Saturday, April 14, 2012

Epic Driving Stories – Part 1, By Sue Kinsella

I’ve been thinking about driving a lot recently because my son, Alex, is working on getting his driver’s license. He’s 19 and in college and, while he got his permit at 17, he’s had to renew it for a second year because he really just wasn’t that interested in practicing driving. He went to high school in San Francisco and I’ve noticed that kids there are much more likely to put off getting their licenses than “in the good old days.”

Alex, at 3, "driving" at Disneyland

Maybe it’s because driving on the City’s many car-clogged hills is like driving on a bumper car roller coaster. (One hill is so steep that you can’t see if there’s any road in front of you as you start down it and, no matter how carefully I drive down it, I hit the front of my car on the surface of the cross street when I get to the bottom!) Plus, San Francisco has an extensive bus, trolley and cable car system and the kids become public transit experts early on, even putting apps on their cellphones to predict when the next bus will come along.

Still, it seemed odd to me, since I, myself, had been waiting at the DMV door practically on my birthday to get my license. Dad had let me start driving on the dirt roads up at the cottage in Canada when I was 15 and his patience was surreal when I nearly took out the road’s communal mailbox and barely avoided landing us in a ditch.

Later, when I found it initially challenging to be getting the hang of driving while also learning a stick shift at the same time, he very patiently got out of the passenger seat in the middle of an intersection – cars backed up, impatient to get through - to come around and take over as the driver when I couldn’t rev the car over a small rise in the road. Little did I know that years later I’d be driving a stick shift all up and down those San Francisco hills and even get the hang of starting up on what felt like nearly vertical inclines.

Still, I decided not to push Alex into driving if he didn’t feel ready for it, and I admit I liked driving him to school when he was a senior in high school because it was about the only extended time I got to spend with him, he was so busy otherwise. But now, suddenly, he’s gotten motivated to get his license because his upcoming summer job requires it.

  Alex, at 19, driving the roller-coaster mountains by the Pacific Ocean

So I’m spending a day most weekends right now devising interesting routes with lots of new challenges for Alex to drive. The bonus for me is that these take us on delightful mini-adventures and engender wonderful conversations. However, I do have a sore foot from stomping on that passenger-side phantom “brake,” and when Alex goes around curves on mountain roads a little too fast and I look down over the side – well, you can see what I look like from this picture here. That’s me on the left.

Mom and Dad (Aunt CB and Uncle Jack) have some wild stories about their driving escapades. Dad’s started early, when he was two years old and his mother took him along for her driving lesson. He stood right next to his Mama on that front seat – remember how that used to be the preferred place for little kids? She was pretty proud to be one of the few women who learned to drive a car in the 1920s.

But that all changed when she faced an oncoming car (unusual for those days), her driving instructor grabbed the wheel and turned it so quickly they ran head on into a telephone pole, and her baby (my Dad!) went flying through the windshield. Those were the days, of course, before safety glass, so the windshield shattered into thousands of jagged shards and splinters. His mother reached through the broken glass, picked him up off the hood of the car and pulled him right back through the shattered glass! And she never drove again.

That didn’t seem to discourage him, though. Dad learned to drive when he was about 14 and got a job with his best friend at the Waterloo Body Shop, by the train station. It was during WWII so gas was rationed, with people getting a set allotment for how much they could buy each month, depending on what kind of car they had. Stationwagons were allotted more gas than sedans. The body shop had previously made wooden wagons and had a lot of carpenters so they applied some typical American ingenuity. First they bought sedans, then they cut off the roof and doors but left the fenders, and ultimately they built a new wooden car body to turn the cars into stationwagons. Voila, now they qualified for more gas coupons! This was the birth of the kind of stationwagon we later knew as a “woody.”

Dad and his friend had the job of driving the sedans to move them around the property as they went through their “surgery.” It was a great training ground for fledgling drivers because it didn’t matter whether the cars got banged up, since all the metal was going to come off them anyway. So it sounds as though his “driving lessons” were much more like bumper cars than highway driving.

My mother also took along her baby son, Dan, when she took her driving test, but he was better protected – she was nine months pregnant and took her test two days before he was born. Those were the days, she said, when tests required stopping a stick shift car on a hill, shutting off the motor, then restarting and shifting to drive with no rolling backwards. She thinks the instructor passed her because he felt sorry for how she could barely reach around her stomach to do all the required maneuvers!

But it wasn’t as though she’d never driven before. She’d often been the non-drinking designated driver during her dating days. However, this was the first time she’d been able to afford to buy her own car. She figured she’d better accompany it by getting her own real driver’s license, as well.

I was thinking of some more stories to tell but then I wondered how different this topic might have been for kids who grew up on the farm in Center Lisle. So I asked Joyce Tillotson-Henderson if she had any stories from their family. Wow, did she ever! I can’t wait for you to read her stories! 
Look for Epic Driving Stories – Part 2 in a couple of weeks!


Pat said...


Wonderful stories--and the pictures!!

Can't wait for part two.


Eve Taylor said...

Brought back a lot of my driving memories. I, too, took the test CB did, and Dad told me the secret of not rolling back on the hill. As I was releasing the hand brake, I was to press on the gas pedal simultaneously, and I would not roll back.

Jack (Dad) said...

Should mention that my mother's "Driving Instructor" didn't sit next to her as she drove. He stood on the running board (ask your grandpa or grandma what that is)as she was driving!!.
As for working on the "Woodies"-- Yes, they didn't mind if we stove in the side panels but weren't too happy if we bashed in a fender.

Mom/CB said...

Its always so scary when your own child starts driving! Jack did most of the teaching with our bunch BUT he was out of town when Sue had to learn parking between 2 cars! Took years off my life to go with her where we found a teacher brave enuff to allow her to use her car to park behind! She did well!!