Did you have a car in high school?
Ask a teenager today if they drive a car to their high school and likely receive a positive response. Ask me—oh you did—and learn I did not drive to school for two reasons. First, my high school was in the heart of Peoria, Illinois, and without student parking. Second, I did not have a car until after I graduated high school.
Dang, question answered and in less than a hundred words.
I can’t leave you with the impression I was without wheels when a teenager.
I approached my sixteenth birthday with anticipation of getting my driver’s license. With it, it would be legal to drive anywhere in the United States. The challenge was to pass Illinois’ driver’s license test.
You may remember my father was on active duty in the US Navy. He was deployed and not available to teach me to drive. If any companies were giving the training, I don’t remember them. I turned to my mother, but she hadn’t the patience, maybe nerves, to teach me. She was in a terrible car accident years earlier and co-opted my Uncle James to do the teaching.
Uncle James, teacher
Uncle James Lee Harris was born on 6 September 1921 in Owensboro, Kentucky, and died on 3 September 1993 in Washington, Illinois. Uncle James was a master machinist who worked at Caterpillar Tractor Company. He was also a master gunsmith whose skills were sought from gun owners nationwide.
His talents included teaching a teenager how to drive. One day shortly after I turned fifteen, he took me to a nearby country road. He pulled over, stopped the car, and we exchanged places. We sat there with the emergency brake set.
He explained how to operate a standard transmission 1950s something Ford with the shifter on the steering column. He warned me to clutch to change gears and at stops to prevent killing the engine.
He completed his explanations, and it was time to put them into practice. I don’t remember how many times I killed the engine or how jerky the starts were, but I imagine it was many and dire. Sometime later, probably when he had suffered enough, Uncle James and I went home. My lesson complete.
My mother took me out two or three times to let me drive. Then, one day she handed me the car keys and said to go practice on one condition. (I don’t know if my mother worried about insurance or not.) I had to use the school road and none other. This road started beyond the alley by our house and wound into the country past a dam. She allowed me to practice several times before I took the driver’s test. I passed on the second try. I failed the first time because the tester didn’t care for my parallel parking.
I could use the car for errands or just joyriding until I graduated, took a full-time job, and bought my first car.
By the time I came around, Driver Education was offered by the county school system every summer. I learned the year that I turned seventeen, in 1973. I then inherited my stepmother’s car, a forest green 1965 Mercury Comet sedan with a Ford 289 V-8. That thing was like a small but quick tank! It had the standard AM/FM ‘stereo’ and an auto transmission. It was great for dating my girlfriend, who became my wife in 1975. Surprisingly, we’re still together and on speaking terms.
Having a car available and license changed the world. Before that, I walked or ran everywhere. Since I lived in a rural, spread out area, that was quite time-consuming.
I later taught myself how to drive a manual, then bought a Porsche 914. Wish I had it now!
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