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.