I may have written previously about how dad took me to take my first driver’s license test. He had also taken me out to practice driving a few times before I took the test. I don’t know if I mentioned that whenever dad sat in the passenger seat, he always kept his hand on the door handle. He looked ready to flee at any time if I were to do something wrong. Luckily he never jumped out of my car!
However, once I had my license I don’t remember dad ever riding as a passenger with me again until just recently when he stopped driving. Dad was always the one to drive whenever we went anywhere. Even when I was a mother with many children in school, dad would drive my car when he was visiting.
Although I got my first drivers’ license when I was in my senior year of high school, I still did not have my own car. The summer before college I was able to walk to my summer job nearby and then I went off to college. After my first year of college, I got a job further from home so then I really needed my own car.
I had saved enough to purchase a used car and dad had a friend who was selling one – for $300! That was the perfect car for me. This 11-year-old Chevrolet had the basics – it started not with the key (though you did have to insert the key), but with a “starter button”. You put in the key, pushed down the gas and pushed in the starter button. With luck the car would start.
Being built in the 1950s, it did not have built in turn signals though some had been added in the preceding 11 years. The wires ran alongside the steering wheel column. It had a heater that was similar to a room heater – just a little electric heater that was mounted near the floor on the passenger side.
I will tell you what it did not have – seat belts. I had seat belts installed because I was safety conscious. However, I often argued with mom who refused to wear the seat belts because they would “wrinkle her dress”. As the years went by, mom learned to wear seat belts because eventually laws were passed to require passengers to wear seat belts. If it was required by law, then she would wear them – but not just because I wanted her to!
Of course, my car did not have a rear defroster, but it had necessary things – like the radio. It did have a serious problem with stalling though. I asked dad on many occasions how I could get it to stop stalling. He said to “pull out the choke”. Now the car was stalling almost every time I drove it, and each time he said to just “pull out the choke”. One day when dad said that, I said: “But dad, the choke is so far out now that it keeps falling on the floor!” Dad looked at me and his eyes almost popped out. “You’re supposed to push it back in!” he said. Oh.
Oh, and that choke wasn’t my only problem. The other one I also brought on myself with a huge dose of ignorance. Of course I knew I had to fill the gas tank. And, at 28.9 cents per gallon, it wasn’t a problem as long as I kept babysitting to earn the funds. In those days we didn’t do “self-service”. No, instead there was a young man (usually about the same age as me) and he would come to the drivers’ side window and ask “what will you have?” Generally, I just said: “Fill her up – regular” though sometimes I just asked for 50 cents worth. (Try that today!)
One day the young gas station attendant came to my window and said:”Check your oil and water, ma’am?” “Oh”, I said, “I guess I really should! Thank you.” Honestly; I don’t know why I didn’t remember that part before as I did take “Drivers’ Education” in school. Anyway, I watched the attendant through that crack in the raised hood as he put in the dip stick and pulled it back out. He did it too or three times and then brought it over to me. “Um”, he said; “You don’t have any oil ma’am”. “Oh”, I said again. “I guess you should put some in then, huh?” He looked at me and smiled. “Yes, ma’am”. So, I put oil in my car for the first time – probably a month or two too late!
After that my car burned through oil about as fast as gasoline. If I drove 150 miles to college, I had to stop half way there and pour in some oil. I always said I didn’t have to change the oil at all. I just ran it through. I learned to buy oil by the case and pour it in about every 75 miles the whole time I had that car.
I sold this car just over 2 years after I got it. Again, dad had a friend who was interested and I sold it to him for $150. (Not bad having purchased it for $300!) Unfortunately, after the buyer drove the car home and parked it out front of his house it never moved again. I think this car and I had bonded. I talked to “him” and told him to “try harder” when he couldn’t get moving and somehow he always did. My father’s friend just didn’t have the right technique.
For dad, driving was a way of life for over 50 years. He was reluctant to give up the independence of driving his own car as he aged. However, he often became confused when driving those last few years and he didn’t know which way to turn to get home from the grocery store or the bank. Mom would remind him to go straight to the light and then turn left, or whatever.
It took a few years to get him to quit driving completely though he did cut down by first not driving at night and then not driving on freeways and busy roads. He even had a car accident at a stop sign (the other guy’s fault). Mom was hospitalized, the car was totaled and dad was cited. Still as soon as he got the check from the insurance company, he went out and bought a new car.
Just a few years after that accident, dad finally agreed to sell the car he had in the south. (He had 2 cars — one at the mobile home in the south and one in the north at their permanent house.) They had friends in their mobile home park that were willing to take them out for dinner or to do some shopping which made it easier to be without a car. Within the next year, dad also gave up his northern car. I thought it would be more of a struggle but by then he had gotten used to not driving during the winter when they were in the south.
When I moved dad to live in an assisted living facility near my home, I worried that dad would go back to his old habit of holding onto the door handle while I drove. I knew I would be his primary driver. I take him out to dinner almost once a week and to the doctor’s occasionally when he has to see one that doesn’t come to his ALF.
Fortunately, dad is more relaxed as a passenger now and I don’t have to worry about him falling out as he grabs for the door. (I don’t yet have one of those new cars where the doors lock when the car is moving. My car still has handles to roll the windows up and down and push button locks on each door.) I asked dad if he remembered who I bought my first car from all those years ago. He smiled and said no, he didn’t, though he did remember that car. He did remember HIS first car though, and I guess that was more important to him.