Learning To Drive

Originally posted July 6, 2009

I’ve written a bit about cars here: the 1961 Falcon I called Farley, the first car I owned part of and the one that took Rick, Gary and me to Winnipeg in 1972; my dad’s 1952 Ford, and a few others. (I have yet to tell the tale of Toby the Toyota; someday, perhaps.)

Something this weekend reminded me, however, not so much of cars but of driver’s education, that horrible process required before I could sit behind the wheel of any car on my own. I took the course forty years ago this summer, in 1969.

I was not a good driving student. I got flustered easily. That made my behind-the-wheel training – driving around St. Cloud in an auto owned by the school district and very clearly marked “Student Driver” – a less-than-pleasant experience (for me and, I assume, for my instructor as well). Every Wednesday evening, for five or so weeks, two other students and I would take turns driving around the city, turning, merging, driving down ramps and trying to master parallel parking. I was expert at none of those things.

I did get practice between those weekly sessions. On weekends and during other evenings, my dad would get in the passenger seat beside me in our 1964 Ford, and we’d head out across the railroad tracks to a triangular course he’d determined a few years earlier when my sister was learning to drive. I’d drive along the roads, practicing accelerating and braking – I can still hear Dad holler “brake-brake-brake-brake-brake!” – and turning. After a few times around the triangle, he’d have me turn into a driveway and back out the other way, so I could practice left turns instead of right turns.

It’s funny: I hadn’t thought for years of the triangle route we drove during those evenings. But the lot on which we now live borders two of those three streets. I can see one of them from my study window. And I marvel, forty years later, at my dad’s ability to ride along as I slowly learned to drive and to be comfortable doing so. His patience was, I now know, remarkable. Around the triangle we went, time and time again, and he may have been as frustrated as I was, but he was always willing.

I passed the driver’s education course that summer, the summer before I turned sixteen. Shortly after my birthday, I went downtown, not far from the courthouse, and took my driver’s test. I passed the written test but failed the road test – mostly, I think, because I was nervous. I finally passed on the fifth try, just after I turned seventeen. And a little more than a year later, my long procession of cars began with Farley, that 1961 Falcon.

A Six-Pack of Cars

“Back Seat of My Car” by Percy Thrillington from Thrillington [1977]
“Stolen Car” by Bruce Springsteen from The River [1980]
“Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” by Billy Ocean, Jive 9678 [1988]
“Car On A Hill” by Joni Mitchell from Court and Spark [1974]
“She Has Funny Cars” by Jefferson Airplane from Surrealistic Pillow [1967]
“Strangers In A Car” by Marc Cohn from Marc Cohn [1991]

Some folks who stop by here will recognize the name of Percy Thrillington. I think his self-titled 1977 album was the only one he released under that name. It’s an instrumental version of Ram, the 1971 album by Paul and Linda McCartney. Now, why the world needed an instrumental version of Ram is an open question. The answer resides in mind of Mr. Thrillington, who is far better known around the world as Paul McCartney himself. Released with little note six years after it was recorded, the album is quite valuable in the collector’s market; the CD, released and then deleted shortly afterward, is also a collector’s item.

“Stolen Car” is another one of Springsteen’s tales of regular folks caught in lives gone off-track. I wonder sometimes if all those tales in song – “Hungry Heart” comes to mind soonest, but there are many of them in Springsteen’s catalog – are metaphors for a culture that lost its way some years ago and continues to wander astray, or are they just story songs. I’m sure Springsteen’s been asked, and I don’t know what his answer has been or would be. I’d say they’re both metaphor and story, but that’s just me.

I still like the Billy Ocean single, but not nearly as much as I did twenty years ago. Its production sounds dated and over-bearing. But it’s still catchy, with a still-great hook. The record was the last of Ocean’s six Top Ten hits, spending two weeks at No. 1.

“Car On A Hill” is one of those songscapes that Joni Mitchell has put together so expertly during her career, but especially during the early 1970s. With a swooping and slightly cluttered instrumental break, the song sets a mood more than tells a story. As I listened to it again this morning, the words “watercolor landscape” kept coming back to me, and that’s as good a description as any today. The only other thing I can say is that this morning, “Car On A Hill” sounds like 1974 felt.

The drumbeats and then the guitar figure that open Jefferson Airplane’s “She Has Funny Cars” put me squarely in the basement rec room in the house I grew up in. Surrealistic Pillow was one of the few albums my sister owned during those years, and I have no idea how often she played it. I played the record a lot, however, and it became one of my favorites. I’m a little amused by how mellow the entire album seems now; at the time, it seemed like a sonic explosion.

“Strangers In A Car” has one of the more disconcerting opening verses I can remember. I know the song is a commentary on isolation, but this morning, at least, I was unable to pay much attention to the rest of the song after listening closely to the first verse:

There’s a stranger in a car
Driving down your street,
Acts like he knows who you are.
Slaps his hand on the empty seat and says,
“Are you gonna get in
Or are you gonna stay out?”
Just a stranger in a car.
Might be the one they told you about.

It had been a while since I’d thought much about it, and it left me shaking my head. Are the times that different? Or would the song have been that disconcerting in 1991? I don’t know.

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