Learning to Drive in 1975

A 1973 Olds Custom Cruiser

Chapter 1

This might seem weird to some of you, but I’m actually quite grateful to have grown up in what were really two distinct technological eras.  Of course human technology has always been advancing, and things were different between birth and death for our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, but the rate of technological acceleration seems to have gone off the charts in my lifetime.  I’m amazed at certain things, and I’ve probably said to at least 100 people that if you had told me when I was 25 that I would be able to hold a tool in my hand (as I wave my iPhone around) that can access almost all of the world’s knowledge and communicate with over a billion people, I would have thought you were crazy.  And all of this for under $1,000 and about $50/month.  Wow…

The interesting thing about the technology of the 1960s-2000 and 2000-present is to me the way it has impacted the amount and types of freedom I’ve experienced in my life.  Back in the “old days” of the pre-PC era, there was a great deal more personal freedom in many ways because nobody could “track” you, and there was no digital history of where you went and when you were doing what with who. 

One glaring example of how things have changed is in the area of driving a car.  Back in the old days, you had to learn to drive while you were as young as possible if you wanted to have any kind of freedom at all.  The only way to interact with other kids your age was to physically get out of Mom & Dad’s field of vision and do whatever it is you wanted to do.  Sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll were only available if you could go somewhere else to enjoy them!!!

During my childhood, kids started learning to drive first on their minibikes and go-karts when we were about 10 or 12.  I got a go-kart on my 10th birthday only because my Mom quashed Dad’s initial plan to get me a minibike instead.  Dad had a motorcycle or two when he was a young man, but Mom said “hell no!” to the 2-wheeled tool of danger, figuring (probably quite correctly!) that a go-kart with 4 wheels was safer than a minibike with only 2 wheels.  It mattered little anyway because the kids all took turns riding each other’s machines all over the neighborhood streets, our rather large yards, and in the farmer’s wooded trails that surrounded our idyllic “subdivision” of 12 houses on 2-acre lots.  Talk about having it made as a kid!  Once you were motorized, you were your own man (or woman) and had the freedom to cruise around at will. 

Of course, by age 13 or 14 we were more than ready to aim for bigger and faster challenges, and that’s when our parents’ cars and the roads outside the neighborhood started looking rather interesting!  I was staying over at my friend Eric D’s house (not in our neighborhood—about 3 miles away) one night in the 8th grade, and we were 13 years old.  Eric D’s parents had gone out for dinner and drinks, and Eric D. got the idea that it would sure be fun to take Mom’s Buick station wagon out for a cruise.  I’m pretty sure it was my neighbor Chris and I in the back seat, and we picked up Eric’s neighbor Leo on the way down the road and were out on our first cruise in a real car!  Well, Eric D. was a bit of a maniac driver considering his extreme level of inexperience, and I distinctly remember him burning rubber, skidding around corners and speeding like all hell!  I was honestly a bit scared because I knew he was just making it up as he went along, but we had so much fun cruising around that before we knew it, two or three hours had gone by.  I seem to recall Chris and/or Leo taking a turn behind the wheel (hey—we were all taught that “sharing” was an important virtue—Hahahaha!), but I declined and was happy just to be a backseat driver on my first clandestine road trip.

We decided that it might be smart to get home and park the car in the detached garage (they had a large lot out in the country) before his parents got home.  Well it was already too late for that, because as we started to pull into their long tree-lined gravel driveway, we noticed that Eric’s dad’s car was back in it’s usual spot next to the house!  Since we had to park Mom’s car in the detached garage anyway, Eric got the bright idea that we could turn off the car’s lights and drive through the apple orchard around the back of the garage and Mom and Dad (now sitting in the house) would be none the wiser.  As we started to pull through the rather steep ditch and into the apple orchard in the dark, it appears Eric had forgotten about the rather large willow tree that was next to the apple orchard.  CRUNCH!! went the Buick’s right front quarter panel and we were jammed in our tracks between the ditch and the tree! 

We panicked for a minute and then shut the car off and contemplated what to do next.  First we surveyed the damage—Yup, Mom was certainly going to notice that her car was quite smashed up and it didn’t happen in the garage!  Next, we figured that if three of us helped push the car out of the ditch with one guy driving, we MIGHT get it out of there and moving forward into the apple orchard again.  Eric D. was the biggest dude in our group, so I think my neighbor Chris drove while the rest of us pushed.  Well, we did succeed and managed to get the car back into the garage and entered the house quietly hoping Eric’s parents were none the wiser (yet—Obviously, Eric would have to tell them something to explain the smashed up car!)  His parents hadn’t heard a thing, so we all went upstairs to his attic bedroom and contemplated various ways to lie our way out of our “situation.” 

To Eric’s credit he decided that it would be best to tell the truth, and we also reasoned that we should do it right now to score as many integrity points as possible AND because his parents had had at least a few drinks and were in a happy mood when we came in the door an hour before.  This turned out to be a pretty smart move for some scared teenagers, and I figured I’d be in some trouble with my parents when Mrs. D told them we had been out cruising in her car.  But, get this—Mrs. D. was so cool that she didn’t even tell any of the other parents about the cruising excursion!  She was so impressed that we all came downstairs and admitted everything to her and Mr. D that we had learned our lesson and that there was no point in telling our parents.  They scolded us a bit of course and rightly so, but talk about luck!  I guess that honesty really is the best policy…

Chapter 2—Eric H. and Chris Learn to Drive

Well, Mrs. D turned out to be half right in thinking we kids had “learned our lesson” in terms of driving before we were legally old enough.  My next-door neighbor Chris and I learned what we used to call “The Eleventh Commandment” in Catholic high school, and that was: “DON’T GET CAUGHT!”  After that first joy ride, we both had a taste for the road and by age 14 we were continuously looking for opportunities to drive when our parents were out.  I’ll come right out and say that Chris had more balls than I did in the instigating department, but I sure as hell never said no!

Our usual mode of transportation was Chris’ Mom’s car—a 1973 (I think) Olds Custom Cruiser.  It seated 8 or 9, probably weighed about 6,000 pounds and was literally the largest passenger car on the road at that time.  The only problem with that was that Chris and I were both late bloomers and probably were about 5′ 4″ and 122# at the time.  The front seat literally swallowed us up!  But being ingenious youngsters who weren’t going to get caught, Chris grabbed some phone books and a couple of his dad’s dress hats so we would look larger inside the car in case any cops happened to notice us out on the road.  And we would of course be smart enough to get home before our parents did so we wouldn’t have problems parking the car!

To our credit, we did succeed in getting in at least a dozen excursions in within the next year or so, and half of them were in the winter.  Unlike Eric D., we didn’t drive like maniacs—We actually taught ourselves to drive and wanted to keep doing it right up until we were old enough to get our licenses.  Not getting caught and losing your “driving privileges” (and probably others!) was a big deal to us.  We had quite a bit of adrenaline junkie fun teaching ourselves how to navigate that giant rear-wheel drive sled on snow and ice, and I’d have to say we got pretty good at it until the inevitable happened…

No, we didn’t get into a wreck or caught by the cops (although our hearts skipped a beat when they drove past us on the roads more than once!), but we took a chance we shouldn’t have.  We usually only drove when both sets of parents were out for the evening.  We were next door neighbors and you could kind of see each other’s houses through the trees, but one night we bent our rules and paid the price.  Everything went fine on the drive, but when we brought the car back down his driveway, my Mom just happened to be looking out the kitchen window and saw the car pull in.  She happened to know what Chris’ parents were doing that night, and it was too early for them to be getting home at about 9pm.  Of course I unwittingly didn’t help matters by strolling in the door about five minutes after we parked the car, which further raised my Mom’s suspicions.  She mentioned something about it to me, and I just shrugged it off and told her I didn’t know anything about it.  Mom took it upon herself to call over there, and quickly found out from Chris’ older sister that her parents weren’t home yet, and it didn’t take too long for my Mom to get it out of her who was really driving the car when Chris’ parents were still out! 

About 10 minutes after I got home, my Mom came into my room and had it out with me.  Of course I lied and said this was the first time we had ever done such a thing, how sorry I was, blah, blah, ad infinitum, but she was still pretty pissed off about it.  I was 15 by then and would be eligible to get my learner’s permit in only a few months, but she said my punishment was that I would have to wait another year!!!  Well, the parents all had a talk about it over the next week or so and cooler heads prevailed.  Chris and I both got our driver’s licenses on time, and the best part was that we already knew how to drive!!!

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