Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, August 2, 2012

When Stop Signs Were Yellow--And I Was Green

I don't know why I thought about yellow stop signs the other day.  Half the time I can't remember what I read last night, but out of nowhere whirls into my memory a yellow stop sign--yellow, the color those signs were throughout my youth (until, I think, 1966, the year I graduated from college).

And then my mind decided it was time to think about my driver education class ...

Summer 1960.  I was fifteen.  The summer after my sophomore year. The class met in the shop at the old Hiram High School (RIP), back behind the main building.  The teacher, Mr. Robert Barnhart, was also my basketball coach, and as far as I was concerned he was a Greek god who had wandered down off Olympus to coach.  He had worked a miracle with me that I still don't understand.  I played JV virtually all of my sophomore year, but when the varsity entered the tournament at the end of the season, he decided to shake things up.  (The team had not done well.)  And he decided to elevate me to the varsity--to the Starting Five (yes, it's worthy of capital letters)--for our game against Randolph.  Which we won.  I started every varsity game for the next two years.  So ... Coach Barnhart from Olympus?  Not a stretch, not at all.

Some of my friends already knew how to drive.  They had latitudinarians for parents who ignored Ohio law.  Or they had oblivious parents who didn't notice the car was sometimes gone.  Or, like Johnny Kelker, they had semi-generous parents who let them drive up and down the driveway for practice.  Johnny could hit third before he hit the garage.

But all I knew about driving was that you sat behind the wheel and did what Dad did--or, less often, Mom.  Dad was a very relaxed driver--never sped, never took chances, never barked at other drivers.  No Road Rage percolated in Charles Edward Dyer.  Later, older, Dad's dilatory ways annoyed my mother, who always drove faster.  After supper sometimes, we would all ride up to Burton, Ohio, for a maple ice cream cone.  Dad liked a leisurely 30 mph.  Mom preferred 60.  We went 30, Mom steaming until the ice cream cooled her off.

So ... the first time I was ever behind the wheel was in the summer of 1960.  Driver ed.  In the morning, though, we had sit-down classes, where, of course, we learned how a car worked, and we learned the laws, among which were hand signals.  That's right: hand signals.  I already knew them, sort of, from my bike.  But in 1960 we still had to know them for automotive use.

Step 1: Make sure the driver's side window is down.  (You'd be surprised ...)

Step 2: For Left Turn--extend your left arm out car window; keep it straight, parallel to the ground

Step 3: For Right Turn--extend your left arm out car window; bend at elbow; raise forearm so it is perpendicular to the ground.

Step 4: For Stops--extend your left arm out car window; point to the ground.

By the time I was learning to drive, most people had stopped using hand signals.  But we learned them.  And we had to use them while we were driving the driver ed car.

Which, by the way, was a white 1960 Chevy Bel Air--a bit like the one in the picture but not so fancy.  It had a 3-speed stick shift (of course!), the theory being that if you can drive a stick, you can easily drive a slush (automatic--which, by the way, my friends and I thought was a transmission for sissies or idiots).  It also had the duplicate  brake and clutch over on the passenger's side, where Mr. Barnhart sat, where he could take over the controls when it became evident that one of us was heading for a ditch or a puppy.

The hardest thing for all of us rookies was coordinating the clutch and gas.  Oh, the times I saw that Chevy bucking and lurching down the school driveway while some poor soul tried to find the friction point with a car full of howling classmates providing the Comic Chorus.  Somehow, it wasn't so funny, though, when it was your turn ...

Because I was 15, I was eligible only for a Temporary License--not the Real Deal (for which you needed to be 16).  The Temporary (which I've heard kids today call "Temps"; we never did)  required, I think, only a written test.  Which I aced.  And got my Temporary, which, I think, was pink, an annoying color for an adolescent guy to have to deal with.

Ours looked a little like this.
And once I had it, I hassled my parents endlessly to let me drive--something they were not all that eager to do.  We had two cars then; one was a 1959 Ford Fairlaine.  It was a pretty fast car (Mom showed us that), but it had a deadly flaw: It was slush.  And, thus, something of a "family car," which was a term we used for cars we would never own, later.  The Ford was Dad's Car.  Mom would drive it only on trips when Dad needed a break.

Ours was powder blue.
Our second car--Mom's Car--was a 1959 English Ford--an Anglia--a little blue piece of crap that barely made it the top of steep hills, that declined to start in winter (Hey, it's cold!), that slid around (if you did get it started) on a single flake of snow as if it were on an Olympic ice rink, that looked like a toy, that sounded like an electric mixer, that ... had a stick shift!  Its only virtue.  And this was the car I most often drove.

This whole "Mom's Car" and "Dad's Car" thing, by the way, was pretty common then.  I remember a billboard ad for the VW Bug.  It showed a two-car garage.  Parked in the left spot was a little yellow Bug; the right spot was empty (Dad, presumably, was at work).  The caption: Mother's Little Helper.  In my family now, Joyce drives whatever car she wants to--and somewhere my father's generation of men (the Greatest Generation, you know?) is looking down on (or up at) me and declaring that they're quite happy to be dead, seeing how things have fallen.

Coach Barnhart did a good job teaching me, I guess, for I passed the Driver's Test on my first try (I was the most nervous I'd ever been in my life--for the first time I actually cared about a test--and how I did on it), parallel-parked the first try.  It was great.  No, it was awesome--and here's why.  My older brother had taken the test THREE TIMES before he passed.  My older brother.  The valedictorian.  The I'm-going-to-Harvard brother.  Flunked it--twice.  In 1960, I could think of few things sweeter.

But then the license didn't come in the mail.  And didn't come.  And didn't come.  I was in the sort of abysmal despair that in 19th century England would have prompted a very long, very dark poem by Coleridge or someone.  Mom and Dad kept assuring me--It'll come, Son.  Don't get upset.  I'm guessing, by the way, that telling adolescents not to get upset is one of the most useless things that human beings have ever uttered--right up there with trying to get your dog to watch TV with you.

Christmas Morning.  1960.  Let's guess what was on the tree ...

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