It’s a rite of passage. It’s among the first indicators of approaching adulthood. I’m pretty sure it’s as important to a young boy’s self-image today as it was in the early 1960’s and beyond that, into the early ‘30’s when my own father was envisioning himself behind the wheel of some vintage roadster. I may be wrong, but when I was in my teens it never seemed to me that girls harbored the same passion for driving that my buddies all did.

The ‘60’s…it was a time when the Beach Boys sang love songs to their cars, and guys all thought that was really cool … ”…’round, ‘round, git around, I git around …” and yes, they said “git.” And music critics fell all over themselves calling Brian Wilson a brilliant lyricist. I never fell for it.

“I’m gittin’ bugged drivin’ up and down the same strip/ I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip/my buddies and me are gittin’ real well known/ all the bad guys know us and they leave us alone …”

“none of the guys go steady ‘cuz it wouldn’t be right/ to leave your best girl home on a Saturday night.”

Really … bring on the Pulitzer Prize for literature!

Sad to say, I was the dweeb who didn’t believe in that drivel, largely because I didn’t have — and wasn’t likely to get — a steady girl. Someone has to be the Class Dork. I had the scrawny, rounded shoulders, the sunken chest, the thick-lensed glasses, held in place by Dumbo ears … I was made for the role! If they had substituted a picture of Goofy for mine in the yearbook, it would have gotten by without notice.

All of that just to tell you this … not only did I not rush out to get a driver’s license, I didn’t even bother learning to drive. I was the best pedestrian you could ask for. Nobody could walk better than I could. I briefly considered becoming an Olympic walker, but those guys just looked too ludicrous for even the likes of me! And they wore funny shorts that would have shown off my pipe-cleaner legs to serious disadvantage — no babe magnets there!

Time went on, and somehow I found myself still walking in my early 20’s. It was time to man up.

Dear old Dad invited me to occupy the driver’s seat of his old stick shift Saab, while he crawled, looking like a condemned man walking the Green Mile, into the passenger seat. I’ve seldom been so terrified in my life. My knowledge of manual transmissions was on the same level as my comprehension of nuclear physics … absolutely nil. I won’t go into details … I can’t because I’ve forced the memory into recesses that can’t be reached. I just know Dear old Dad never sat in the passenger seat again in his long life. I’ve learned since that transmissions are expensive.

On the day that I finally screwed my courage to the sticking point and headed out for my Driver’s Test, Dear old Dad took the wheel and drove me there in the same misbegotten Saab. Now … back then the test was conducted on the streets of Towanda, but not on any of them that were on the flat. It was all hills and stops signs, and uphill left hand turns. It was, in fact, hell on wheels.

I lie … the parking lot that made for a start and finish point was level. The problem was that I had to find reverse, back around, and then find first gear in order to completely destroy the rest of my day. I managed the back out and turn around okay — I even found first gear. It was stepping on the gas that did me in. That poor little Saab reared right up on its rear hooves and shrieked bloody murder while I continued to romp on that gas pedal for all I was worth. Trooper Paddock, sitting next to me, spat out “Take off the emergency brake!” And I crumbled into muck. It was a very long road test. He instructed me to make an uphill left hand turn at the first stop sign we came to. Five minutes later, we were still there, and I was still stalling it out every 10 seconds. From the corner of my eye, I could see the good trooper twitching involuntarily. By the grace of the manual transmission gods, we finally got to the highest peak in the county seat, wherein lay another flat spot. The man’s blood pressure must have been off the scale … he was several unhealthy shades of purple and his eyes were mottled tennis balls, barely contained by his overhanging brow ridge. “Make a K Turn over by that railroad tie,” rasped from his thick lips as a splatter of spittle speckled the dash and the windshield in front of him.

Astoundingly, I accomplished that K Turn on the first attempt, only to face plunging downhill and negotiating a right hand turn back into the lot where I had dug matching ruts several inches deep trying to exit the place at the beginning. The fool failed me. He had to have known I’d be coming back … what was he thinking?

And so I did come back — with an automatic transmission, and a whole new attitude. Same tester. Same result. I was ticked! But I came back a third time. And that uniformed demon fairly sprinted from the building to the lot so he could be my tester one more time. He was like a man possessed. He trembled with excitement as he climbed in, and I knew. I just knew. “You need a little more practice.” I’ve never been one to bellow obscenities into the face of a person in uniform, and I’ve never come closer to breaking that rule than at that moment. I did, however, manage to splatter spittle in his face as I challenged him for an explanation, so there was a small measure of satisfaction in that.

Later that summer, I tested in State College, where I fairly dazzled the grandmotherly lady who sat there, clipboard in hand, chatting and encouraging every perfect move, including the ten minutes it took me to back up in a straight line. The only thing missing as she granted me passing marks was someone singing “round, round, git around, I git around, wah wah ooh.”


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