Learning to drive: I get my license #AtoZChallenge 2023

L is for Learning to drive: I get my license. Twelfth of 26 posts in the April 2023 Blogging From #AtoZChallenge. Theme: Endwell: My High School Years — adding my story to the family history mix. Please join me on the journey.

Getting a driver’s license was a must for suburban teens during my high school years, because without wheels you could barely go anywhere.

Applying for a learner permit was the first step – so I signed up and took the written test once I turned 17.

The day my permit arrived in the mail, my mom was all smiles when she picked me up at a friend’s house – located atop Endwell’s steep Country Club Road – and handed me the keys. She regretted it as soon as we set out.

Mom gives up

My previous road experience was on a bicycle, so when I followed Mom’s instructions to turn the car left and go down the hill, I didn’t know to turn the wheel back and we veered into the (fortunately empty) oncoming lane!

Rambler station wagon dashboard circa 1966. Note the push button transmission at left on the dash.

“Turn the wheel right!” Mom bellowed, and I quickly complied. I did better after that, until I took the off ramp a bit fast onto Main Street and she yelled, “Slow down! Hit the brakes!” Back home, she turned to me, grabbed the keys, and announced, “That’s it, I’m never taking you driving again!”

Up next was Dad, who always flew off the handle under stress. He had to teach me our Fiat 500’s four-on-the-floor stick shift as well as parallel parking. His safety plan was to start me out in various parking lots.

Dad gives it a try

My nerve-wracking stick shift lessons took place in Endicott’s Kmart Plaza parking lot across from the Philadelphia Sales store – where cars appeared from nowhere and sped across at all angles.

Kmart Plaza parking lot in Endicott, N.Y. in the 1960s. My nerve-wracking stick shift lessons took place in this parking lot across from the Philadelphia Sales store – where cars appeared from nowhere and sped across at all angles.

Dad had me putter around shifting gears to learn clutch control — but the car bucked, and I kept flooding the engine and stalling out.

“What, again?” Dad would yell, exasperated. Then we had to sit with the car off while the fuel levels settled down. Eventually, though, I got the hang of it.

Next up was parallel parking. In an empty grocery store parking lot, Dad described imaginary cars between which I had to park.

But as soon as I backed up or started to turn in, he’d yell, “No, no! You’ve hit the other car!” Now I was exasperated. “Dad, there are no other cars!”

Molly Mobile: Fiat 500 circa 1966. I discovered this red Fiat 500 in front of a restaurant in Long Island City, Queens, in 2013 — the same make, model, and color as the one I learned to drive on at age 17. So of course I had to pose! Photo: Patricia Celentano

Drivers Ed to the rescue

Luckily, there were enough of us Baby Boomers learning to drive that our high school had a dedicated Drivers Ed teacher to put us through our paces and teach us all those hand signals we’d never use again. That meant my parents were off the hook, and I could relax behind the wheel.

As the time neared for me to take my road test, some guys who’d already gotten their driver’s licenses described what to expect — though I wasn’t sure I believed them.

“First, you’d better hope you don’t get The Whistler,” one student warned. “He clicks his pen over and over and takes off points for everything.”

Then another student told me, “Watch out for that guy they hire to ride a bike in front of you when you do your K-turn.”

C’mon, really? Surely they were exaggerating.

Rambler station wagon push button transmission circa 1966. I decided to take my road test in our Rambler station wagon, which had push-button transmission, so I wouldn’t lose points on clutch control.

I decided to take my road test in our Rambler station wagon, which had push-button transmission, so I wouldn’t lose points on clutch control. The morning of the test, with Mom now brave enough to ride along, I parallel parked all around Endicott for one last practice before pulling up next to the George F. Johnson Memorial Library for the road test.

The Whistler comes through

The DMV guy climbed in with his clip board and, sure enough, he was whistling! As his pen started clicking, he instructed me to head up to the light and turn left. A million turns and hand signals later, when we were on a side street for my K-turn, I had to smile as someone indeed rode by on a bicycle!

Finally, he had me pull up next to a car for my parallel park – and it had a sloped back with no rear window to line up to. Yikes! But I did my best and made it into the spot.

With that, my road test was over — and a while later, my probationary driver’s license arrived in the mail. What a thrill — I passed on the first try! And after six months, my license would be permanent.

To celebrate, I drove on my own over to an ice cream social at the fire department in the little red Fiat my friends later dubbed the “Molly Mobile.” Shifting gears smoothly, I didn’t flood the engine even once!

Up next, M is for Madame Defarge of AP English. Please stop back!

© 2023 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

18 thoughts on “Learning to drive: I get my license #AtoZChallenge 2023”

  1. I did have a laugh reading about your early driving experiences and you made my think about my own lessons which I’ve given no thought to for years. That then takes me to think about teaching my own children. I found that stressful but we survived it.

    1. Learning to drive, then teaching others, is such a big deal that it’s no wonder we all remember our initial experience.

  2. A rite of passage for learners and their parents. Although it’s many years ago I remember my father pushing me out of the driver’s seat on a busy road one Sunday afternoon. After that it was a driving school for me.

    Now I sit back and laugh as my children try top cope with their teenager learner drivers.

  3. I grew up in New York City . My parents didn’t even own a car. Different world. I am so glad I did not have to learn to drive in a car with a manual transmission. When it was time for our son to learn to drive, we took him to a driving school. Worth every penny.

    1. Mass transit definitely helped you out — something we didn’t have in the suburbs. Drivers Ed and driving school are definitely the best way to learn!

  4. The red fiat is lovely!
    I could relate to your learning to drive saga – it brought it all back including the boyfriend who took on the challenge but only one session as I steered his precious car towards a rock cliff during my first time behind the wheel – he had no idea the lack of aptitude I would show!

    1. Thanks, Beth! I think you’re right — getting a drivers license is one of those memorable rites of passage that stays with you.

  5. I lived in Detroit and took the bus, walked or got a ride everywhere. I briefly was learning to drive out in the country, but after turning into a ditch, gave it up. I didn’t learn and get my license until I was 29. By that time we lived in the country and there were no buses and everything was too far to walk to.


    1. I envy the mass transit system that was available to you in Detroit. We didn’t have anything as reliable as that in Endwell — so our experience was more like yours in the country: everywhere was too far to walk and there was no alternative but to drive.

  6. I failed my first driving test. My mother taught me to parallel park using lines on a parking lot, but we forgot to pretend that the cars were still there when it was time to practice again. Thus, I parallel parked perfectly, but knocked down both flags in the attempt to get out of the parking spot.

    1. Oh no! But at least you finally passed. Hearing your story, I guess teaching parallel parking in an empty lot was a trick many parents may have used. In hindsight, it was much harder that actually parking between real cars 🙂

  7. Your story made me smile, both as the learner and the parent supervisor. So pleased those days are behind me. Hill starts and reverse parking were key where we lived and I could do it happily…until nerves kicked in on the day of the test.

    1. Speaking of hills, I lived in fear of stop signs atop hills because the Fiat would roll backwards while I struggled with clutch control to get going from a complete stop. I always took a round about route to one friend’s house to avoid the nearby hilltop stop sign.

  8. It was so exciting passing the driving test.
    I was taught to drive by an ex-police driving instructor and was so pleased to pass the test first time, at 17 years and 4 months.
    I take it your K turn is our 3-point turn.
    We weren’t taught anything about parking but that’s really rather important. As for motorway driving . . . we had to discover that for ourselves.

    1. Congrats on passing your driver’s test the first time! Yes, the K turn is the 3-point turn — and I have to say, I have used it over the years to turn around in tight spots. You’re right about highway driving — my maternal grandmother was the brave one who showed me how that was done!

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