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The drive to learn to drive

When growing up on The Commons, like most teenagers, I looked forward to the red-letter day when I would receive my driver’s licence. Unfortunately, my father did not anticipate this occasion with equal enthusiasm. Possibly, his negativity stemmed from my older sister Mary’s unfortunate experience as a new driver.

As a teeanger, she had shown little interest in learning how to drive. However, shortly after her twenty-first birthday, impulsively, she decided to buy a car. Since our Uncle Bob was a used car salesman, she knew the go-to person who could put her behind the wheel. It was the perfect example of cart before the horse, when Mary purchased a two-toned Plymouth coupe, without having taken a single driving lesson.

Uncle Bob had promised to teach her how to drive, but after giving Mary one or two short lessons, he suggested she might want to ask one of her friends to instruct her. She followed his advice and her friend Eileen took her to the Picton fairgrounds track for practice sessions.

Mary had been driving for only a short time when she decided to visit a friend in Cressy. It was a beautiful summer’s day when she happily set out. Later, when recounting the events of that fateful afternoon, she would recall that she had been playing the car radio as she drove along. She admitted that she had been speeding, when she veered off the road and the wheels of her car drifted onto the gravel shoulder. The radio was playing a current hit titled The Happy Wanderer when Mary’s coupe overturned in the ditch. When she emerged unhurt, from the wreckage, The Happy Wanderer was still singing the praises of the open road.

Unfortunately, Mary had borrowed a rather hefty sum from the bank to finance her car. Uncle Bob had assured her that she could reduce her expenses by opting for a bare bones insurance policy. The damage to her vehicle which had been caused by the accident was not covered. The car was a write-off, but my sister was forced to continue making bank payments on it for the full period of her loan.

My father cautioned me that the privilege of becoming a driver carried with it heavy responsibilities. Grudgingly, he consented to give me driving lessons, but they did not prove successful. Dad cringed, each time I stalled his new Plymouth, while attempting to let out the clutch. When I over-steered, he would yell loudly, “You’re giving her too much wheel.”  Each time the speedometer inched past 30 mph, he would holler, “You’re going too fast.” Discouraged by his comments, I temporarily lost interest in learning how to drive.

A year passed before I was once again persuaded to take the wheel. One night, my boyfriend and I had gone dancing at Martin’s, near Outlet Park. During the course of the evening, he asked why I had never learned to drive and I explained my father’s reluctance to teach me. Immediately, he volunteered to take over my lessons and insisted that I drive his parents’ new Chevrolet on the way home. He had parked in a grassy lot near Martin’s and my first challenge would be to manouevre the vehicle onto the road. To do this, it was necessary to put it in reverse.

In my early lessons, I had experienced considerable difficulty in driving straight ahead. Reversing had not been covered during lessons with my father. However, my boyfriend assured me that it was a simple procedure and said he would coach me through it. I followed his instructions, but when he said “give it a little gas”, I stepped rather heavily on the pedal. The car shot backward into a tree and we heard the sound of breaking glass. I had taken out a tail-light.

My boyfriend, who moments earlier had assured me that learning to drive was a cinch, now looked frightened. Somehow, he would have to find a way to break it to his parents that a their new car was now missing a tail-light. I shared his concern and volunteered to pay for the damage. However, since I was still in school and had no weekend job, I was not certain of how I would do this. I was not about to confess to my parents that I had foolishly attempted to drive someone else’s new car, at night.

On the way home, my boyfriend and I considered various ways in which we could account for the smashed tail-light. He assured me that telling his parents the truth was out of the question. He would be grounded for the rest of the summer, if he confessed to allowing me to drive their car. Finally, it was agreed that he would explain the accident by saying that he had backed up without noticing the tree in the parking area.

When we spoke the following day, he told me that his explanation of the incident had been accepted without question. However, he would be unable to take me to the movies that night, as planned, because he was grounded.

I was 24 years old, when finally I received my driver’s licence. I had taken a reporter’s job with The Intelligencer and urgently required wheels. Luckily, I happened to be stabling my horse at the fairgrounds barn, where two of my fellow boarders were licensed driving instructors. They kindly volunteered to come to my rescue. Since I needed a driver’s licence to do my job, I was an eager student. I had very little time to refine my driving skills and the pressure was on.

Despite my friends’ best efforts, I failed my initial driver’s test. When told by the examiner to turn right at the red light, I panicked and did so without first stopping. Undeterred, I booked a second test, later in the month. This time, I was successful. When I told one of my instructors that I had passed, he shook his head and replied, “Either they were stupid or you were stupendous.”

I was a cautious driver, in the months after receiving my licence. I continued to take lessons with my instructors and gradually became more confident. My father had given me his ten-year-old Plymouth car, which had push-button drive, and I drove it for nearly a year before venturing to buy a vehicle of my own. I waved cheerily to Uncle Bob as I drove off the car lot, behind the wheel of another pre-owned Plymouth. Finally, I was on the road to a lifetime of happy motoring.

Filed Under: Margaret Haylock-Capon

About the Author: Maggie Haylock is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter who has co-authored several books with her husband, Alan Capon.

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