Born in the summer, I was a year behind my classmates on almost everything. I was one of the youngest in my class. Classmates with autumn and winter birthdays owned cars before I ever took my first driving lesson or got my permit. In 1973, you could get a permit at age 15.
My friend Arlene had a blue two-door Pontiac LeMans and my friend Cheryl had a green and black Chevy that we called the Roachmobile. This had nothing to do with mary jane, which I had nothing to do with in high school. The word roach sounded vaguely like her last name so I christened her car the “Roachmobile.” Arlene and Cheryl provided most of the transportation for our friends.
Living in a rural area with many gravel country roads, my friends and I learned to drive in the country.
I did not own a car of my own until I was in my early twenties. My grandparents gave me their second car. My grandfather wasn’t driving much, so I got the car he used to visit the farms, a ’71 Cutlas-S with a 350 engine. Vroom. Vroom.
In learning to drive I was stuck with the family trucksters, a four-door blue Impala sedan and a lime green old Chevy truck with a manual shift on the column. How cool were those vehicles!
Back then the schools offered driver’s training in the summer and had a fleet of relatively new automatic sedans for teaching. My teacher was named “Sparky” for reasons I cannot explain and for a month-long period in the summer of 1973 we drove to neighboring towns, through the country, mostly in search of drive-ins and ice cream places. Four sixteen year olds rode with the teacher who had an extra brake on the passenger side.
He worked with us individually on parallel parking, approaching a two-way stop with a yield, but we were convinced his main mission in life was to go to the Flag Pole in Warsaw as many times as possible. The Flag Pole is an iconic ice cream place which, as far as I know, is still there and offers multiple flavors and variations of dessert treats. We also visited the Dairy Queen in North Manchester and a root beer place in Columbia City.
At the end of the training, we had a special trip to Fort Wayne. Were we visited the zoo or the botanic gardens? No, Penguin Point for it’s wonderful French fries was our mission.
Along the way, we did learn how to drive, as well as gain the special skill of approaching a drive-in speaker to place your order for five root beer floats.
I earned my driver’s license in August 1973, days before I started my junior year at Whitko. Again, we had a car and a truck, and somehow I convinced my mother to let me drive the car to school. My dad taught at the school, so that meant both the car and the truck sat in the parking lot for the entire day. And would I take my brother, an eighth grade, and drop him off at South Whitley Junior High? Well, of course not.
On my first morning in to school, I drove the car up onto the curb on one of the side streets heading back to the high school. I overcorrected and ended up stopped on the sidewalk on the other side of the street. I am so grateful I am always late because all the elementary school children were already in their classrooms and not on the sidewalk. That early lesson taught me the car was much bigger than one sixteen year old.
My driving to school sans little brother lasted until my mom; rightly so, couldn’t handle being home without transportation all day, out in the country.
Then I was only allowed to get the car for special occasions, like Saturday night bowling in Warsaw (which really meant driving around South Whitley endlessly, from Carol’s Corner back to the school parking lot back to the M and R and back to Carol’s Corner.)
My dad figured it was time for me to learn how to drive a manual transmission. We practiced in the country for days, and Dad wouldn’t let me drive the truck alone until I learned to downshift on little inclines leading up to the numerous railroad crossings in our area. Our town was on the train route to Chicago and multiple trains pass through the area many times each day. There were also many unmarked and unsafe train crossing in the country.
I lacked the coordination to learn how to shift on the column.
Today, I can’t drive a standard stick much to the chagrin of friends and relatives who want me to test drive their sports cars. That’s okay, I’m perfectly happy with my seven year old Mom car.
And I still have my own driving instructor. My husband behaves as if he has his own brake, and when he’s a passenger in my car offers wise counsel often. I don’t much hear this screams anymore. And why should I even pay attention to him? While I was taking driver’s training at Whitko in automatic sedans, he — being only a month older — was taking driver’s ed at Madison-Grant in similar automatic sedans. His parents only had manual transitions so something was lost in the translation.