Behind the Wheel

When did the excitement of sitting behind the wheel of the family car to run an errand, even one as mundane as picking up a loaf of bread or gallon of milk, fade away? I can still recall the anticipation of the days when Grandma would throw me the car keys and entrust me to venture out alone for the five-minute ride to the supermarket. My life had changed. No longer would I be dependent on someone else to literally bring home the bread. A whole new world had opened up for me.

The route had to be carefully planned and involved weighing the cool-ness factor against fear. Naturally, driving up Main Street increased the odds of being seen. Still, my memories of Driver’s Ed class, involving that hair-raising ride up the narrow, winding, and busiest street in town on my first day behind the wheel tilted the odds in favor of an alternate, more peaceful itinerary.

I recalled my lessons with my teacher and parents before reaching a decision. My young instructor, Frank, who was married to one of my cousins, threw us into the fire on the first day, directing us up Main Street. (Are you surprised that my teacher was related?) As you all know, if a large truck passes in the other direction and cars are not parked close to the curb, maneuvering up that street is not for the faint of heart.

The second day involved driving up Route 10, where Frank ordered me to move into the passing lane next to the concrete highway divider. “No, no, no, don’t slow down. Keep pace with the traffic,” he would bark. He must have been on drugs to choose that job. No sane person would. I wonder if any studies have ever been done on the psychology of driving instructors.

Another day, he decided we should visit my cousin Nancy, who lived down a very steep, cliff-like driveway with little room to turn around, so that provided me with great practice doing my “k-turns.” By the time my lessons were completed, I thought I could do anything, and was released to Grandma and Grandpa for fine tuning my skills.

I would practice parallel parking in the street between two garbage cans and drive down dead-end streets to work on my turning skills. I don’t recall how long before I was permitted to get my license, but I don’t believe the process from start to finish was nearly as long as it is today.

Grandma was the lucky parent who accompanied met to the Wayne DMV where I took my test. Of course I easily passed after all those spine-chilling lessons, which was a piece of cake since the test was taken on a relaxing course, not on the streets as it was in North Carolina for two of you.

I specifically recall the drive home, which was through Lincoln Park. I was happily buzzing toward home while Grandma was riding shotgun. A car was parked on the right, and a moving van-sized truck was heading toward me on the left. Without slowing down, I squeezed through the narrow road, which was not much wider than an alley and said to Grandma, “Do you think I’ll make it?”

I believe, despite my growing confidence behind the wheel, when Grandma first sent me out on my solo errand, I chose the path less traveled. It was less stressful and longer.

Motor Vehicle Musings

As a kid, unlike all of you, I had no opinion of the DMV. It was something Grandpa took care of, because Grandma always said that cars were “his department.” As a professional chemist and perpetual schemer, Grandpa had opinions regarding how to pass the emissions inspections, and I guarantee his methods were unique and would probably be frowned upon by every inspector.

One day, before Dad’s annual visit to the local motor vehicle station, Grandpa pulled him aside and insisted he come out to the backyard for a demonstration on a guaranteed method on how to pass the test.

He removed the lids from two garbage cans and turned both upside down. Grandpa then proceeded to fill one with gasoline, the other with alcohol, and then tossed a lighted match into each one. He then instructed Dad to observe the resulting smoke from the two sources.  The alcohol fire produced no smoke. Finally, he repeated the experiment, this time using a mixture of gasoline and alcohol. Again, like the fire using pure alcohol, there was no smoke, so Grandpa concluded that the addition of alcohol would greatly reduce or eliminate any smoke. That was our scientist father! I recommend that you DO NOT do this.

Grandpa’s lesson and advice to Dad was to wait until the gasoline tank of his car was almost empty, and then add about a gallon of alcohol to the tank immediately before heading to the inspection station. After passing the inspection, Grandpa told Dad to proceed directly to a gas station to fill up his tank. This would dilute the alcohol and prevent damage to the engine. According to Grandpa, this would insure that, regardless of how much pollution an automobile would emit, his method would insure a pass. I think Grandpa missed the point of auto emission tests.

I never heard that story, or maybe I just forgot it. In any case, each year, as an adult, I would go on my annual pilgrimages to the DMV. I always worried I would fail (proof that Dad never taught me Grandpa’s proven method), and I always chose the worst time to go. The lines were consistently long, so I was convinced there was never a good time to have my car inspected.

Therefore, when I would go with the three of you, in preparation, we would stop at Toys R Us first. Each of you was permitted to choose one toy to entertain yourself. Still, it was torturous, so after that first visit to the DMV, whenever one of you misbehaved, rather than sending you to your room or making you go to bed earlier, I would threaten a trip to Motor Vehicles as punishment. “No, no, I’ll be good”, would be the unanimous response.

Thankfully, South Carolina does not care if we end up like China with alarming-levels of air pollution. There are no requirements here for any vehicle inspections whatsoever! Look out lungs!