January 29, 2020

Remember When You Just Couldn't Wait to Get Behind the Wheel?

Pub Notes

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Here's a 1951 Ford flathead V-8, and, wait, is that Sonny's coupe beside it?

At a recent birthday supper, Sonny Thurmond, Bill Boswell and I entertained our wives with stories of our underage driving while growing up in Greensboro. The ability to drive, the freedom to do it and an available automobile marked a dramatic rite of passage out of the world of childhood—a trip we were longing to take. If you couldn’t drive, you were still just a kid.

Bill’s family had a new Buick and a long driveway, and they early on allowed him to drive on their lot. We would all pile in, and Bill would chauffeur us to the end of the driveway, returning in reverse: back and forth all afternoon. We admired Bill extravagantly, and he became a very good driver and put it to good use when he managed concessions at his father’s drive-in movie, picking up the food to be prepared and the preparers and taking them all out to work. Not sure if this occurred before or after his learner’s license.

When you got your learner’s license, that was it. You were street legal in Greensboro. The chief of police and the sheriff knew exactly how old we were, but around town, we were OK, even without the learner’s. Without wheels, though, we couldn’t compete, a fact painfully impressed upon me the last time my mother drove me to my girlfriend’s home, so that we could walk to a movie. Plenty of older boys were ready to drive her to the movies, and they soon did. She was no longer a kid, but I still was, because my driving at that point was only when my father needed me.

We had a 1951 Ford flathead V-8, in case that means anything to you. Those things would run. My father was a fast driver and taught me how to drive fast—I suppose on the assumption that the best he could do was at least prepare me for it. When I did start driving around town, it was in an older Chevrolet he bought for himself, when we finally became a two-car family. That car was not fast, but it held a lot of boys who wanted to ride endlessly around town at night telling jokes and smoking cigarettes. It caught fire one night from some electrical shortage under the hood, and we all abandoned it in the middle of the street. By habit, I snatched the key out of the ignition as I exited and told Sonny, “I saved the key.” Luckily, that also ended the short circuit, and our ride was saved. By high school, Sonny had a Ford coupe, and we had some fun double dates in it. Later, when faster cars came along, a lot of guys got into drag racing out on the highway, but fortunately, our crowd largely passed on it.

One by one, we drove ourselves away from childhood, and our world expanded. We could come over to Athens. (I wasn’t along the night Sonny and some of the guys had to push their car partway home from Athens.) Towards the end of high school, we even ventured to Atlanta. I think the first time I ever drove to Atlanta was an ambulance trip, with a nurse and the old man patient in the back and his daughter sitting between my father and me, hiding her eyes every time I passed a car on the narrow two-lane road. No interstates then. Not even the white lines on the sides of the road or the reflectors we now have in the center of many rural highways.

Once, my father and I were coming back from Atlanta in the family store’s pickup truck when the alternator gave out, and so did the lights. He took over the driving and steered by looking up between the trees on either side to keep us on the road, fast enough to catch up with another car and follow it back to Greensboro.

I still enjoy driving and the freedom it brings—the ability to zip around town and out of town, doing stuff you need to do. Looming, though, is that other rite of passage: Age will take away what it gave us when we were so eager to get it. At least we’ll have Uber and Lyft and a pretty good bus system around town. I don’t relish going to Atlanta on the bus and then attempting to get around over there. Maybe there are some 15-year-old kids around who’d enjoy getting behind the wheel, even if it means listening to stories about flathead V-8s.