A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

To Shift or Not to Shift, No Options
by Rosemary Eskridge (Nov 2012)

How many kids get their Beginner’s License at age 14? It was my freshman year at Runnels Junior High and they were offering Driver’s Education for everyone who would be 15 years old by the end of the Fall Semester. My folks had one car, a brown 1955 Chevy station wagon that managed to get Dad to work every day and mom to the grocery store when Dad came home from work. Mr. Bustamante was the Drivers Ed teacher and I couldn’t wait to get my chance to drive. The first few weeks we studied the handbook for the Texas Department of Safety and learned numerous laws about not passing schools buses with blinking lights and how to park on hills. Most of the other laws were so logical that it was easy preparing for the test. Remembering to drive one car length for every ten miles per hour of speed always seemed worthless as no one I knew drove two car lengths away from any car in the school zone and certainly not three car lengths away when driving through town.

Nevertheless, I understood the process of trying to stop at different speeds and stored that information on a shelf in my brain until time for the written exam we would take before we were allowed to really drive. When the test was given, I made a perfect 100. I practically wanted to hang my beginner’s license on a chain around my neck but my peers certainly would find that weird. Teenage life was difficult enough knowing all those things where errors in judgment result in being labeled for life.

 It was in my driving class that I learned a basic principal about school that proved true for the rest of my life. The basic principal is, “Every student should all ready know what is to be learned before the teacher teaches you anything.” So as it was with me, everyone else in the car all ready knew how to drive (except me). I figured they were taking the classes to get the discount for their parent’s car insurance.

 I was sitting in the back seat waiting for my turn. The class lasted about fifty-five minutes and each driver would get to drive for 15 minutes. Each driver in turn would get in the driver’s seat, check the mirrors, check and adjust the position of the seat, and then put the key in the ignition. Next, came the gear shift. First, Second, Drive, Neutral and Park: so much power came with just a fourteen inch gear shift stick. Drive, hmmm, leaving the curb, look left, right, then back to the left then shift into first gear and press your foot down on the accelerator.

 It seemed easy enough. Maybe I had just assumed that everyone knew everything about driving. Linda’s turn; For within a few minutes the right hand side of the car would bump up and roll on a few feet, then bump down and go along for about a hundred feet then bump up, almost instantly bump down and then it would be a smooth ride for a few seconds. Then the tilt of the car explained what was happening. The student driver was driving up on the curb, bumping down into a drive way, traveling ten or twenty feet and bumping back onto the curb and sometimes smooth grass continually going up and down until the glaring eye of Mr. Bustamante along with his arm wave to move to the left off the curb which equalized the elevation of the car as well as eliminated the bumping motion.

When the second student started driving, she was traveling down Twelfth Street cruising just under the speed limit when Mr. Bustamante said, “Turn left at the next corner.” Kathy’s finger immediately touched the signal indicator at which time her arms went stiff and for some unexplained reason refused to make the motion that would enable the car to turn. Everyone in the back seat gasped as she swerved away from the car that was in front of her since she was no longer in the turn lane but in the oncoming lane of a car coming toward her.

 For the next few lessons, we used the parking lot of the Football stadium and stayed away from oncoming cars and street lights with turning lanes. Diving came more relaxed as the only fear was light poles

The bad thing about learning to drive in Junior High is that even though in 1959, no cell phones existed, if you made an error in Driver’s Ed, everyone in the lunch room would go hysterical with laughter when you entered. I think it was Friday 13th that Mr. Bustamante had asked the student driving to drive a mile section on Interstate 20. The entry on the Interstate was interesting. Jeremy F. checked his rear view mirror to the left of the car, then quickly looked over his left shoulder, making sure nothing was in his blind spot and then zoomed on to the highway not realizing that he was still on the lane used for the shoulder in case of a flat tire or car trouble. It was rather disconcerting when Mr. Bustamante quietly suggested that Jeremy please open his eyes and pull over into the actual lane. I think the biggest fear we had was the 18-wheelers that zoomed by in the left lane. Maybe the sign on the back of the car stating “Student Driver” made trucks seem to fly past or was it the possibility that Jeremy hadn’t gotten the car to 55 MPS.

Written testing and student driving was not all that made the time in class. We had to watch films where dummies were used to demonstrate what an impact would have on the human body during an accident. Other films showed accidents involving drunk drivers and we were amazed at the number of drunk drivers who walked away unharmed from accidents where they had killed or caused other serious injuries to whole families.

During the fall, Mr. Bustamante announced that his students had been asked to participate in a Driving Rodeo to be held on the run way at the nearby Webb Air Force Base. Bonus grade points would be given to students who participated and all things considered, it sounded like a great adventure. Cars were being furnished by the Plymouth Dealers. The car were just off the transport trucks and students could chose the car they wanted to drive from a selection of cars that the Plymouth dealers had brought to the run way for students participating in the driving rodeo.

Looking at the cars required a double take as students stared while a commercial radio voice described the elegant cars available to drive. My friend, Don White, chose the “Sports Fury.” The Double-barreled fenders drew attention to the sculpted eyebrows floating above dual headlamps. Taking a styling cue from the 1942 Plymouth's under-bumper air scoop, the 1959 version was designed to give a "jet-intake look" (1942's had been inspired by race cars). The area beneath the bumper and stone shield were void of any grille work. Fins began to rise from the "C" pillar in a smoother upsweep than previous years, lending to the car's rear panel illusion of greater length than there actually was. The rear fenders fin was capped by fluted stainless trim, which cascaded down the fin to the deck. Don was a senior, and always treated the freshmen girls with respect as they were awed in his presence. But his immediate goal was to take the top spot in the rodeo from the time he walked onto the runway. The interior of Don’s Sport Fury interiors featured viscose metallic cloth with bolsters of red and metallic-hued vinyl. The Door panels were four toned with matching seat and bolster materials, ivory vinyl, and a carpeted base strip. The coupe's headliners were ivory hardboard, using a perforated center section, scored side sections separated by ivory bows running from front to back. Don’s true character came out as he demonstrated that the front seat wasn't just your ordinary bench seat, nor was it a bucket. It was split in three pieces. The center section had a folding center armrest; the front could seat two, or with the armrest folded up, three. Don took the time to demonstrate how the outer sections swiveled out at the touch of a lever to aide in easy entry and exit. The car was truly a ride to remember. Don hurried with his car descriptions by showing me the “Sport Fury Package” that had a custom nameplate ready to be engraved, "Sport Fury, Built Especially For “____” By Plymouth." Upon delivery the nameplate was to be engraved with the owner's name, and then mounted on the glove compartment door. Topping off the interior was a special Sport Fury steering wheel with full-circle horn ring.

My car choice was to drive the 1959 Belvedere. The hood and deck lid were sculpted, the hood receiving a center wind split, the deck lid cut in from rear window to the body crease molding. Back-up lamps moved back to the tail light in an oval cluster, and rear bumpers indented in the middle to frame the license plate. A new Plymouth monogram rode on the left corner of the hood and deck lid, with model names in the same style script appearing at the rear edge of the fin.

As I climbed into the driver’s seat, I felt like I was sitting in the cockpit of a fighter plane. (My Dad worked at Webb Air Force Based and we had attended open houses every year with his friends enabling us to climb up and look inside the T38s.) The Interior featured a “Jet-Age Control Center” instrument cluster featuring aircraft-style housing and enough buttons to keep the most ardent button–pusher happy. (More than enough for a Junior High Drivers Ed Coed who had only driven the family Chevy station wagon). To the left of my speedometer was an angled panel where the transmission controls were found-five buttons for Power Flight. I stared at the four button console. Starting with the bottom left hand button I could change gears: First, Second, Drive, Neutral, and Reverse. On my right was another set of five buttons to control, the heater, defroster and air conditioning. Gauges included fuel and temperature with red lights monitoring the oil pressure and amperes. Every control except the radio sat directly in front of the driver and was within easy reach. Only the clock could be considered to be out of the drive’s normal range of motion. Riding in the center of the steering wheel was the Mayflower emblem. Dash panels were color coordinated to the interior and finished in a “No-Glare Royalite. Safety Padding was optional but my car was fully opted. Much to my surprise the left and right turn signal indicators were placed on either side of the speedometer in place of the single-light indicator used for nearly a decade before. The Belvedere steering wheel had a half horn ring, but lacked the Savoy horn bar that was integral with the spokes. This would really be a day to remember.

The other contestants were gathering at the instructional tent so I joined them in the sign up process and received the instructions for the competition. I was sixth in line and the only Freshman Girl in the competition. I returned to my car to wait for my turn. As I started my car, the miniature push buttons reminded me of a radio at my grandmother’s house that had similar buttons. Could the button really change gears in my transmission? Well, no time to worry about such trivia. The rodeo challenge had started.

I watch the first challenger. Yellow tennis balls were lined up for about two hundred feet spaced exactly ten inches wider that the width of the left tire. The object of this challenge was to drive forward keeping the back and front left wheels between the tennis balls without running over the tennis balls. A judge walked along the side of each car just behind the driver’s door and indicated on the clip board whether the driver had stayed within the lines marked by the tennis balls. This feat was worth 100 points. Each of the drivers completed the challenge occasionally squashing balls on one or the other side. I was glad that I was not the first competitor because as I was able to watch other drivers and I developed my own strategy for driving straight without touching the balls.

The next challenge was to drive quickly between car width wooden barricades and then come to a quick stop with your wheels not touching the lines that marked a simulated cross walk. Each drive had three opportunities and would use his highest score to be added to his points.

The third challenge encompassed driving through a maze of orange road-marker cones. Your speed had to be not less than 15 miles per hour with no limit of how fast you wanted to drive. Since a judge was following beside you with his clip board recording whether you touched a cone or not, speed was not the main focus at the given moment. Again each drive was entitled to three opportunities to drive without hitting the cones using his best score for total points.

The final challenge was to back your vehicle though a maze of 50 gallon oil barrels that were positioned in curved patterns around the lower end of the runway without touching the oil barrels. Did I mention the swept wings and fins of these 1959 Plymouths made it very difficult to see behind you while backing up? The pace was slow and the judge offered suggestions to make sure the bumpers or fenders didn’t touch a barrel.

And to think, these huge luxury cars all moved by pushing small buttons on the left of the steering wheel. Out of the thirty five competitors, I came in sixth place. Not bad for the only freshman girl in the competition. Trophies were given for the top three students with the highest points. For the rest of us, “Certificates of Safe Driving” and the memories of driving a luxury car were not easily forgotten. I never see a yellow tennis ball that I’m not reminded of Drivers Ed and the friendships we made as we celebrated each friend passing through this maze of car challenges.

On Monday morning after the completion, I asked Mom if I could drive to school and finally wrangled her enough that she let me have my way against her better judgment. Our Junior High was built of red bricks in the early 1930’s and sat high on a hill that overlooked most of the small town of Big Spring, Texas. At the bottom of the school yard next to the side walk was a three foot tall red brick wall that we all sat on as we arrive at school waiting for the bell to let us to enter the building. That day as usual the red brick wall had hundreds of students waiting for classes to start. Ninth Street swept downhill half way then back upward to the street light in front of the school. I had stopped on the hill at the red light. When the light turned green I tried to start up, but stalled out several times instead. The battle between the break, the clutch, the accelerator and me was on and I had lost. I was sure that everybody was watching me. I will never forget that day.

All of the videos and text books on driver training can never prepare the new driver for stopping on a hill for a traffic light with a stick shift. Stepping on the brake until the last minute, keeping the clutch in until the gear can be shifted, then letting out the clutch and pushing down the accelerator with just enough gas to keep the car from dying is practically impossible when hundreds of students sitting on the red brick wall across the street are watching every move you make. What is even better is the fact that you finally have to set the brake, move over and let you mother drive the car across the street to where parents are expected to park and let their out students. How can you be in a well publicized car rodeo one day and the next day you can’t keep you own car running enough to start up hill at a green light. The novice driver has no idea that hundreds perhaps thousands of other drivers have their own version of learning just the right motion to prevent a car from rocking and rolling and trashing the transmission when learning the stick shifting process. This day seemed like a nightmare when as a fourteen year old, my greatest problem was trying to shift gears on a hill at a traffic light.

I now know that no one really cared whether I made it at the light. It was a moment in time and peer pressure is incredibly important when one is a teen just starting to drive. The best recollection of learning to drive my family’s stick shift station wagon was when Dad brought me back to the house after I had passed my driving test. (I could feel the laminated copy of my driver’s license stuffed snugly behind the plastic frame of my bill fold). As we went into the house Dad opened up the ice box and without even looking in said, “Hey, Mary, we are out of milk. How about you going to the store and picking us up a couple of gallons of milk?” and he handed me the car keys. Nothing else mattered. My Dad knew that I could handle a stick shift any time anywhere.

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