April 16, 2023

FTV: Driver’s Ed


     “Okay,” my father said, “Push in the clutch, pull out the choke, turn the key, and step on the starter pedal.”  When the engine came to life, he had me adjust the choke until the engine was idling smoothly and then continued:  “Now put the shift down into first like I showed you.  Give it a little gas as you slowly let the clutch up.”  I must have been all concentration when it came to the clutch-gas thing because when the truck rolled forward, we went from the little side parking slot on our camp road, straight into a stand of small Tag Alders across the road.  “Stop!” Dad said a bit forcefully.  “Now put it in reverse and go straight back.  Okay, now let’s start again and this time don’t forget to steer around the corner.”  

     Thus I was introduced to the mystical art of driving at age 11 at our camp on Huron Bay.  The vehicle in question was a 1949 Chevy pick-up dad had bought used from a salvage yard for camp use.  Those things were all but indestructible so my little encounter with the brush didn’t damage anything save my pride.  It may have been a mistake to get me behind the wheel that early because afterward, I took every opportunity I could to drive around the two rut track that encircled our camp lot.  When I got a little older, I became the designated dump driver.  The rental cottages on Papin Road used a small valley crossed by a powerline a half mile down the road as their dump.  Anytime we had garbage at camp, I volunteered to drive it to the local unofficial landfill (and bear attractor) which was covered and closed a long time ago.  I was sad when dad later traded the ‘49 back to the salvage yard for a car radio, but by then, I was in Driver’s Education and on the way to driving legally on the streets, roads, highways, and byways.

     The way our Driver’s Ed program was run, we had to take the class portion after school the second semester of my sophomore year.  It lasted about six weeks and it strikes me we met four days a week.  All of the classroom work was completed before the driving part started.  We were assigned to one of the six or so (again, memory is a little fuzzy here) instructors who would guide us through the practical part of the DE program.  My instructor that summer was Richard Coombs, a Conservation / Science teacher at Marquette Senior High.  He would wander across the hall to visit with my General Science 9 teacher, Dick Robinson, during the school year, but I knew very little about him before the first day of class.

     The first thing Mr. Coombs did after the introductions were over was to pop the hood on the Ford LTD that would serve as our rolling classroom.  He pointed out things he felt we should know like the radiator cap (“I wouldn’t touch that when the car is hot!”), the windshield washer fluid well (“Never let this run dry.”), and the dipstick (“Here is how you check the oil level.”).  Next, we ventured to the trunk where he showed us where the spare tire and jack were stored.  Mr. Coombs mentioned we would be changing a tire along the way so we would know how to do it, but we never got around to that lesson.  I do not remember how many students there were on the first day but he counted us off in groups of four and told my group to hop in the front and back seat.  Mr. Coombs took the driver’s seat and then proceeded to drive us around the large parking lot that wrapped around the school – backward.  He repeated this with the others until he had taken everyone on a lap in reverse.

     As the other students took their backward tour, the rest of us signed up for driving times that started at 7:00 am and went through early afternoon.  I took the 7:00 am slot so it wouldn’t disrupt the rest of my day.  Less than an hour after we arrived, he dismissed us and casually mentioned our need to be on time:  “If you aren’t here, we aren’t waiting for you.  Driving starts tomorrow morning at 7:00 am SHARP!”  After signing up, the list never did come back my way so my three driving companions would remain a mystery until Tuesday morning.

     We arrived the next morning and I found my driving partners were a french horn player from band, a girl I had gone to elementary school with, and another girl I did not recognize.  My high school class numbered close to 500 so it was not uncommon to attend school and never get to know all of your classmates.  First question:  “How many of you have actually driven a car before?”  I raised my hand and in doing so, I became ‘Mr. First Time to do everything.’  To my surprise, none of the other three had so much as put a key in the ignition of a car.  “Okay, Parnelly Jones, (the name of a race car driver of the day), you go first,” Mr. Coombs said as he nodded my way.  “Start the car and back around the whole parking lot like I did yesterday.  You need to be able to drive in both directions, so we will start with reverse.”  Oddly enough, we were the only car that spent the first day going backwards, but that is what he wanted.  Each of us took our fifteen minutes behind the wheel and day number two was done.  

     Day three was similar except we were now allowed to drive forward.  We went in the same order as we did the previous day.  The girl I was not familiar with looked a tad nervous.  She compounded her anxiety by clipping one of the traffic cones that marked the corners on the ‘lanes’ we were supposed to drive.  Mr. Coombs was calm about it and told her, “That is okay.  You cut the corner too short, but you only bumped it.  You didn’t even kill it.”  Then to all of us, he said, “Remember.  Always take square corners.”  We must have looked confused because he held up his fist to represent a cone and his other hand to act as the car.  As he showed us with his hand signals, he explained, “You get in the middle of an intersection and then make a sharp turn.  No cutting corners or rounding them off.  Make square corners.”  It seemed like an odd way to put it, but I still think about square corners to this day when I am making a turn. 

     After two days of being ‘Mr. First Time’ I was a little surprised when he told the nervous cone brushing girl to drive first on day three.  The other two followed suit as we made endless rounds of the parking lot (this time without any cone encounters).  Expecting the same routine, Mr. Coombs surprised us again when I completed my first parking lot lab:  “Stop at the end, signal a right turn and pull out on Fair Avenue.  Now make a left turn onto Lincoln.”  ‘Mr. First Time’ was about to be the first to escape the parking lot which was fine with me.  We drove north two blocks (my normal walking route to school) and continued to the stop sign by the National Guard Armory where Lincoln made a dead end at the intersection with Wright Street.  “Turn left,” he said and as soon as the square corner had been executed, he asked, “Do you see the railroad crossing ahead?  Tell me what you are going to do when you get there.”  I knew the drill – in those days, these tracks were still being used:  “Slow down and look right and then left to see if there is a train coming.”  

     We learned pretty early on that Mr. Coombs had a sense of humor.  He looked into the back seat and asked, “And what should he do if he sees a train coming?”  A tentative voice asked, “Stop?”  “Yes,” he said, “Because if he doesn’t I am getting out and you are all going to die.”  Once we got past the tracks (without seeing any real or imaginary trains), he quized me on where we should look if it was night time and cars were coming at us with headlights on (“To the side of the road and not directly at the headlights.”).  Again, addressing the back seat, he inquired, “And why do you not look directly at the oncoming lights?”  A more definite answer came from the back, “So we won’t get night blind.”  By now we were almost to the US 41 / Wright Street intersection so he had me pull into a gravel driveway, back out, and reverse course back to the school.

     So it went for the next six weeks.  After that day, we rotated who drove first and there wasn’t a neighborhood or side of town that we didn’t visit.  It was a strange summer because there was more wet, foggy weather for our early morning sessions than I can remember seeing in many years.  Driving in rain and fog never spooked me because we did a lot of it.  As the first couple of weeks rolled by, I thought my ‘Mr. First Time’ designation had worn off, but I was wrong.

     In the late 1960s, Marquette turned Third Street into a one way corridor with traffic flowing north to south between Fair Avenue, through the heart of downtown all the way to Fisher Street.  Front Street, a block to the east of Third, became a one way route going the other way from Washington Street back to Fair.  Both carried a lot of traffic so naturally, Third Street was the location he picked for us to try our hand at parallel parking.

     We were driving in the left lane just past the turn off to Gravaret Junior High when Mr. Coombs said, “See that beer truck?  Parallel park behind in.”  It came up so suddenly there was no time to get nervous:  I clicked on the left turn signal, pulled up next to the truck, checked my mirrors and backed into the parking spot.”  “How far do you think you are from the curb?” he asked.  I guessed a foot so he had me open the door to check by putting my foot between the curb and the car – one of my feet plus a few inches was the reported measurement.  I had somehow nailed parallel parking on the left side of a busy one way street behind a beer truck the first go around.  A little luck, a little skill, it really doesn’t matter – this was the only time he had me do it.  The french horn player struggled the first couple of times he tried it and finally said, “I think I will only park in places where I can drive straight into a spot,” which caused Mr. Coombs no shortage of zingers everytime a parking attempt went south.

     My last ‘Mr. First Time’ test came when we were driving down the US 41 By-Pass toward Lake Superior.  Mr. Coombs asked rhetorically, “How far do you think it would take us to stop if you locked up the brakes at 65 MPH?”  We must have hesitated in coming up with a number because he looked over his shoulder and said, “There is nobody behind us.  Get up to 65 and when I say now, stomp on the brakes.”  I did as instructed and after much squealing of tires and the smell of burned rubber, we were at a dead stop on the highway.  Looking back at the black tire marks, he said matter of factly, “It takes about that far to stop.  Go ahead, head for Front Street.  How did the car feel when the brakes were locked up?”  I told him there was a bit of pull to the left.  It was another one of those things he had me do that nobody else in our group was asked to repeat.

     My father was a little surprised when I recounted the brake stomping exercise, but he asked me the exact same question:  “How did the car feel when you were skidding to a stop?”  He followed up with, “What would you have done if it had started to go sideways?” and seemed happy with my response:  “Ease up on the brake and turn into the skid.”  If these cars were sold after Driver’s Ed, it makes me wonder how much wear and tear some of them received at the hands of us novice drivers.  I know ours was missing more than a little rubber.

     As the last week approached, we were rescheduled into half hour blocks for our final road test.  Rumor had it you would not pass if you didn’t nail parallel parking on the last day.  Knowing I had parallel parked all of once and on the opposite side of the street from what one would do on a conventional two way street, I was a little nervous.  I showed up at my appointed time and it began much like my first drive off the school parking lot:  out to Fair, north on Lincoln to Wright Street.  “I am tired of seeing the same old streets so head out on the Big Bay Road,” Mr. Coombs instructed.  I complied and we drove out past the Sugar Loaf Mountain parking lot and the road to Wetmore Landing.  Just past the dirt road that went off toward Little Presque Isle, we came upon a road crew patching the pavement.  He instructed me to make a five point turn and head back to school.  “Just don’t tell anyone I didn’t make you parallel park,” he said with a grin on his face.  I took this to mean nobody else would have to parallel park either, but he wasn’t going to let a perfectly good tale from the rumor mill be ruined.

     From that point on, I was allowed to drive with a licensed family member on my Temporary Permit.  In town it was mostly chauffeuring mom to the grocery store and the highway driving happened when we would head toward camp.  They were rebuilding sections of US 41 between Ishpeming and Michigamme so I got plenty of practice in bumper to bumper traffic kicking up clouds of dust.  When my birthday arrived, it was straight to the license bureau to take my final road test with someone from the Marquette Department of Motor Vehicles branch.  The DMV  office in those days was located off US 41 near the current location of the Villa Capri Italian Restaurant.

     With my mother waiting in the lobby, the examiner and I turned west on the highway.  He told me to turn right on to Wright Street (and chuckled a bit at how it sounded).  He said, “Keep going until you hit Lincoln and make the loop on Washington back to the office.  Have you heard any good jokes lately?”  When I responded I had not, he spent the rest of our fifteen minute road test telling me a host of jokes – some good, some real groaners.  We pulled up to the License Bureau and he handed me my signed slip and said, “Good job, go get your license.”

     For the record, it took me a month before I popped the old, “Dad, can I use the car?” question.

Halloween was on a Friday.  Jim and I had a double date to go to a dance at the high school.  All I was told was, “You know there will be lots of kids out on your way there, right?”  I have to hand it to my folks.  It would be another four years before I owned my own car, but I never had to go begging when wheels were needed.  Add to that carrying band equipment to jobs, and I put a lot of miles on their vehicles.  All they ever expected was for me to gas them up and be responsible.  

     Perhaps the biggest endorsement of my new driving skills came when I convinced my brother to loan me his MGB.   I thought I had hit the jackpot because that was his baby.  With the mileage he got, it only took 25 cents to spend an evening cruising around town.  It was a good deal because gas only cost 25 cents a gallon back then.  The MGB had two bucket seats and a small cargo area behind them so we entertained ourselves picking up hitchhikers when we were cruising with the top down.  Most would look puzzled when we pulled over, but very few turned down a ride, even if it meant getting crammed into the cargo hold.  I often wondered what Mr. Coombs would have thought if he saw us tooling around in the ‘B’.

Top Piece Video – No, I am not bragging – there just isn’t a better driving song than Highway Star . . .