June 1956 – I would soon be 16 and I intended to be able to drive legally as soon as my birthday arrived. Daddy was a cab driver and knew the importance of driving well; because he wanted me to be a good driver he allowed me to practice using the clutch and shifting gears in front of the house .
We had a light blue 1953 Plymouth at the time – standard shift, which was the case with the majority of vehicles. Daddy explained that a smooth transition between releasing the clutch, pressing on the gas pedal and moving the gear shift was an important aspect of effective driving. He sat in the passenger seat and watched me and made gentle and effective corrections to my technique, even when my lack of skill caused grinding noises to the gear shift.
All well and good, but the average 15-year-old itching to drive needs more time in the driver’s seat than most parents are likely willing or able to offer. At that time, schools didn’t offer driver’s ed and, to my knowledge, there were no driving schools, so young people generally taught themselves to drive. Fortunately, through Civil Air Patrol, I had several male acquaintances who were old enough to drive and more than willing to prove their skill at driving to any available pre-driving girl.
Johnnie Cole was the CAP member who provided most of my driving education, although Wayne also gave me some instruction. Driving instruction at that time generally took place on country roads. Johnnie would drive me out to the country and let me get in the driver’s seat and practice my driving. He was, by the way, one of the good-looking male members of our group and all of the girls would have been thrilled to be the recipient of time spent with him – I was no exception. He was generous with his time and a good teacher.
It never crossed my mind to not be a driver and it also never entered my mind that I would not be a competent driver. I learned to drive easily and took every opportunity to practice.
Civil Air Patrol offered a summer encampment every year and that summer of 1956 I wanted so much to go but my parents said they couldn’t afford to send me. I was very social and longed to be with the group wherever they might be, so I was really hurt to not be able to make the trip. As the rest of the group planned the trip and talked with one another about their plans, I felt totally excluded. I don’t know what happened, but a few days before the trip Daddy told me he would get the money for me to go – in today’s world (2009) the sponsors of such a trip would not likely permit someone to participate at the last minute , but I was allowed to go.
The trip that year was to Amarillo Air Force Base. We flew a C-130 (known as a Flying Boxcar) out of Tinker Field – that was an experience all its own. The C-130 is a cargo plane and wasn’t equipped with seats like airlines; it had seating that was akin to long cots that were attached to the sides of the plane. Comfort was not in the design of those planes.
We spent the week living in barracks, eating in mess halls, taking classes in Morse code and parachute folding and getting a tour of the radar tower – during the day time. At night we had parties and dances, went to the PX and officer’s club and generally had a fabulous time.
You may be thinking, ‘What’s the point of this discussion when I was talking about learning to drive?’ My birthday is June 22 and the encampment included that day – it was a Sunday so I couldn’t have taken my driver’s test anyway. We flew home on Sunday afternoon. No matter how much fun I’d had, I had not forgotten that all important event of getting my driver’s license.
Monday, June 23, 1956, I went to the driver’s licensing facility and took both the written test and the driver’s test. I have no recollection of how I got there; probably Daddy took me. The only areas of concern I had were having to stop on a hill and start from that same hill, plus parallel parking. The driver’s test route included some areas with stop lights and hills, and though I was a little nervous I managed to execute the skill at satisfactory levels. I passed with flying colors and not long after I got my license, Daddy bought a large Hudson for him to drive and he gave me the ’53 Plymouth, which I drove until I got married. I have been joyfully driving ever since the day after I turned 16.