We’d moved from the country. Out there most kids by 12 were driving around on their farms… driving tractors, for sure, and even cars. I did. So did my older sister.
Farmers needed help from kids big enough to drive a tractor. Being ‘big enough’ was defined as: can your feet reach the pedals? Wood booster blocks clamped to the pedals made that possible for many of us at first.
Empty farm pastures are great places for learning how to steer without hitting anything or anyone, and how to use the brakes, and especially getting the hang of accelerating and shifting gears.
It was a good thing no other vehicles, or people, were in the pasture where my sister and I took our first lurching trials behind the wheel of our tractor and then the family car. Lucky also, there were no light standards, or curbs, or stop signs, or cement barricades, or chain link fences to cause us grief. Sometimes we had to dodge trees. We missed them, most of the time. And there were cow patties. We couldn’t resist. Dad laughed along with us as tires squished through a few.
Soon after, our family moved to a small town.
By the age of 14 my legs had grown some, enough that I no longer needed booster blocks to reach the pedals, if only just. The blocks had become smaller as my legs grew longer. It was a milestone day when Dad removed those blocks. Besides, my sister didn’t need them anymore either. Our parents were happy about it, too. They found the blocks a nuisance when they were driving the family car.
Two years later, at the ripe old age of almost 16, I was thinking about ‘getting legal’. To be honest, by then I’d been driving around town for more than a year without a driver’s license, whenever my folks gave permission to use their car. At first, one of them came along. Soon, I was allowed to drive for short periods by myself, mostly to pick up things at the grocery store or get the mail. I was pumped, and kept hoping one of my friends would see me! I took big detours. Sometimes I was lucky.
People in our small town shrugged their shoulders at young drivers like me piloting a car on our own. Everyone understood it wasn’t legal; the rules were more relaxed back then, 60 year ago.
A few months after turning 16, Dad finally gave in to my persistent begging and agreed to help buy a cheap car of my own. Full disclosure: he paid for the awkward-looking, well-worn Austin four-door I’m sure no one else wanted. I promised to pay him back. And I’m pretty sure I did… eventually.
So here I was driving around town without a license, and now with my own car. I had to overcome some embarrassment to drive that ungainly little puddle-jumper. My sad excuse for a vehicle was not cool. But the compelling urge to have ‘wheels’ of any kind triumphed.
The rich kids in our high school were driving around in customized cars and souped up convertibles. A couple of them accused my car of looking like a shoebox with wheels and windows. Their jokes came too close to the truth. They hurt. One target for their barbs was the car’s signal lights. Well, they were not exactly signal lights. When indicating a left or right turn, instead of flashing lights front and rear like most cars, little orange plastic arms popped out of the doorposts on each side. Yeah, definitely not cool. But their catcalls did me a favor, really. I became protective of my unattractive little Austin, and developed a thicker skin… and even an affection for the damn thing, sort of.
My allowance barely covered the cost of gas. Good thing Dad owned a gas station. He gave me a charge account. I paid that off… well, I’m pretty sure about that, too.
When you have a car – even an ugly little oddity like my Austin – it’s amazing how quickly your circle of friends grows. I almost lost track of who was who at first. The biggest challenge was making sure my ‘new best friends’ didn’t elbow out my real best friends. We called our group of real friends our ‘gang’; that term enjoyed a far more innocent connotation back then. Like others who had cars, my real friends always got first dibs on rides home from school or for weekend excursions to our favorite swimming hole.
One friend in our gang was Billy Shields. His father was the town police chief. Sometimes on weekends, I’d pick Billy up at his house en route to our many adventures. Often his dad would be home. The irony of that juxtaposition didn’t register with us at first. Billy’s father never said a word about my weird car or its unlicensed driver. Nice man.
Billy was tall and slender. Not yet 16, he was already over six feet and thus attracted jokes from the rest of our group, all of us shorter and everyone blatantly envious about his impressive altitude. To keep him humble, I suppose, we told Billy he was so skinny that if he turned sideways, he wouldn’t cast a shadow. And long suffering Billy also provoked peals of laughter every time he struggled to tuck his ungainly frame into the front seat my tiny car, his preferred spot.
Our gang’s favorite weekend recreation in summer – when we weren’t at the swimming hole – was driving around downtown trolling for girls. We really went there just to look, at first. Nature made us do it, of course. We were too young to be dating seriously. The girls knew exactly were to position themselves in order to be seen, making sure all of us hormone crazed males couldn’t miss them and their faux indifference to our presence and interest.
At those early stages of the mating game, another irony escaped us – there’d be no room in the cars, especially mine, even if one or more girls responded to our come-on smiles. We simply could not ask any of our friends to hop out of the car to make room. That would be an unforgivable violation of respected protocol… at least, then. Not all that much later, however, when we had girlfriends, the protocol reversed, of course: single friends were not as welcome as before when girlfriends were in the car, unless they had their own girlfriends with them. Everyone understood.
Finally, along came my 16th birthday. I’d like to claim that a deep-seated respect for certain laws motivated me. The truth is I procrasticated, long enough that my father sat me down one day. His face bore that curiously combined look of affection and no nonsense that always grabbed my attention. In a tone that made clear the matter was not open for discussion, he said:
“Son, you’re 16 now. I want you to go and get your driver’s license.”
“Sure Dad,” I said as he handed me my weekly allowance, plus a few extra dollars I would need to pay for the license.
The next day was Saturday. Government license bureaus were open on Saturdays then. On arrival, I was the only one in the small brightly lit waiting room of the storefront license bureau, except the man behind the counter.
“Can I help you?” he said. The trim middle-aged man looked vaguely familiar. Probably the father or uncle of someone I know from school, I thought. It’s like that in small towns.
The man held out his hand.
“I’m Robert Jensen,” he said.
I shook his hand, proud at being treated like an adult. I introduced myself and said, “I’m here to get my driver’s license.”
“Sure,” Mr. Jensen said. “Here you go.”
He handed over a sheet of paper. It was a questionnaire. Then he gave me a brochure and said, “Read this first and then complete the questionnaire. Bring it back to me with your birth certificate.”
I scanned the three-fold color brochure. The heading said ‘Rules of The Road’. There wasn’t much in it I hadn’t experienced by then or didn’t know about. The questionnaire held no surprises either. The whole process took all of five minutes.
Mr. Jensen looked surprised when I handed back the questionnaire so quickly. He scanned it carefully, nodded and smiled, then held out his hand for my birth certificate. He used a rubber stamp on another piece of paper and handed it to me: my driver’s license.
“That’ll be $2,” he said.
I gave him the two one-dollar bills Dad had given me.
“Congratulations, son,” he said. “You can drive now.”
“Thank you,” I said, feeling relieved to be legal and anxious to leave.
“Would you like me to call someone to pick you up?” he asked.
A bell on the front door jingled and a familiar voice boomed out behind me.
“That won’t be necessary,” the voice said.
“Hi chief,” Mr. Jensen said looking over my shoulder.
I turned. Standing behind me in his on-duty uniform was Billy’s dad.
“What do you mean, Chief?” Mr. Jensen added.
“His car’s parked right outside,” Billy’s dad said.
“What?” Mr. Jensen said firmly, looking sternly at me.
“Yeah,” I said trying to act demure. “I drove here by myself.”
“Give me that license back!” he said firmly. A smile that sparkled from his eyes contradicted the tone in his voice.
The license was in my pocket. I put my hand over it, determined it was going to stay right here.
“Oh, alright, you’re legal,” Mr. Jensen said. “Get the hell outta here!”
As I opened the door to leave I heard over the jingling bell chuckles coming from the two men behind me.
“The Driver’s License” is Copyright 2016 By James Osborne. All Rights Reserved
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