It was a different time for sure, back in the years when I was learning to drive and my Dad and others would take me out on back roads where I could take a turn behind the wheel long before I was of legal driving age.
I suppose that kind of activity was as illegal then as it is now, but it seemed much less so in those days. In fact, I’m relatively certain that if a law enforcement officer would have caught us back in those days, he would have given us a simple warning and sent us on our way. I’m also pretty certain that would not be the case today.
But it was a much different time 45 or more years ago, with a lot less traffic, so from time to time my dad would take me, and a time or two pretty much the whole family, out in the country to give us a little driving experience.
There was only one requirement, at least in my case, and that was that I had to learn to drive a manual shift vehicle before I could drive anything else. That ended up being a good thing, because the first couple vehicles I owned were manual shift cars — a ‘57 Volkswagon followed by a Chevrolet Vega. They were followed by a couple automatic shifts — another Chevy Vega and a Ford Pinto — then a slew of more manual shifts, primarily various Hondas with a Ford Escort wagon tossed in the mix.
But my father was not the only culprit to let me drive well before I had a driver’s license or learner’s permit.
I had a couple female cousins that let me and their brother do a little back road driving a couple times. Their family had some kind of old 1940s or 1950s vehicle that they drove around in neighbor’s field some, but a couple times we tested our skills on the road for a short distance.
In all those years I only remember one time when we nearly had a little misadventure. On that occasion my Dad decided to let my sister, four years my junior, try her hand behind the wheel. She was pretty young, and were in a big extended-cab van. We were on a back road, heading for 90-degree curve, and the closer we came to the curve, the more obvious it became that she was not going to turn in time.
The memory of my father snatching the steering wheel and guiding us around the curve just in the nick of time is one that has stuck with me for decades.
I’m not sure how much back road driving we did before we had permits after that episode, but as soon as I had my permit, there was one more lesson my father made sure to pass on. Probably like the first evening I had my permit, he hopped in the ‘57 Volkswagen with me, then had me drive to the two steepest hills in town to test my skills with the clutch, brakes and gas pedal.
As many of you know, there are a couple places in Hillsboro where you have to come to a stop on a rather steep incline before continuing on. I killed that poor car more than a couple times that night, but before long I caught on and my father’s lessons have served me well ever since.
As the years passed and I started having children of my own, I worked with a guy who had a side gig as a driver’s training instructor. He is no longer with us, but he always said that if you didn’t know how to drive before you started driver’s training, someone had done you a disservice.
I never forgot those words, or my father’s lessons. So when my kids became what I believed to be the proper age — and my wife was not around — I’d drive them out in the middle of nowhere, stop the car, and tell them to get behind the wheel. And that’s how they learned to drive, just like the student driver instructor said they should.
I’m not sure that’s the best way to teach a kid today. Too much has changed, and not for the better. But I sure did appreciate my lessons, and I never will forget that look on my father’s face when he grabbed the wheel at the last second possible to keep my permitless sister from driving over a ditch and into somebody’s yard — with him along for the ride.
Jeff Gilliland is the editor of The Times-Gazette. He can be reached at [email protected] or 937-402-2522.