“I don’t know if I’m ready, mom,” I said not leaving my chair.
“Sure you are. I have faith in you,” was her answer. “You’ve studied the book and you’ve done well driving me around. You should get it now.”
“But I don’t parallel park worth a toot.”
“Just remember to turn when the car is half way and you’ll get it. It’s a small car. It shouldn’t be a problem.” She was smiling and brimming with confidence in my ability. Something I didn’t feel at all.
The car she was talking about was an Anglia, a British Ford product, which was a very small car compared to the models Detroit was sending to the show rooms. My driving had improved quite a bit but I just hadn’t practice my parking enough to feel truly comfortable taking my test.
On Wednesday, February 15th, one day after my fourteenth birthday, I had begged to go to the Motor Department to take my written test for a beginner’s permit. Reluctantly, my mother agreed.
I was going to drive. I was determined to get my permit. All the way to North Charleston I read over the material in the SC Driver’s Handbook. I was oblivious to the traffic on River’s Avenue as mom turned for Dorchester. The old highway Department loomed ahead as I closed the book eager to enter and take the written test. Written tests had never been a problem for me. All I had to do was read the material prior to the test and I usually aced it. I had no thoughts that I wouldn’t do the same on this one.
There was a long line as well as a crowd of folks sitting and standing around waiting their turn. No one looked as eager as me as we made our way to the counter. Our line was very slow but we eventually faced the girl behind the counter who asked what she could do to help.
“I want to take my test to get my learner’s permit!” I blurted out.
“He’s a little excited,” said my mom with a smile.
“He’ll need to fill out these forms then bring them back,” she said looking straight at my mother.
“Thank you. Do you have a pen?”
“You’ll find some pens over there at that counter. Next!” Her response was abrupt. We moved over to the counter which was too high for me so my mother handed me a clip board to fill out my request.
After asking mom several questions I was reminded of my dad’s response to questionnaires.
“All these questions, they want to know the ins and outs of a magpie’s arse,” he’d always say with an exasperated look on his face.
And they did. And I had to ask my mother a lot that I didn’t know. It was a while before I finally signed my official name and looked eagerly to the lady behind the counter who ignored me still. We had to get back in line to turn in the paperwork. Everyone in front of us shuffled a step then stopped, shuffled a step then stopped for what seemed hours. Finally I got to the window and looked up with a big grin on my face pushing the papers across the counter to her. I stood on tiptoes to do so.
“Everything seems in order,” she said not looking at me but my mother. “Go over to the far corner and you’ll be set up to take the test. Next!”
Dismissed abruptly for the second time we walked over to the corner. A disinterested man took my ticket and gave me the test paper. He showed me to a desk.
“You’ve got thirty minutes, kid. Answer all the questions on these two pages. I’ll be back when your time is up.” He handed me my test. I sat in the desk while he returned to his corner and another applicant.
Another written test to ace, I thought. When I looked at the first question my mind was a complete blank. The next question had no answer coming either, nor the third. I began to panic. I looked around but everyone else was bent over their paper circling answers.
Calm down! screamed my brain. Calm down! This was too important to freeze up. I scrunched my eyes shut saying a short silent prayer. My fidgeting stopped. My mind slowed down. The answer to the first question appeared in my head like magic. I circled the correct answer before it flew away. Each question opened another memory from the book I’d read on the way in. They came easily now and I was finished quickly. I was just checking the last answer when the man came over to collect my paper. I followed him to his desk. He checked my answers against his answer sheet.
“You pass,” he said. Without a smile he handed me a ticket. “Go over to that counter. The lady there will issue you your permit. Remember this is a permit. You must have an adult driver with you at all times.”
“Yes sir, I’ll remember,” I said grabbing the ticket and running to the counter.
“The man over there gave me this to give to you,” I shouted to the lady behind the counter.
“That’s fine. Please have a seat while I take care of the gentleman in front of you.”
“He’s excited,” said my mother who had appeared behind me.
“I made it, mom,” I said with wild enthusiasm.
“I see that, sweetheart, but you might want to calm down some.” She was smiling at my happiness. She was always happiest when she was able to contribute to another’s happiness. It was something I took for granted.
“OK young man. I’ll take your ticket now,” said the lady handing a finished license to the man in front of me.
I stood on tiptoe and pushed the ticket across the counter. It only took a few minutes for her to prepare my permit.
That glorious moment came when that piece of paper was in my chubby fingers.
“I got my permit, mom!” Everyone stopped to see who had shouted that.
“Shh!” said the man who had given me my test. “Keep it down over there.”
I dipped my head as I pushed the door outward. I held it for my mother who slipped past.
“You want to drive home?” she asked.
That is when I noticed the traffic. This wasn’t James Island. This wasn’t my local neighborhood. This was highway traffic. Beads of sweat popped across my forehead.
“Uh…uh…” I was scared. I lost my confidence. A written test was one thing, but getting into traffic? Now?
“It’s OK. You can wait til we get to the Terrace. Just pay attention while you are riding. Kind of get the feel of other cars around you.” She got into the car cranking it as I slammed my door shut. Tests were easy. I wasn’t so sure about the actual driving, in live traffic. My stomach didn’t feel right.
All the way home I watched mom as she drove. She told me what she was doing and what to watch out for. I noticed that she was driving much slower than usual. Dad always said she had a lead foot. I guess she didn’t want that passed on to me. She let me drive my first time in the Terrace. She pulled over at Joe’s Barbershop to trade places. Her encouragement helped me with each gear change. Her guidance was patient and understanding. I was grateful for her willingness to give me every opportunity for practice. She was encouraged with my progression from gear grinding amateur to near professional driver. That was her opinion. Here it was, the hour of truth upon me and I was chicken to try.
“It’ll be alright,” she said. “You’ve shown me that you have improved more than enough to pass.”
“You really think so?”
“Of course.” She grabbed her keys. “You can drive there to give you some more practice. I know you’re nervous. It’s natural. I know I was.”
“You were?” I said. That was a shock.
“Yes, everyone is. You have a policeman sitting in the seat beside you grading everything you do. It can make you nervous.”
“A policeman? In the car?”
“He has to be to see how you drive. It’s just the way it’s done.” She smiled handing me the keys.
I was extra careful on the road. I reached the turnoff but stayed waiting for traffic until the car behind me beeped loud and long.
“It’s ok to turn now,” mom said.
“It’s two lanes to cross!” I shouted.
“Just calm down and get us over there. Nothing is coming.”
BEEEEEEPPPPP!! The person behind was getting impatient.
I made the turn. It was no more difficult that crossing one lane. The Motor Vehicle Department came into view nestled beneath the pines. Needles crunched under my tires as I eased into an open space. My hesitation lasted a moment. I turned the key and geared myself up for the grueling test ahead. There was no eagerness in my step on this visit.
Inside the same lines stood before the help counter. The same people were standing around or sitting emitting the same low noise as the previous visit. It didn’t matter if I checked to see if it was the same group because I was too excited to notice last visit. The person in front of me turned to leave. I faced the lady behind the counter again.
My mother had to speak up for me.
“He’s here to take the driving test,” she said to the woman behind the counter. Her same disinterest was apparent.
“Fill out these forms. Bring them back when you’re finished. Next!”
The forms were easier this visit since I knew most of the answers, “the ins and outs…“ Once more I stood in line. Once more the blank face of the woman behind the counter looked over me even though I was on tiptoe.
“These are fine. Take this ticket and wait for your name to be called. Next!”
We sat in the corner.
“Don’t be nervous,” said my mother.
She continued to give me a pep talk until the moment I heard my name.
I looked up. There stood a hulking policeman in uniform. He held a clipboard that looked like a three by five card in his ham-like hands, hamds popped into my mind. Our oak in the back yard had nothing on this guy.
“Here!” I yelled out.
“Come on, son. I have a lot of people to check out.”
My feet had no desire to follow. I had to force them. I caught up with him outside under the pines.
“Well?” He was looking at me quizzically.
“Where’s your car, son?” He wrote on his paper.
“Uh, right over here.”
The Anglia was white. It was cute under the pines dappling shade. He stepped to the passenger side. Its size was dwarfed by this guy who must have been seven foot tall. I climbed in my side, sat and put the key in the ignition. The policeman put one leg in and sat. He pulled his knee up to his chin, swiveled then eased his right foot under the dash. He tried to pull the door shut but his size was a problem. He had to roll down the window. He put the door under his left arm trying to close it. His bulk was such he had to shift in the seat and clutch the door with his left hand as well as his right elbow outside to jerk the door closed. This done he placed the clipboard on top of his kneecaps which were level with his shoulders.
“How do I move this seat back some?” he asked.
“There’s a lever under the seat in front.” I watched him try to lean over his knees to grasp the lever. He shifted this way then that finally achieving his goal. The Lever moved and the seat slid back an inch.
“That’s the best it will do?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Well let’s get this show on the road. The sooner we’re through the sooner I’ll stop being a sardine. Alright, son, let’s see your skills.”
The engine turned over. Reverse answered as I looked out the rear window. No traffic in the parking area so I backed out. It took first and eased off toward the stop sign and the road.
“Take a right at this stop.”
Easing to a stop I put my hand out the window and crooked it at the elbow so my arm was in an ell shape. He made a check on his sheet.
One down, I thought. No traffic. I eased into the road and went through the three speeds on the gearshift which was on the floor. Second and third gears scraped along his leg. He tried to move out of the way without success. He was definitely crammed into his side of the car with very little room to maneuver.
The light ahead was green. As I came nearer it changed to yellow, my cue to slow to a stop. I hit the gas instead of the brake. The Anglia shot through the light which turned red when I was under it.
“Oops,” I said.
Scratch, his pen said.
“You are supposed to ease to a stop when you see a yellow light.”
“Yes sir, I know,” I said not wanting him to know I’d hit the gas by mistake.
“Alright, at the next light I want you to turn left.”
“Yes sir,” I said watching the light at the far corner grow closer. I eased into the turning lane with my arm sticking straight out pointing to the left turn I was going to make. There was a barrier across the turning lane. Men were working behind it.
“What do I do?” I asked.
“Do something, son. I can’t make the turn for you,” he spit out.
There was oncoming traffic but I thought it was far enough away to make a try at the turn. I looked at the light. It was still green. I swerved out into the oncoming lane, hit the gas and whipped it into the road. The officer was thrown back. The oncoming car blasted his horn veering to his left just missing the working men.
“What are you doing, boy?”
“You told me I had to do something!”
His pen scratched on his sheet again.
“You have to be more careful than that,” he said.
“Yes sir. I never ran into that problem before.”
“You have to be ready for any possibility when you’re driving. This is an unused road so up ahead when I say stop, you have to make an emergency stop. Do you understand?”
I drove a bit further when he shouted, “STOP!
I hit the brake and stood on it. The car squealed to a stop. Everything on the backseat clattered to the floor.
He marked on his paper.
“Alright I want you to make a three point turn here in the road. You know what that is don’t you?”
“Yes sir. It’s…”
“Don’t tell me, son. Show me.”
My maneuver was perfect in three turns.
“Alright, go back to the stop light and turn right. Head back home and let’s see if you can parallel park.”
We approached the building when he pointed over beyond the cars lined up along the side.
“See those two posts?”
“I want you to parallel park between them.”
I pulled up and beyond the furthest post until my back bumper was aligned with it.
Halfway. Halfway. I kept telling myself, halfway. I backed. My foot was heavy on the gas and I shot past the post before halfway registered. Too late I whipped the wheel to the right. The car never slowed. I rammed the sidewalk. I hit the brake. The car stopped at an angle, my right rear wheel still on the sidewalk. I looked at him grinning.
“Well, that’s all she wrote, son. If you can’t park this matchbox you don’t pass. Pull up over there.”
“Yes sir.” I was a balloon without air.
Once he extricated himself from the Anglia, which was no small task for such a big guy, he finished up his paperwork, tore off my copy and handed it to me.
“You can try again next month. My advice is practice your parallel parking. Better luck next time.”
He walked into the building. A few minutes later my mother walked out.
“I failed,” I said.
“It’s alright. There’s always next time. And I’m sorry about all the pans in the back. I spoke to the officer. He told me they made a heck of a racket when you stopped. He told me you should work on your parking. If you’d have done that you would have passed.”
“Even with all the other mistakes?”
“That’s what he told me.” She smiled. “You going to drive us home?”
“No, I think I’ve had enough driving for one day.”