I was reminiscing with friends about our first driving experiences, and I think mine were pretty unique.
My dad was a mechanic and owned a gas station, and I started working there when I was in 5th grade. One of our vehicles was a wrecker that we used to tow cars into the shop.
It was one of the more unusual vehicles you’d ever see. It had actually been some sort of army truck, but it looked like a veterinarian truck that was on steroids.
It had panels on both sides and the middle was open except for the wench to hook to cars. My dad painted the thing bright red and it looked like he used a broom to paint it with.
We were a Standard Oil Station, but Dad wasn’t the type of guy to waste money on decals or lettering, so it was just a big red truck.
Of course it was a straight stick, with the gear shift on the floor and shifting from one gear to the next was a pretty good aerobic workout.
Starting it was also an experience. Of course, you needed the key and had to turn it on, but there was also a switch on the steering column that you had to switch from off to on. Then you pushed a button to start it.
Whenever you parked, you needed to remember to not only turn off the key, but to flip the switch to off or it would run down the battery. Since I usually forgot to flip off the switch, we did a lot of battery charging. The battery charging was usually accompanied by a lot of ranting and raving.
The wrecker also had another function. We used to throw garbage in it during the week, and then once a week, Dad and I would take the garbage out to the dump. Obviously, this was when service stations often closed at 6 o’clock and dumps were dumps and not landfills.
Now, my dad was not a patient man; in fact, raving lunatic would probably be more accurate, so when he said to do something, I did it without any questions or hesitation.
One nice summer afternoon, before I was going into 7th grade, my dad said, “Take out the garbage.”
A lot of kids would have questioned that, but I’d been trained not to question, plus I was dying to drive. I had never driven the wrecker or anything else before, but Dad assumed that since I had watched him drive, I should be able to do it.
And I had been watching closely, just in case. I actually remembered the secret code for starting the beast and after a very jerky takeoff, I was headed to the dump at about 4 miles an hour, because I wasn’t ready to risk shifting gears.
There was no worry about cops, because our small town only had one, and he worked at night. Even if he’d have seen me and stopped me, all I would have had to say was, “Dad told me to,” and he have let me go.
So I made it to the dump, emptied the garbage and headed back. Now was the dilemma. I was not even in junior high and I was driving, so I really wanted my friends to see this, but I was driving a 2 ½ ton red radish of a truck. Decisions, decisions. I compromised and drove passed a couple of friend’s houses and even got to honk at one of my friends who was outside.
When I got back to the station, I panicked in stopping and forgot to push in the clutch, so the truck died, but I had made it. I did, of course, take out the key and forget to flip the switch to off, so the next day, when my dad had to go tow a car, the battery was dead, and I thought I’d never drive again, but it all worked out.
My second driving experience happened the next summer with my Uncle Lee. He was a large framed farmer and one of the nicest people I’d every met. He was my mom’s brother, so the difference between Lee and my dad was night and day.
Lee had an old Chevy, straight stick, with the lever on the steering column. I understood where the gears were, but that damn clutch would always be a problem.
I was staying at Lee’s farm for a week, as I often did in the summer, and one day he said, “Sornsy, let’s go learn to drive.”
To explain; my last name was Sorensen, so Lee always called me by that nickname.
The Chevy was parked out in the farmyard, and we did have some room to move around, so that was good.
I climbed in feeling confident. If I could drive that big red wrecker, I could surely handle this sissy Chevy. And there was no tricky switch to flip. Just turn the key on, and hit the starter button.
I pushed in the clutch, put it is first gear and started in right up like I had done this a hundred times. Then I let out the clutch and killed it dead.
Now Uncle Lee was a large man, but he didn’t laugh so much as he giggled, and when I killed the motor, he giggled.
“Give it a little more gas, Sornsy,” he advised between giggles.
So I tried again and killed the motor again.
Giggle, giggle, giggle.
Tried again. Killed it again.
Giggle, giggle, giggle.
Now I was pissed! This time we were going. Nope. Went about 8 feet jerking all the way and killed the motor.
Now the giggling was more like guffaws, as Uncle Lee was bent over giggling so hard he could barely breathe.
“More gas,” he chortled.
So I gave it gas and we shot across the farm yard, with chickens, cats and dogs scattering in every direction and Uncle Lee almost having a coronary from laughing so hard.
He recovered enough to say, “Stop!” I slammed on the brakes, but forgot about the clutch and killed the motor dead.
Uncle Lee got out of the car and staggered to the house because he was laughing so hard. I sat in the car for awhile, wondering why they had to put clutches in cars.
Well, somebody agreed with me, and the next year they came out with automatic transmission, and the next year, my dad bought a brand new Dodge that not only had an automatic transmission, but it was push button drive. All you had to do was push the D button to go forward and the R button to go backward.
They only had push button drive for a couple of years, and I can’t believe they haven’t brought that back.
I was really anxious to drive the Dodge, but since it was new, I thought I’d have to wait a couple of years, but Dad was full of surprises.
Every Sunday, we’d drive 30 miles to my paternal grandparent’s house for dinner with the whole tribe.
As we were coming out of the house to leave, Dad said, “You’re driving.”
I think I was 13 at the time, with no learner’s permit, of course, but I was really ready.
My sister was 8 or 9 at the time, and when Dad said, “You’re driving,” and tossed me the keys, she looked like he just announced that we were taking the space shuttle to the moon. She got in the back seat, like the trooper that she is, but I do think that was the only time the back seat belt actually got used.
The trip went smoothly, and I was disappointed that he didn’t let me drive home, but it was dark, and I think that somewhere in the back of his mind, he remembered the big red wrecker