I grew up in the country and like many country kids I learned to drive a tractor long before I learned to drive a car. In fact, I learned to drive my daddy’s tractor when I could just barely reach the brakes. There wasn’t much to it really. Changing gears on a tractor is relatively easy and the fact is you can drive pretty much in one gear and get most places a tractor ever needs to go. My mama wasn’t too keen on me learning but Daddy ignored her and taught me anyway. The day he jumped on an old board with a huge rusty nail sticking out that thrust itself clear through his work boot and into his foot Mama said she was mighty glad I was able to drive the two of us back home. It was the first and only time I every heard my daddy come close to cursing: “SON OF A GUN!!!” is what he yelled with such a groaning rage that it frightened me. I knew something was bad wrong. I had seen him jump from the top of the tractor onto a pile of old lumber and when he landed there was a solid thud and an immediate roar of pain. I watched him pull his foot and boot loose from the board and its nail. I was horrified. He said, “you’ll need to drive us home, Little Girl.” He climbed back onto the tractor and I put it into gear and set off for home. In retrospect, I’m sure that he could have driven us home but I suspect he knew that putting me in charge of the situation gave me something to put my mind to besides the awful accident that had just happened. What I remember most about it was how proud I was that I’d taken care of my daddy when he was hurt!
I didn’t drive any other vehicles until the summer my schoolmates and I were slated to take Drivers Education Classes. I was pretty nervous about the upcoming classes mostly because of the instructor who was the high school football and basketball coach. The man was revered because he could drive his boys to win ballgames but he was gruff, loud, rough around the edges, and had a reputation for his impatience and short temper. I mentioned my anxiety to the guy who lived next door who was also a classmate – not to mention that he played ball and knew my fears were not unfounded. He suggested that I could practice driving “the Blue Goose” – his dad’s old Chevy pickup that had been through some rough weather and tough terrain and could probably take a jolt or two. The old truck was a straight stick (meaning you changed the gears manually on the column), which was how the Drivers Ed car would be as well – so it would be good practice. As with most farm boys back then my friend had been driving that truck around the farm for years so his driving instruction would only be a formality for his license. He didn’t need to learn much of anything save the rules of the road. My brave friend drove me up to a stretch of his farm that was clear of any major obstacles – well, other than a barn, some trees, a pond, and a fence. I managed to get the Blue Goose going but changing gears on a column was new for me and much more delicate than changing tractor gears. And you’d think being off the highway would be a plus but the ruts and bumps encountered on a dirt road are graceless and unforgiving. I lurched and chugged and bounced along until I ran into a fence and gave up. The poor old Blue Goose was no worse for the wear and I was certainly not cheered by my efforts. I awaited Drivers Ed like a man doomed to the gallows.
And like a doomed man there was no escape and so Drivers Ed began. The class work was interesting and easy but I knew the hard part was yet to come. The fateful day came and I crawled into the driver’s seat with the instructor/coach sitting alongside. For those of you who live in my hometown of Zebulon, we were on Wakefield Street. I started the car, put the car into first gear (good start, right?) and Coach said, “Now let off the clutch slow and give it some gas.” We bucked and lurched along the street until Coach slammed on the brakes on his side of the car (back in those days the instructor had a brake on their side). Ugh. Sigh. Coach said very slowly and deliberately, “Okay, let’s start again. This time let off the clutch real slow….” And so I begin again. Once again we buck and pitch along the street until Coach slams on the brake and shouts, “Slow, G—Dammit! I said SLOW. S-L-O-W. Do you know the meaning of the word???!!!” Gulp. And off we go for the third time. This time I get the complete meaning of SLOW and I’m off – totally humiliated but going. Somehow I manage the rest of my session without any misstep and no further shouting or cursing. At the end of my session I am totally spent. Worn out. I climb into the back seat and observe the next student’s misery. When I arrive home I tell Mama I’m not going to drive the next day. My mama says we’ll discuss it at dinner. My daddy listens to my recounting and looks sympathetic but says that I must drive the next day. “That’s just his way,” he says and insists that I should not let Coach know that he has upset me. “Don’t let him know that you’re scared of him. It will only make things worse.” (Nowadays the dude would never have been allowed to act like this guy did on a regular basis. However, this was a totally different climate…. But I digress.)
The next driving adventure was mostly okay for me – no bucking, no lurching, no yelling, no cursing. Still I was a bundle of nerves and glad to finish my turn and crawl into the back seat. From there I witnessed another student’s torture and felt nothing but pity for her distress.
On the third day things began well but somewhere in the middle of my stint I pulled up to a stop sign that was on a slight incline and added to that there was a huge tree that obstructed the view of traffic coming from the left. I came to a full stop but then eased forward taking care with the clutch and brake so the car wouldn’t stall but allowing me to increase my field of vision before moving forward from the stop sign. Just about that time a huge lumbering dump truck came from the left. Of course I full on braked to allow it to pass but Coach let loose a hailstorm of criticism. “Damn! You trying to kill us???!!!” I made no reply and continued driving. Every time Coach saw a big truck he would point at it and yell, “There’s a truck, Linda. Why don’t you see if you can hit it???” I began to come undone. Finally, we pulled into the driveway of another student and Coach said, “Yeah, we’ll let Linda back out onto the highway and see if she can do it without killing us all.” That was it. I’d reached my limit. I stopped the car, got out, opened the back door and got in. I was done for the day. For a few seconds, there was dead silence. I sat there waiting for Coach to explode and realized I didn’t care what he said or did – I was DONE. Period. At length he began to chuckle. Then he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, I think I’ve pissed her off, boys.” And he motioned for my classmate to get into the driver’s seat. He didn’t say another word to me. I didn’t tell my parents about the incident. I guess I was waiting for the next day’s fallout. But the next day I walked out to the car to find Coach calling the previous driver an “egghead”. I took a deep breath and got into the driver’s seat. Coach settled down on his side of the car and said, “Now watch this, Egghead. This girl is a perfect driver.” I was momentarily stunned but without a word started the car and set out to drive – yes, perfectly from then on – no more yelling or cursing from the Coach. In fact, he hung out the window, drank his cough syrup, waved at friends along whatever route he commanded, and generally enjoyed the ride. And just like that I had learned to drive – perfectly.