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July 24, 2014, 3:40 pm

Stick shift, plus hill, plus red light: Help!

My trips to the YMCA since the beginning of this year have been challenging. I have been dealing with a problem I had not experienced in the past. I used to drive onto the parking lot and circle around for a few minutes waiting for a space to become available.

Not in recent weeks. A couple of YMCA regulars told me the crowded parking lot will be nonexistent for another month or two as the increased numbers we now see represent the “resolution crowd.” On a day when the lot was really jammed, a little patience enabled me to eventually find a place to park as people left. Perhaps patience is an understatement, as my wait was much longer than anticipated. In fact, several times I considered going home and returning on another day.

My waiting, however, had an unexpected benefit as what I observed was the inspiration for this column. It was not the waiting, but what I observed as drivers tried to get in and out of parking spaces. You have seen similar sights; people taking up two parking spaces; people being cut off by other drivers; automobiles parked so close it is almost impossible for the driver to leave; and the overall disrespectful behavior of drivers who take their time to exit a parking place.

My mind went back to those days when I did not know how to drive. I will not suggest that learning to drive today is different from learning to drive in the past. Some things, however, we did in the past that we do not do today. Reflect on your first day behind the wheel of an automobile and some of your experiences leading up to obtaining your driver’s license.

Anyone can learn to drive with time, patience and a good teacher. But the process is incomplete without access to an automobile. If you grew up in the ’50s, an automobile would have been scarce. Many of those automobiles that may have been accessible to practice driving were not in great shape. Most presented real challenges. Just think about manipulating those old De Soto, Buick Dynaflow and Hudson automobiles. They were built like tanks and were the size of a mini-tank. The experience was not simply pressing down on the accelerator and steering down the street, there was also the need for coordinating the movements of the clutch and the gear shift, located on the floor or on the steering column. There were few automatic transmissions back then. Automatic transmissions are standard today. If you want manual transmission, which allows you to shift gears, you must pay extra. If you learned to drive on a car with a manual transmission, you obviously had the experience of stopping on a hill. An inexperienced driver would find the automobile drifting backward. I learned to drive on a stick-shift automobile and the experience of stopping on a hill while waiting for the traffic light to change created great anxiety. The anxiety was sometimes so great that an inexperienced driver would put on the emergency brake and switch seats with the instructor. Do you recall the hand signals for a right or left turn, and for stopping?

So, who was that teacher who put you on the path to obtain your license? Fathers are generally cited as the ones that taught us how to drive. I can definitely relate to this. I will never forget sitting behind the steering wheel of my father’s 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air. I can still see this blue automobile, parked directly in front of our home, on a sunny Saturday morning with my father in the passenger seat. While this was more than 50 years ago, I can still remember my first driving lesson. I was ecstatic when my father reached over to give me the keys; it was a signal that I was graduating from adolescence to being a young adult. Unfortunately, the excitement lasted for a minute. I put the key in the ignition and started his automobile. The excitement reached another level. When I was told to move the gear to the drive position, my heart raced faster. But when my father told me to slowly push down on the accelerator, the automobile jumped onto the pavement; not on the curb, but squarely onto the pavement. My father prevented any damage as he was able to slam down the brake. Needless to say, this was my first driving lesson with my father and my last. He did accompany me for my driver’s test, but this was months after I learned to drive through a means by which many of you may have learned, back in the day.

Stories about learning to drive with the help of fathers are precious! I could not find anyone from back in the day who learned to drive from his or her mother. But the stories of fathers as driving teachers are numerous. One story shared by a colleague was of his father taking him out for his first driving lesson. Upon returning home, his father drank several glasses of Scotch and overdid it with the amount of aspirin he put into his system. So, his future driving lessons came from his brother. He recognized that it was necessary to be comfortable with the person who was your teacher. The experience with his father eliminated any possibility of this being a comfortable driving experience. Yet, as most of us know from being on the learning side and in more recent years being on the teaching side, helping a child learn to drive is one of those things you want to do for your child, while at the same time, it is something you dread. The thoughts that go through your mind as a parent are many. Challenges include being out late at night, having the proper insurance and financial demands with regard to purchasing or co-signing for an automobile or simply involving its regular upkeep.

A number of young men, describing how they learned to drive clearly had more guts than I. I could not imagine stealing my father’s automobile while he was at work, asleep or out of the area. Now, those who admitted such behavior did not refer to it as stealing; their description of using their father’s automobile without permission was characterized as “borrowing.” Speak with your friends or review literature on how people learned to drive, and you will find that “borrowing” Dad’s automobile was and remains a somewhat common practice.

The risks involved with a young person borrowing a parent’s automobile are greater today. The likelihood of police stopping a group of kids piled into a parent’s automobile was not likely back in the day. Any group of teenagers in an automobile today is a prime target for a police stop. Furthermore, the use of illegal substances was not the threat, back then, as it is today. Insurance was a non-issue in the ’50s; quite different from the mandatory requirements of today. Thus, the risk of driving without proper permission and credentials did not factor into the decision to “borrow without approval” a parent’s automobile, back in the day.

For those who grew up in the country, the process by which you learned to drive was simple. My mother, who never had a driver’s license, told of going out in the woods in Walterboro, S.C., where she drove a tractor, truck, automobile or some other type of vehicle. She received no lessons from anyone; she learned on her own in the wide open spaces, like many of you or your ancestors who grew up, “down home.”

Some of you learned through private driving lessons. Economic conditions did not make this a reality for many of us. Thus, for a number of us, learning to drive was a result of an activity I alluded to earlier. Like me, a number of you learned to drive through driver’s education programs in school. These have virtually disappeared from high school curricula today. You would get better insurance rates if you learned to drive through driver’s education.

Obviously, obtaining a driver’s license involves passing a test. If you sat on a parking lot as I have done and watched people fly recklessly through the streets, I know you crave the responsible driving, in the responsible ways we learned in the past. Today, most old-timers also yearn for that respectful and courteous driving behavior that was basic to most drivers, back in the day.

 

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146.