was very good at driving.

So, there is a drawback of learning how to drive. Once you have mastered the ability not to wreck the family car in the driveway, you become a chauffer and /or house kid. Once I was able to keep the car out of harms way, I was the “gofer” for all the house chores.

Mom would tell me to go to the grocery store, dry cleaners and post office to do her errands. Dad would send me to the hardware store, his office to pick up papers and any personal errand he was needed completed.

When I first starting driving, I would have gone to the grocery store to purchase one toothpick if that meant I could drive to the store. I would ask everyday if either one of them needed anything that required me to drive. I would take as long as I could to drive the car.

Shortly thereafter, driving was not as much fun as it had once been. Now, I had to go do all the things that I had offered to before but was not as jazzed about driving as I had been in the beginning.

On one of our long-distance RV road trips, my dad woke me from a peaceful nap and announced, “your turn to drive.” What? He said that I enjoyed driving so much that I should drive some of the distance on our long-distance vacation. My plan had been to sleep, but I was over ruled. Be careful what you wish for, my friends.

I have now been driving for a number of years and have learned a lot about how to survive on the road. I am not sure what kind of driver I am, but my husband always says, “women’s cars should not have a reverse gear.” Who asked him, anyway? (My husband has run into our garage door three times, but maybe that was because he was going forward) I’m just sayin’.

Soon, I will be facing the daunting task of helping my daughter get her driver’s licenses permit. I feel that the stalling techniques of my mother will be utilized by me. I see my sweet, little cherub playing in my car before school. I hope that her dad and I will teach her what she needs to know to survive on the roads, but I know I have many sleepless nights ahead waiting for her to get safely home.

Maybe I will have her dad remove the “reverse” gear from her car, just to be sure.

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