By age 15, my motorcycle license also doubled as a driving permit. I don’t recall if it was my sophomore or junior year, but I had driver’s education with Coach Shelton. Coach was a slow spoken, quiet man who I had known for some time, having attended school and church with his son. Drivers Ed went along fine with the films and book learning for the first couple of weeks and then it came time to start the driving. I had been driving some with my dad but had mostly been using the motorcycle as my primary mode of transportation. I was not uncomfortable behind the wheel and could even drive the manual-clutch, column-mounted stick shift on the 1966 Dodge Dart however, I was by no means confident in my ability to handle everything on four wheels, especially the school Buick.
The 4-door 1976 Buick LeSabre was your Daddy’s Buick, not that little Japanese wannabe Tiger Woods drives to the strip club after golf. This was a car from an era that still fully embraced its nostalgic history of bold, masculine lines and expansive design. This car was at least 54 feet long and had a turning radius and suspension rivaled only by a cruise ship. I have owned cars that didn’t have a wheel base as long as the LeSabre’s front quarter panel. A normal sized person, or two, could completely lie down on the LaSabre’s bench seats without banging their heads, or so I heard. It was enormous.
I can still hear Coach’s voice as he chose me and another classmate on the first day of driving, “Boy, you take the wheel.” Seats, mirrors, AC and belts adjusted, I slowly pulled out of the school driveway awaiting his next command, “Why don’t we head out north of town.” Hoooly crap! That only meant one thing. I was going to have to drive this boat across the river bridge. The only thing more frightening was the possibility of failing his course with a poor maneuver that dumped his chewing tobacco spit cup off the dashboard into his lap.
I had never driven across the river bridge and most certainly not on my motorcycle. It seemed there was a tragic accident every few months on the river bridge, exacerbated by the fact that my home county was dry and just across the bridge was a wet county with alcohol sales starting immediately across the bridge. There is a nice new, long, wide bridge now, but back then the old bridge was as narrow as most that were eventually converted to one-way bridges with stop lights on each end. Like the new bridge, it was tall enough for tugboat and barge traffic to pass, but it was shorter, steeper and dangerous. North, up Hwy 43 I headed with sweaty palms sliding on the ginormous plastic steering wheel.
It would have been dreadful enough to meet a truck on the bridge, but noooo as soon as we approached the bridge we met an entire convoy of 18 wheelers. Truck after truck after truck came barreling down with me navigating a wheeled barge directly into their path. I don’t think I closed my eyes, but with each passing truck, I mentally made that air sucking past my teeth noise my mother always made and to this day still makes in scary traffic. I can remember wondering what would cause the least damage, having one of those trucks take the driver’s side mirror or have the Coach’s mirror knocked off by the bridge’s railing. Luckily, we made it to the other side with both the Buick brown paint job and mirrors intact. We turned around in the parking lot at Carl’s Supper Club, or was it called Big Daddy’s by then? I am reasonably certain most of the people in my class drove more than once, but that was the only day I had to drive for Coach. I’ve never blinked an eye crossing any bridge since.
Inexorable angst over teenage driving notwithstanding, I am reminded of what it was like to be that age, hankering for some small semblance of freedom that could only be found in personal transportation. For me, it was a street legal Suzuki dirt bike my dad purchased for my brother and me at the age of 12. By the time I turned the ripe old age of 14 my brother had a car and I had a motorcycle license in my wallet. Yes, back in the day all you had to do at 14 was pass the driver’s permit written examination and the State of Alabama would give you a motorcycle license. Newfound freedom was indeed sweet but also delivered my first direct interaction with local law enforcement.
The only wreck I ever had on a motorcycle happened right in front of the chief of police. I was headed to a friend’s house, making a turn off Hwy 43 past Elk Food Mart across from the police station. The bike came out from under me on some loose gravel in the intersection. It wasn’t that bad, I wasn’t going all that fast. As I picked up the bike and surveyed my scraped up body parts, I saw that the Chief of Police had stopped at the same intersection in time to view the incident. I had just laid my bike down not eight feet from his driver’s side door. Surely, he was going to take my license away and not allow 14 year-olds to ride motorcycles anymore and it would be all my fault. The Chief rolled his window down and asked, “You OK son?” With a simple “Yes Sir,” he was gone. The occasion of our next meeting lasted much longer.
One Sunday night after church I decided to take advantage of a long summer day and enjoy a ride out to the lock and dam on the river before dark. Approaching the s-turn that cuts across the railroad tracks from W. Jackson Street over to Lock and Dam Road, I got stuck behind an old junker that was billowing oily smoke all over me and doing all of 10 miles an hour. Even though there was a double line on the turn, he was going so slow I decided to pass anyway. About the time I was ready to zip back into my lane, not one, but two patrol cars with lights flashing came flying around the turn right at me. Fortunately, I managed to squeeze back in front of the junker before being run over by my hometown’s finest. It didn’t kill me, but it just about scared me to death. I was so shook up that I was almost to Foscue Park before I noticed that wherever the two cops were going in such a hurry, they must have only needed one of them, because the other one came to get me.
The officer checked my credentials and escorted me back to the police station. After sitting for a few painstaking minutes I was taken into an office to see none other than Chief Johnson. He sat there quietly looking at my license and finally asked, “You live over on Strawberry Street?” “Yes Sir.” “That big yellow house?” “Yes sir.” “Your dad works at the paper mill?” “Yes Sir.” “Come on go with me.” He didn’t even have to say it; I knew he was taking me home. “Can’t you just write me a ticket?” “Nope, your dad will take care of this.” Having my mother answer the front door to our house with me standing alongside the Chief of Police is all the motivation I have ever needed to stay out of jail. As suspected, Dad took care of it.
Everyone’s got driving on the brain. My 16 year-old, #1 daughter is doing plenty of driving; mostly driving me crazy about wanting a car and doing plenty of pouting if she is not always the one behind the wheel. My 8 year-old, #2 daughter drove me around the entire 18 holes today for the first time. Now she really thinks I’m the best, as long as she gets to drive the golf cart again tomorrow. Unconditional love seems to sprout conditions on a weekly basis these days. Most of my friends and relatives about my age are at some stage in the unleashing of offspring upon the motorized public. Not the least of which includes the worry of and maybe even the reality of that first fender bender. We have no one to blame but ourselves, really.
It all started with the eldest just short of her third birthday. One morning at breakfast, she informed me that she wanted one of those real driving jeeps she’d been admiring at the local toy warehouse for her birthday. Furthermore, she asserted her budding feminine nature by declaring, “Now Dada, there are (with two fingers raised) twoooo kinds of jeeps at Toys R Us, there’s the red one, and it’s… well, just plain. (Thoughtful pause) What I’m trying to tell you Dada is I like the prissy one (the Barbie Jeep).” Of course she got it. And there I was, like a good Dad, the night before her birthday assembling said Barbie Jeep and cussing like a Detroit engineer until 3 am.
She was a little afraid of it at first, but before long she was saddling up faster than Bo and Luke, shifting gears and driving around the yard like she was ready for Indy. Just why is it that we enjoy seeing our young children doing adult things? Well, apparently she was more ready than we knew. A few short weeks later as we were piling back into the van at a rest area on the way to the beach, she very seriously asked if she could drive the rest of the way. The amusing part of the ensuing discussion, which went on for some time, was her persistent, clearly logical and almost indignant insinuation, “How hard could it be? I drive my Barbie Jeep every day!”
I’m all for artistic freedom; push, grow, create! However, it does seem that my primary axiom concerning the creative arts continues to be proven. Regardless of medium, the relationship between controversy and talent is one of inverse proportionality.