Life on the frozen tundra of South Dakota Life on the frozen tundra of South Dakota

Chapter 1 - Getting My Driver's License

Chapter 1 - Getting My Driver's License

We all look back at our first car with fond memories. No matter how big a piece of junk it may have been, the freedom it provided us made us forget the fact that it had no reverse gear or that when it rained and you made a left turn water would pour through the windshield (no joke; my dad had a car that did this.) We recall the nights of driving around with friends with no real destination, yet a sense of urgency to get there. Herein is the story of my first car.

Before I can speak of my first car, I must provide some background information about my driving experience. Being a boy, the love of cars and other things mechanical is genetic. I loved looking at car magazines, building models and dreaming of the day I would own my own vehicle. I remember at age twelve asking my father if I could purchase a car. His response was, "sure!" I started to get very excited at the thought of being the only pre-teen of my social circle who had their own vehicle, until he continued his response by saying "When you save up enough money to buy a car, you can. But even if you do you can't drive it until you're sixteen." The wind was let out of my sails.

I finally received my driver's license at the ripe old age of sixteen. In South Dakota where I grew up, one could get a restricted permit as young as the age of fourteen. My father wisely decreed that there was no good reason I needed to drive at age fourteen, and reiterated his declaration that I would need to wait until I had turned sixteen. On top of this, he added the additional requirement that I successfully complete a driver's education course. I protested at the time, but in retrospect I have to agree with his decision. In fact, now that I have a son of my own I am inclined to lay down the same requirements. I fully expect to hear the same protest I gave my father, and I fully expect them to fall deaf upon my ears in the same way they fell upon my dad's. In the end, I have a feeling that this is a legacy that will continued to be passed to my grandchildren and beyond.

In the spring of 1985, during my 10th grade year, I took the driver's education course offered through my high school. In that dismal second-floor room we sat through hours of classroom instruction learning the rules of the road and how in our class of 30 students, statistically one of us would be killed in an accident prior to age 25. Much to my teacher's chagrin, I stood up and volunteered to be the one. Unfortunately it turned out to be a boy named Jeff less than two years later. Frankly, I don't remember much more about the classroom sessions except that our teacher never blinked. We would sit glued to his lectures, maintaining eye-contact the entire time. The teacher thought were were good pupils. In reality, we were watching for his eyes to blink so the time could be recorded, in hopes of winning the pool.

We graduated from the classroom instruction to the "driving simulators." This was a room full of plywood vehicles with rudimentary controls hooked up to a central "computer brain". At the front of the classroom a screen would play a scene filmed from a driver's point of view and we would attempt to manipulate the controls accordingly. Occasionally a car would pull out in front of us or a semi would suddenly change into our lane. A big red light would flash on our dashboard when we did something to kill ourselves or a pedestrian. The screen would always show the car successfully avoiding the accident. However our individual flashing lights would go off indicating that we did something wrong. What we did wrong wasn't known, as the simulators weren't advanced enough to provide that kind of feedback. All we knew is that according to the driving instructor, when that red light started flashing the clean-up crew would be picking up our remains with a shovel. In retrospect, the technology used in these driving simulators was archaic, even by 1985 standards. I'm guessing they were designed in the '60s, and judging by the vehicles displayed on the screen I have reason to believe it is an accurate estimation. I figure the biggest thing these simulators accomplished was to pad the course material for a few extra weeks in order for the class to fill the semester.

Once you were able to successfully navigate your plywood box through the cellulose gauntlet, you were promoted to two weeks of in-car training. The school had two cars provided for driver instruction, with each car carrying one instructor and two students. The students would split the class period, each getting about 25 minutes behind the wheel. With a four student capacity, the remaining pupils waiting for their turn in the driver's seat were relegated to a study hall. This gave everyone ample opportunity to forget everything they had learned the first half of the semester.

Finally, it was my turn in the driving rotation. I piled into the car with the instructor and a fellow victim. I made two immediate observations: first, the car had an additional brake pedal installed on the passenger side of the front seat where the instructor would sit. This would allow him to completely unnerve you by stomping on it when you forgot to check your blind spot or failed to use the hand-over-hand method of steering. The second thing I noticed was why the teacher never blinked. When you're a driving instructor, if you blink you could die. He had developed the ability to auto-lubricate his eyes as a self preservation response. And here I had just thought he was a fish.

At the end of our two weeks behind the wheel, we were allowed to take our driving test. The instructor was authorized to give us our test during our regular class period. If we passed, we would get a certificate that we could take down to the DMV and if we didn't fail the vision test we would receive our driver's license. Looking back on this, shouldn't they have given us a vision test before we attempted to drive? In any event, I passed and received my certificate. Unfortunately, I still had about a month and a half until my sixteenth birthday, so I had to wait.

At long last, my birthday came. My mom took me down to the DMV with my little brother in tow, and I received my license. Excited to try out my newly acquired driving prowess I asked if I could drive home, to which my mother reluctantly agreed. What I had not prepared for, however, was how driving with an instructor is completely different than driving with your mother. An instructor will remain calm, make notes, then ask you questions about things you could have done to navigate a bit safer or to more efficiently operate the vehicle. A mother starts freaking out the second the car gets put in gear and doesn't let up until the parking brake is applied at home. She completely unnerved me, which didn't do much to hone my already green driving skills. By the time I was attempting to merge into busy traffic I was quite rattled. Somehow I made it home. So, I was now a licensed driver, capable of legally menacing the rest of the community.

Me With My Dad's 1974 Impala

For the next year and a half, I was without a vehicle of my own. I relied on borrowing my parent's cars when they were available. I longed for the day when I could purchase a car of my own. I had a part-time job working in the food service department at a local hospital where I would occasionally set a few bucks aside when I wasn't spending the money on higher priorities like tapes and burgers. Finally, during the summer of '86 (between 11th and 12th grade) I got serious and started squirreling away every dime I could to save for a car. At $3.50 an hour it took me all summer but I had about $1500 set aside. Now it was time to begin the hunt for my first car...

The story continues as I purchase my first car...

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This page last updated on 07/11/2018