Rites of Passage: A Drivers License and A Prom
I learned to make a car go forward and backward in a ’39 red-‘n-white Dodge pick-up truck with a floor mounted knuckle-buster shifter and no synchronizer in the three-speed gearbox. I learned to drive in a ’58 Chevy with three-on-the-tree and double steering wheels, gearshift, brakes and clutch. There were five of us in the Crestwood High School’s Drivers’ Ed car – two boys and two girls, plus the instructor. Everybody in the car could “drive,” except one girl who was terrified of the whole idea of driving. But she came around, and was actually the best driver in the car by the time we finished because she had no bad habits to break.
Me? Bad habits? Oh my yes. Every time I was supposed to shift I did two bad things, and it took me weeks to break myself of them. First, I’d reach for the knob at the top of a twenty-eight inch tall steel rod that wasn’t there. Second, once I got my hand wrapped around the shifter behind the steering wheel, I would clutch, go to neutral, tap the accelerator, clutch again and go to the next gear. For those who think that’s a really dumb thing to do, it’s called a double clutch. Remember the lack of synchro in the ’39 Dodge pick-up? Releasing and reengaging the clutch while revving the engine a little allowed the gears to “settle” into a sort of synchronization in the transmission, especially when downshifting. In the Drivers’ Ed Chevy it allowed the instructor to demand I stop the car, turn off the engine and start all over again. After a while it allowed the other three trainees to giggle every time I shifted. The instructor’s face would turn red and he’d make a sort of gobbling sound in his throat.
Eventually, I learned not to do all that, and became more comfortable in the driver’s seat. The trouble was, I had become gunshy. I was afraid to do anything behind the wheel for fear of doing it wrong and being laughed at. I was hesitant, and never became a smooth and confident driver while I was in that car. But it was the spring of my Sophomore year and that summer I took every opportunity to drive when the family went almost anywhere in the car. Came July 28 (which at the time I thought was my birthday) I was at the license testing center with the Old Man. I took the written test and went out to get in the car for the road test. As I climbed into the Old Man’s ’55 Plymouth with the State Trooper administering the test he said, “You’re just another kid to me, Son. Listen carefully to what I tell you to do and do nothing else while we’re in this car together and you’ll be fine.”
I listened carefully and did exactly what he told me to, and… Bumpf! I’d hit the curb with my rear tire and flunked the parallel parking test.
“Drive back to the testing center.” The voice of doom in a State Police uniform.
I drove back and the trooper got out. The Old Man got in the car.
“Blew the parallel parking.”
“Can you park?”
“Go in and make the earliest appointment you can for next week.”
So I got back out of the car and trudged into the testing center. The lady at the counter asked whether I needed a new test day. When I said I did, she pointed out that I’d passed the written test and would only have to retake the driving portion. I signed up for the best time I could get to fit the Old Man’s work schedule.
When I got back to the car, the Old Man laid out a plan, and that coming Sunday after church we dropped my mother and brother and sister off at home. The Old Man had me drive to a shopping center that had a curb (“blue laws” still kept all but a few stores closed on Sundays in 1958), and when we got there he surprised me by pulling two traffic cones out of the trunk.
He told me to get out of the car. He pulled a hundred foot tape measure from the glove compartment, picked up a traffic cone and said, “Come with me.” We went to the curb, where he took the discus-shaped tape case and handed me the free end of the tape, saying, “Hold this at the edge of the curb.” Then he backed away from me, and when he stopped he put the traffic cone down. He measured a length along the curb and had me bring the end of the tape while he wound it. Then he backed away from the curb again, set another traffic cone. He wound up the tape and said to me, “Park it. Park it over and over until you’ve parked it at least a half dozen times without bumping the curb or being too far away from it,” and he walked away down the sidewalk in front of the stores.
So I did. I parked the car for an hour and a half. I had an advantage over today’s drivers… I could see all four corners of the lime-green ’55 Plymouth which helped me place myself in space. I parked the Plymouth one last time, got out and opened the trunk. We threw the cones in and went home. A few days later I was back at the testing center. The same Trooper got in the car. He looked at me a little oddly for a moment, then, “You’re back awfully soon.” I nodded. “Tell you what, let’s pick up where we left off. If you’re gonna flunk again let’s get it over with.”
“Sure.” I knew I didn’t sound sure. “Sounds OK to me.”
So we drove to the parking test area, just three blocked-off parking spaces on a residential street. Parking cones identified the corners of the center space. I pulled past, flipped on my right turn signal, checked for traffic and began to back into the space. Suddenly I was back in the parking lot a day or so earlier. I swung the car in and swept the wheel counterclockwise, bringing the car to a stop. I engaged first gear, straightened the wheels and pulled forward a foot or so, centering the car. The trooper looked at me and raised one eyebrow (a trick it took me years to learn).
“Yeah, some. OK, you pass. Let’s go back.”
And that was it. Photo taken, signed the necessary papers and I was a licensed driver. The actual license came in the mail.
Early the next school year, the Drivers’ Ed instructor approached me at school and asked whether I’d gotten my license over the summer. When I said I had, he told me that I’d actually failed the Drivers’ Training course the year before and he’d held the grade until the new school year to see whether I’d gotten my license. Since I had, he passed me.
Girls and Proms and All That Stuff:
Spring of ’59, Junior year and Junior-Senior Prom. But I was too newly grown to a height that fit my weight, and because of my previous excess weight and lack of height I had no history with girls anyway. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say girls scared me half to death. So I procrastinated. I couldn’t bring myself to just walk up to girls and ask them to the Prom, knowing that most of them were dating, or at least already had dates for the Prom. By default, I decided not to go.
In retrospect, it would have been fairly easy to find a girl who didn’t have a date for the prom. Over time I learned there had been several, and they were not reticent about sharing their disappointment. A little discreet investigation on my part two or three weeks before the Prom and… but I had not.
My Senior year was nearly a reprise of the previous year. I’d gone on a couple of dates, but I had no real relationship with any girl. Worse, there were more seemingly “firm” couples than the year before. I actually did ask a girl or two who I didn’t think was “taken,” but in each case the answer was, “Sorry Chuck, maybe if you’d asked a couple of weeks ago.” So I was resigned to staying home again, and this time it was a major disappointment.
But about two weeks before the Prom, riding the bus home I had what I thought was a great idea. The younger girl of the family across the street from us was a sophomore whose parents were very strict. Her sister had not been permitted to date until her senior year, and I knew “Legs” was not dating anyone. So, as the bus drew inexorably closer to our mutual stop, I slid into the seat beside her and asked her. I pointed out that I understood her parents’ opposition to dating in general, but I felt sure my mother and I could persuade them that a single date for the Prom from the guy next door (OK, across the street) would be harmless. She turned me down flat. I was stunned. There wasn’t even a conversation, just a flat refusal and a request not to ask further. I got up and walked to the rear of the bus.
An hour later, the phone rang and my mother answered. I hadn’t shared my humiliation with her, and her end of the conversation was a total surprise.
“Of course he’d still like to take her. He’d love to. Whatever limits you want to set in terms of time will be fine with him, I’m sure.” By now she had turned around and was glaring at me. “Absolutely! I’m sure they’ll have a wonderful time.” And she hung up the old black handset.
Without softening her look an iota she asked, “Did you ask Nancy to the Prom?”
“Yeah, but she turned me down.”
“Well, she told her mother, and her mother says she’s going.”
“I don’t want to take her if she doesn’t want to go.” Something didn’t make sense here. Why would she…
“Why do you think she told her mother?” Of course, that was what didn’t make sense. Why would she? My mother was a tad exasperated and trying not to laugh at the same time. “Well?”
“Um, I guess so.” And so it was decided. We worked out the details on the bus to school… no drinking, home by midnight, drive carefully and anything else a parent could think up to protect their daughter, from both harm and me, I guessed. I had no more designs on their daughter than I had on my own sister, but they couldn’t know that.
The night of the Prom I drove the Old Man’s newest acquisition, a ’59 Chevy coupe’ he’d had painted two-tone (robin’s egg blue and copper) up the steep driveway to the neighbors’ house in the woods at the top of the hill. Nancy came to the door when I knocked and we took off before her father could deliver the lecture I was sure I saw in his body language.
The Prom itself was a typical small-town prom in the high-school gym. Enough crepe paper had been expended to have stretched around the building… maybe more than once. Temporary stage lighting had been installed around the room, with colored gels turning in front of them giving the room a surreal look. Thousands of bits of crepe paper had been wired to tree branches as leaves and flowers and there were long ribbons of dark paper with pinholes that were meant to be the Milky Way.
I was, and am, a very poor dancer. Nancy was a lovely young lady and a good dancer. A number of other young ladies were induced to exhibit naked jealousy as their dates asked to dance with her. We talked about it, and I had to admit there would be little dancing for her if she depended only on me. So I agreed to let her dance with whoever she wished to. When she got tired of it, she came back to sit with me and told her dance-suitors that she’d had enough adventure for a while. There were at least three iterations of that scenario before the dance broke up.
It was nearly midnight when the chaperones announced that several restaurants were serving all-night breakfasts. We tore down the decorations, and I took home a “flowering” tree, which I used later as a prop for my graduation party. We called both her parents and mine, and much to my surprise we were permitted to participate in the all night breakfast circuit. We did not stay out all night. I brought her home about three in the morning. She seemed to have had a good time, and I certainly had. It was our only date, but it was a much bigger success than I hoped when I first asked her.
This story would not have been written had it not been for a review in the Akron Beacon Journal of my first “The Old Man and Me” book. It seems I went to two proms, but one was at another school in Portage County. A woman named Connie from Rootstown Township contacted me by e-mail after the review was published and said that I’d escorted her to the Prom at her school, Rootstown High. I had apparently done this at the request of her cousin Albert who was a classmate of mine at Crestwood High in Mantua. I escorted Connie and Albert escorted a friend of hers. To be honest, my memories of this event are very vague, and I’m not sure whether this was a Prom in my Junior Year or Senior Year, but I suspect it was Junior Year. In any case, I was happy to have my memory jogged.