DRIVER'S ED?

Like most juniors and seniors in high school, I expected to take Driver's Ed. Unlike most upperclassmen, I had zero desire to drive a car. Growing up on Long Island, it was easy for me to hop a train if I wanted to go into the city or grab a bus if I wanted to go to a shopping mall. But, to be honest, if I couldn't bike someplace I would just hitch a ride. Hitchhiking was something I felt safe doing and did regularly. Occasionally, my best friend Lenie would drive me somewhere like the beach if he could borrow his brother's car.


























Nevertheless, I needed to take Driver's Ed. so that I could drive one of the family cars if I needed to. I signed up for the course. Unlike today, Driver's Education was one of the offerings in school. Today, I think, students often get picked up after school by the driving instructor for one company or another. Some time ago, schools stopped offering the training, probably for insurance cost reasons. Anyway, my instructor was Mr. Arthur Kessler, one of the school's science teachers, who was lovingly dubbed "Big Daddy" by his students (See Below).























"Big Daddy" Kessler thought himself a pretty cool guy and would show up in front of the school with our practice vehicle after our last class. He would invariably be sporting a pair of Ray-Bans to enhance his "cool" quotient. Cars were different in those days. There were no bucket seats in front unless you paid extra for them or bought a fancy sports car. Most cars had front and back bench seats, so you could fit three people in both the front and back in supposed comfort. As you can see below, there are seatbelts (lap only), which were not mandated in the US until my junior year in high school.

When it was my turn to get behind the wheel, I was nearly paralyzed with fear. My knees were wobbling so much that it was hard for me to press the accelerator pedal. But "Big Daddy" talked me through it, and I was able to get around the designated course. We practiced in the school parking lot where the teachers parked, primarily I suspect because that's where the least damage could be done since the students' cars were definitely more expensive than those driven by their teachers. Teachers often drove second or third-hand cars to school--old VW bugs or beat-up Chevys.


I liked the other four students in my car, and we all enjoyed our lessons with "Big Daddy". One student, though, named Steve Rubell (no relation to the future owner of the infamous Studio 54), started missing classes until he hadn't shown up to practice for more than a month! On the last day of Driver's Ed. lessons, we were all supposed to have a little tune-up lesson, reminders of all the things we needed to remember before we took our Driver's Test. Who shows up but Steve Rubell! We all looked at each other and then tried to gauge "Big Daddy's" reaction behind his sunglasses. He, as always, kept his cool and told Steve, "Well, we've missed you Steve. Why don't you get behind the wheel first?" Steve said that he had scheduled his Driver's Test for the very next day and since the student driver's bane is parallel parking, "Big Daddy" told Steve that he should try that first. There was an oval in the teacher's parking lot that afforded student drivers the opportunity to practice their parallel parking, and so that's where we headed.


I have replicated on my grandsons' play mat rug (See Below) how things were set up. Ignore the green strip in the middle of the street. In the image below, imagine that we are in the gray(silver) car driving up the street looking for a place to parallel park. As we pass the yellow sports car, we notice what appears to be an available space ahead of the red car and behind the black pick-up truck.





















































So, Steve says "Up by that black pick-up looks like a great spot," and "Big Daddy" agrees. Steve says he has never practiced parallel parking before. The rest of us all look at each other in disbelief. He has never practiced parallel parking and he has his Driver's Test the next day?! But, Steve slowly pulls up next to the black pick-up truck just as he is supposed to do.

He pulls even with the black truck, about a foot or 18 inches from the side of the truck, exactly as we were all taught. He gets his bearings and then proceeds to put the car in Park and turn off the ignition. He has parked parallel to the black pick-up truck. He has PARALLEL PARKED! He then looks at "Big Daddy" for approval. "Big Daddy" doesn't say anything. He looks at the rest of us, and as if by some symbiotic power of mind melding he tacitly manages to convince us all that this will be a delicious moment of payback. He turns to Steve and says, "Come on, Steve. You're lying to us. You've been practicing all along!" Steve bubbles over with pride, "No, honestly, this is the first time!" The rest of us join in a chorus of congratulations and admiration. Not wanting to douse the spirit and enthusiasm with an acknowledgement of the ugly reality, "Big Daddy" says, "There's no point continuing today's lesson. Steve has provided us the inspiration for you all to go and do well on your Driver's Tests. Let's call it a day." Steve beamed. We all drove back to the front of the school, got out, and headed home! No one said a word. You might, dear reader, think it was a cruel thing to do, but we all relished the image in our heads of Steve pulling the same maneuver the very next day at the DMV! What a look was going to register on the DMV official's face as he looked up from his checklist! Did Steve deserve it? How could he not?


Unfortunately, many people still drove standard shift cars that required the use of a third pedal--the clutch--and the shifting of gears depending on the desired speed of a car. I had only practiced driving in school vehicles (automatic shift), but my family's two cars were both standard shifts. I went out with my father once, but he was so judgmental and so lacking in empathy for someone trying to drive this kind of car for the first time that I was reduced to bitter tears and pledged as I pulled into the driveway that I would never drive with my father again. I kept that promise.


Thus, I did not get my license. I went off to college. I went to grad school. It was only after I was about to start a job that the necessity for a driver's license came to the fore. I had actually lost out on a part-time job with a funeral home some months earlier because I didn't have a license. The funeral home director offered me the job as long as I would sleep one night of the week on the premises to handle emergency calls. When I told him I had no driver's license, the offer was pulled. He said, "You know we need someone who can go to people's houses to pick up their jewelry or fake eyes or what have you."


So, I used my future wife's car to practice in and took that car to the DMV. In the 1970s, there was a brief period where shoulder harnesses were added to the seat belts and buzzers were installed to remind you if you had not buckled up. For some cars, including my wife's, you could not engage the ignition if you were not fully belted. Many people uncoupled the wiring attached to the seatbelts, but I had no need or desire to do so since I was scrupulous about wearing them. Unfortunately, the system occasionally acted up. I arrived for my driver's test at the DMV on a day with monsoon-like conditions. I parked, ran inside the DMV to tell the official I was ready for the test, and then I ran back. I was thoroughly soaked at this point. I bemoaned the fact that the person assigned to determine whether I was a Pass or a Fail was not likely to be in a positive mood given that he would soon be soaked. I buckled the seatbelt, but the buzzer kept sounding as if I hadn't. It was a persistent offensive drone, comparable to the sound of a gnat lodged in one's ear, only much louder. I got out of the car into the torrential rain to try to fix the seatbelt, but no matter how I tried, I couldn't get the car to start. American cars were very poorly made in this period, so it came as no surprise to me to see the invasion of Datsuns (Nissans) and Toyotas on the highways in the ensuing years. The Japanese believed in quality control! Another issue was the air filtration system. Because it was humid outside, my windows all fogged up. No matter how high I set the blowers (no A/C), I couldn't defog any of the windows! At that point, my DMV rep opens the passenger door. After a minute or two, I did get the car to start. Unfortunately, the buzzer never disengaged and we both had to listen to the incessant whine throughout the drive. When I got to the last part of the test, parallel parking, I realized I would be parking between cones and not actual cars. With actual cars, I might have been able to make out hazy shapes through the befogged rear windshield and had a chance. But with cones, it was hit or miss. I backed into a space I couldn't see from any window. I think I got to about 18 inches from the curb. The DMV guy opened his door and said, "If you can get a little closer without taking it out and trying again, you have a chance." I looked at him and shook my head. I'll just wait until next time.

A month later I took my test again. I didn't drive as well as I had the first time, but I passed.