Driving home

Friday, January 16, 2009

Shortly after I turned 16, which was in another century, I saw an opportunity and seized it: I became a licensed driver in the sovereign state of Missouri.

Before taking the written and driven exams, my motoring experience had been confined to a balloon-tire bicycle and a Ferguson tractor. I had driven my mother's Ford Fairlane with automatic shift fewer than a dozen times from the blacktop highway a mile down the gravel road to the farmhouse on Killough Valley in the Ozarks over yonder.

As it turned out, a trip to town resulted in the perfect storm of opportunity. My stepfather and I were taking my mother's car instead of his trusty pickup for some reason that has long escaped my memory. Since I wanted to visit the public library, we parked in front of the blue-granite building while my stepfather did his errands. The library just happened to be next door to city hall where driving exams were given. And it just happened to be exam day, which was a monthly occurrence.

After checking out a week's worth of books from the library, I realized I had car keys in my pocket. I also had a few dollars in my billfold.

You can see where this is going.

I had a sudden urge to take the written driving test. I calculated I would have enough time before we needed to head back to the farm. So I headed for city hall.

My intentions, pure and simple, were to take just the written test to see how difficult it was and to see how much more memorizing I needed to do. But when my test was graded, I hadn't missed any of the questions, and before I knew it I was being ushered to my car for the driving bit.

There was, I confess, a momentary pang of conscience during which I fleetingly considered warning the uniformed fellow who would be putting his life in my hands on the wheel that he would be riding with someone who had never driven a car on a paved surface.

As it turned out, steering on pavement is much smoother than on gravel roads or plowed fields. We had gone less than a block before I realized I was up to my neck in potential peril, both from my lack of driving experience and from my folks when they found out what I had done. But what was the down side? I might fail the test, in which case I would practice and take it over.

I was fortunate that my small hometown had no traffic lights and only a handful of stop signs. All the streets are straight, and on this particular weekday there was no midmorning traffic.

"Turn left at the next intersection," the exam officer instructed. I turned on the left turn signal and executed the turn. So far we were both still alive.

We started up a street with a steep hill. About halfway up, the officer told me to come to a full stop, set the brake and turn off the ignition. Then we started up again and made more turns.

Finally, it was time to parallel park, something I had never done in my life. I tried to remember what the driver's manual said to do, and I put the car perfectly between the two broom-handle markers painted white. We were still breathing and uninjured.

"That's it," the officer said, handing me a sheet of paper with my score: 98. He said he took off a couple of points because I didn't pull hard enough on the emergency brake while stopped on the hill.

A few minutes later, I had my temporary license. I would get the real thing in the mail.

My stepfather came up the sidewalk and said he was ready to go home. I volunteered to drive. He looked at me with a question mark. "I have my license now." We got in the car, and I drove home. On the highway.

My mother asked how I was doing. "OK," I said. That's a decent conversation for a newly licensed 16-year-old.

"I got my driver's license," I volunteered. "I'm going to milk the cow."


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