Saturday, November 3, 2007

A Reluctant Driver

As you can tell from my mother’s "How I Learned to Drive" below, driving was a sort of rite of passage as early as the 1920's. My mother learned to drive her uncle Bert’s Model-T Ford when cars were rare in her small town, and when it was very unusual for children, especially girls, to learn to drive. She admits later in her autobiography that, since her immediate family didn’t own a car while she was growing up, she didn’t have a chance to drive again until after she was married in 1930, but she was proud to know how.

I, on the other hand, grew up when cars were everywhere, and in the 1940's and 1950's, most young people dreamed of the day they would get their drivers’ licenses and their own wheels. For many then, it was just a dream, but for me, it wasn’t even that. I admired my Grandma Minnie’s old maroon coupe with a rumble seat, but I never really wanted to drive myself. Let’s face it: I was a shy nerd, and I was scared. I was a loner who, as my mother often said, "always had my nose in a book," and learning to drive was never on my agenda.

It seems strange today, but while I welcomed rides from friends and family, I never even tried to learn to drive the family car–and we always had one. I believe my younger brother learned to drive as soon as he was old enough (or earlier), but I somehow skipped that step. My mother claimed that I learned to drive a tractor, but I remember only terror in the field, not successful driving. Of course my brother eagerly took up tractor driving; our parents couldn’t have afforded to buy cars for either of us anyway, and we had no paying jobs.

I finished high school and college, earned my Master’s degree, and began my teaching career in the late 1950's, all without learning to drive. It wasn’t until I quit my doctoral studies to marry the son of one of my professors in early 1959 that my lack of driving ability became an issue. We moved to a suburb of Chicago, and I got a teaching job at Wright College on the northwest side of the city. I needed a car to get there, and before that, a driver’s license. I was twenty-seven years old.

I remember my husband’s (no wonder that was a short-lived marriage) trying to teach me to drive in our new red 1959 Chevrolet Impala, without success. I don’t remember the details; I was just too nervous. I remember trying to practice and ending up on a dead-end road in a small parking lot, where I panicked, cried, and only because I had no choice, finally figured out how to turn around and get out of there. I seem to remember doing some minor damage to that Chevy, but I’ve put the details out of my mind. Eventually I signed up with a professional driving instructor, passed my driving test in the Impala, and bought a red Corvair for myself.

All went well for a while. I kept driving, although I never was especially good at it. By the time I met my second husband, I was the proud owner of a cream-colored Corvair convertible with a black top, but by that time, I had skidded off an icy highway, and the car had a sprung frame. I replaced it with a Dodge Dart convertible, and then went on to my string of red cars (see my June 20 post below), including three 3-series BMW’s and my present 2003 Mini Cooper. I’ve avoided major accidents, but all of my cars have sustained serious dents and scratches from my pathetic efforts to park.

To this day, I have to make three or four passes to back my Mini Cooper out of my tiny garage parking spot; anyone else can do it in one or two. I don’t drive very often, and that’s probably good for the population of Chicago. I may give up my car when I move to the Clare in a year or so, and yet–those new Smart Cars are really cute. I wonder if they come in red?

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