I was thinking back on high school and various memories from that time in my life when snippets of learning to drive popped into my mind. My driver’s ed teacher was Coach Skelton, and there were both horrors and joys in having him as my instructor.
Coach Skelton–that’s what we called him; he wasn’t Mr. Skelton to any student–was one of the football coaches, and his demeanor as a driver’s ed instructor was one befitting such a sport. He’d cuss at me. Scream at me. Yell at me and say things such as, “Newburn, if you don’t fucking parallel park that god-damned fucking car in the next god-dammed fucking minute, I’m going to climb in there in punch you in the face.”
He was like that. He scared the heck out of me because I had no reason to believe he wouldn’t be true to his word.
He was also fun to be around because he wasn’t as formal as any other teacher I’d known, and I rather felt like I was hanging out with an adult when we were together, which for my 15-soon-going-on-16 year-old self, was kind of a big deal. He cussed, he was informal; and, well, it was different.
He’d have students, such as myself, drive him on errands and wait for him in the parking lot while he did whatever he needed to do at the store or business. I figured he probably wasn’t supposed to do such things, but I thought it was a rather efficient use of his time to double up his activities like that, and I didn’t mind. He usually wasn’t gone longer than five or ten minutes, and as we drove him around (there were two students in a car at a time, if I recall correctly), I got to see and discover more of the nearby area, so there was that.
He’d get hungry and tell me we were going to lunch during what was supposed to be our allocated driving-practice time. I knew it wasn’t quite kosher what he was doing, but as my family rarely / ever/ never went out to eat (an annual trip to Jack-in-the-Box was about as far out as we’d go), and he liked to go to Piccolo’s, which at the time, in Columbia, Maryland’s, few-and-far-in-between restaurant scene, felt very fancy and somewhat exotic to me. Tagging along with him ushered me into a world I wouldn’t have known otherwise. I don’t think he paid for my meals. Pretty sure he didn’t, but that’s a fuzzy part of my memory. Maybe he did to buy our silence. I was pulling in two dollars a week in allowance, plus babysitting money at a dollar an hour, so I can’t imagine me wanting to spend that on a meal, a drink, tax and a tip. Anyway, that’s a fuzzy part of my memory at the moment.
The school — or whomever it was that was offering the driver’s ed class — had big clunky, 1970s automatic American cars which we would use for our driving lessons. One day, on my first beyond-the-parking-lot driving practice, I was at a stop light, on an upward-facing incline and planning to turn left. It had just started spitting a bit of rain maybe 10 or 15 minutes earlier. Nothing much to speak of. My green arrow came on and I — well, I put my foot on the gas, rather heavily, it seems. I mean, I had to get the car up the hill, right? So I needed more gas, right? (At least that’s what my novice-to-driving brain thought.)
Well, this big clunky ginormous car–with me giving the gas pedal my all–went flying into the intersection, did a 270-degree turn right in the middle of the intersection, and, miraculously, I hit no one, nothing and no other cars. But there I was, suddenly flipped in a direction I wasn’t planning on going in, my heart racing as the car had just spun around, and not knowing what to do.
Coach Skelton, of course, had plenty to say. Mostly in the form of cussing and screaming at me and giving me directions as I sat in the driver’s seat, in shock. I mean, one minute I was at a stop light with my left-turn signal blinking, and the following minute, I was facing in the completely wrong direction and wondering why we hadn’t just heard the sound of metal on metal as I easily could have hit another car in the intersection. But more importantly, he went into action, immediately, taking over the wheel from his position in the passenger seat and telling me to give the car some gas, but not as much as before. Then he miraculously got the car repositioned– avoiding the other cars in the intersection, whose drivers, I assume, were probably having their own “WTF!, OMG! Thank-goodness-I-didn’t-get-hit” moments–and back into a lane and heading in the originally intended direction.
That was certainly a teaching moment and an opportunity for me to learn about hydroplaning, which is a danger and something to watch out for when the earliest bits of rains come down on roads covered with a thin layer of oil from cars. (Now I know. Oh, yes. Now, I know better.)
Even with the trial-by-fire driving experiences with a fiery-tempered instructor, I did my get my learner’s permit as soon as I possibly could, though I failed my first license test when I knocked over a cone while parallel parking. Maybe the residual memory of Coach Skelton telling me he was going to punch me in the face if I didn’t parallel park the car traumatized me. I still get the sweats sometimes when I have to parallel park, and I don’t know whether it’s that ancient memory or simply that parallel parking can be a bit of a challenge.
My parents taught my how to use a stick on our tiny little Honda Civic station wagon. Little bugger that it was. I do remember my dad took me out one night in the middle of a snow storm purportedly to learn how to drive in the snow, though I think he really wanted some fun. We went to my high school’s parking lot, and he told me to floor it, slam on the brakes and then navigate the car as it skidded across the lot.
I don’t recall, at this moment, a whole lot of laughter with my dad, but I remember that night. I was thrilled. He was laughing, and I was caught up in the excitement of it all: speeding, breaking, the car zigging and zagging, and me trying to correct the car in the counter-intuitive manner required of driving in the snow.
It was never on my radar or even in my imaginations that I would have a car in my teens. (I did eventually buy a moped for $300; that I could afford.) I didn’t have the money to purchase a car (even a used one would have been beyond my means), nor to maintain it. My parents had their own financial woes, expressed in some degree by my mom working two full-time, back-to-back jobs as a nurse (shift one was at the Columbia Medical Plan, and shift two was at the hospital for the evening shift).
Yet, miraculously, my mom decided to let me use her car. She offered, and I said yes! She’d get a ride to job #1 around 8 a.m. with a neighbor who worked at the same location; and someone would give her a ride to job #2 (about a half mile away) — she had to use a half hour of her vacation time every day because she had to leave job #1 half an hour before her shift ended so she could be on time for job #2—and then I would pick her up at night around midnight, or 1 a.m. (She also picked up extra shifts whenever she could.) So, yeah, It was like that for her. And for us.
Her generosity in letting me use her car was such a bonanza of good fortune for me. I had wheels! Wheels!
We lived 2.1 miles driving/walking distance to Oakland Mills High School, but the school used the “crow flies” approach to calculating whether a student was eligible for school bus service and, apparently, “the crow” could get to the school in under two miles, which meant I was within the walk-to-school distance. Both ways. Two miles there, and two miles back, every day. That was the school’s policy in the glory of early, under-protected Gen X days. Rain or shine, or snow or drenching humidity, or bitter cold or whatever. Oakland Mills Middle School was right next to the high school, and we were eligible for bus service at the bottom of our street, but I guess they figured bigger, older high school students could walk four miles a day, and it was all good. Not being particularly thrilled about such a walk, every single day, in my freshman and sophomore years; rather than walking to school, I would walk about three-quarters of a mile in the opposite direction of my school to get to the closest school bus stop available.
So, yeah, having a car and being able to drive to school was huge. But it was much more than that. My mom’s generosity with her car gave me the freedom to be a teenager. To be on a team. To participate in team practices. To go to games (on the team bus, of course) and to be able to drive home. It was a cell-phone-free world then. I don’t even remember if they had pay phones in the school, so how and when I would have reached out to my parents to pick me up after a game … I don’t even know how that would have happened. I guess we had to have a pay phone somewhere at school. (I think.) It’s not as though our team bus pulled up to the school at a scheduled time when we were coming back from a game.
While some other kids, or other kids’ parents, would give me a ride here and there, I needed to be able to get home at night after games. Reliably. With my mom working two full-time jobs that wasn’t going to happen, and my dad, well, he was physically present but “out there;” and I don’t think it ever occurred to me, my mom, or even him, that he’d be a reliable source for transportation, and so, thankfully, she decided to let me use her car.
While I appreciated the freedom tremendously, I was also an out-of-control teenager. I now had a place to get high (in the car) before going in to school, which I did regularly. Though, truth be told, the calibre of weed (and it was “weed” back then) was so poor, I don’t really know how high I actually got. And more than once I went out drinking and drove home, thankfully, injuring not a soul, nor getting pulled over.
More stories about high school, driving around and whatever other messes I got into abound, of course, but for now and today, these stories are what popped into my mind.
I’m so thankful my mother let me use her car; I’m so thankful I returned it to her in one piece; and I’m so thankful I myself, despite not always making the best (in terms of safety) choices, also remained in one piece.
Found this video on a class reunion page from some time back. 1975. Oakland Mills. School, village center, et cetera. https://youtu.be/e9Em0Qz0eOg
Here is one of the gruesome videos they’d show us in driver’s ed. Some students, after watching films such as these, would throw up. They were intentionally gruesome, though I don’t know if that actually changed any behaviors. I still drank and drove as a teen. And — admittedly and horribly — even later in life.