Hugh recently got his learner’s permit, after several Kafka-esque visits to the Pennsylvania Department of Motor Vehicles, now located conveniently behind the ACME  at Granite Run Mall.  During these visits, we never had the right papers or the right method of payment or even the right day (closed on Mondays, everyone, although the clerk did not tell us this when we said “OK, we’ll be back on Monday!”  Thank you so much.)

Now that that hugely frustrating process is behind us, Hugh must log 50 hours of road experience.  He enters his driving time in a little notebook in the console, and asks Chris or me  to trade places and ride shotgun on even the shortest of errands. 

While drafting this post, initially I wrote:  “Much has changed in the world in the last 100 years, but not the experience of parents riding, white-knuckled, in the passenger seat while their children take the wheel.”

But it turns out I’m wrong about that, at least when it comes to our family tree.  I called my dad to get his memories of learning to drive, and as it happens, his experience was drastically different.

1.   It was the Depression

2.  It was the Wild West (rural Kansas), which meant no law enforcement and certainly no eleborately byzantine Department of Motor Vehicles

3.   My dad taught himself to drive at 13.  He would wait until his big brother Ed fell asleep on the couch, then ask permission to drive his car.  When Ed groaned in his sleep, my dad would craftily interpret this as “Yes, sure, please feel free to take my keys and drive my car even though you are a clueless child.” 

4.  Climbing into the Model A, little Billy would, through trial and error, figure out how to shift the gears and make the thing  go. 

5. There were no driver’s licenses issued at that time and in that place (THIS JUST IN:  my dad emailed later that he believes his first license was issued when he was a junior in high school, for one dollar.  He did not have to actually show up to get the card, let alone be tested.)

In a way, I envy my grandparents, blissfully unaware of what was going on (presumably) and free of the burden of riding along, tracking 50 hours of practice.

Even in one generation, things have changed radically, I realized after a few more seconds of reflection.  When I was in high school in late-1970s Missouri, Driver’s Ed was part of our standard curriculum.  I will never forget the graphic, bloody movies they showed us during the classroom portion (“Highway Hypnosis” was a stand-out), and my confusion over the concept of hydroplaning.  Why would anyone deliberately steer a car onto a body of water?  In turn, the instructor never clarified that what he meant was a shallow layer of water on the actual road, nor did I ask.  Years later I finally figured it out, in one of those random, belated ephiphanies that sometimes happen in life.

And, just like a Saturday Night Live skit, our Driver’s Ed instructor was the football coach with too much time on his hands during the day.  So, to fully earn his keep, he was shanghaied into teaching kids to drive.  From the classroom slasher movies, we advanced to simulators – primitive computer booths situated, for some bizarre reason, at a local elementary school.  We sat there at the controls, steering our way through hair-raising lawless streets in which buses made U-turns and balls  bounced between parked cars, where old ladies dashed out in front of us, and heedless children shoved each other into our path.  The boys all thought it was very cool to set the simulators to manual transmission, so I did that too, not knowing a thing about how to shift gears.  As  a result, my grades on the simulator were abyssmal.

Then there was the driving practice, which took place during the school day.  We would walk out to the practice sedan with Coach, who was wearing his amber-leather-sleeved felt athletic jacket.  He would always lean over to check that we girls were wearing our seat belts, which involved brushing our long hair out of the way so he could make sure, by creepily close scrutiny, that our shoulder belt was in use.  We would have been amazed if a voice from the future had said “Had you been born 10 years later, you could sue him for that.”  While tooling along the country roads near our Rock Bridge High, we were supposed to notice if the light in the rear window was red or yellow.  Eyes focused on the road ahead, I seldom glanced at the rear view mirror, hence scored poorly on this section too.

Our final stage of Driver’s Ed was advancing to the track course at an abandoned airport.  I remember navigating through the orange cones on the runway with my driving partner - a funny boy by the last name was Dingus who kept making me laugh.  That was very cool and race-car-driverish.

And of course, on other occasions, my parents rode along, white-knuckled in the passenger seat, while I took curves too fast in our big old baby blue Rambler station wagon.  I remember my dad lecturing me sternly for just such an infraction, near the A-frame hot dog restaurant Der Wienerschnitzel on Business Loop 70.  Funny, the details you remember after so many years.  Now I’m the one commanding:  “HUGH!  Use the brakes when you’re on a curve!!”

So that part has not changed in two generations, but much of the rest of it, I must admit, has.   Kids don’t teach themselves to drive anymore, and neither do the schools.

Wish us luck.

And you?  What do you remember about learning to drive?
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