Experience D’Orth

A Driver’s Education 

I was snooping around all the internet’s web sites for performance driving schools recently, planning to get gift certificates for our daughter and son-in-law.  I have found the several schools I have attended great fun and very  beneficial, hence my search.  As each site began to blur into the other with pitches about track time, skid pads, threshold braking, and other skills, I began to muse about my own very first driving class—it was quite a bit different.  Actually, my first driving experience was at the wheel of an MG TD, sitting on the owner’s lap as he worked the pedals, and narrowly missing a gate post.  Four years later, when I was fourteen, my dad taught me the finer points of driving with a 1958 Opel.


Driver’s Ed was and still is a routine course in many high schools.  Parents are encouraged to enroll their kids with a miniscule discount from their insurance carrier, and the kids are always glad to sign up since it beats attending anything more academic.  The format has changed little, although today’s cars have certainly progressed. A long time ago when cars were much simpler, it was not uncommon for there to be dual steering wheels along with an extra brake pedal for the instructor. However, when it was my turn to take the course during the early ‘60s, the standard fare was a four-door sedan with automatic transmission and just the supplemental brake pedal.  Often a local auto dealer would donate the use of a new car that would later be sold as a ‘demonstrator.’  Ours was a white 1962 Ford Falcon.


Typically, you would sacrifice one grading period of your Physical Education class to learn the rules and skills of the road.  Most of the class would suffer dreary classroom presentations of the state driver’s manual and ghastly film strips depicting skid marks, accidents and a thorough indoctrination in the “Speed Kills” mindset.  Four other fledglings would skip out to the parking lot and meet the Falcon and Mr. Gabbard, who would supervise the actual driving curriculum for several days before another rotation.

This porcine gentleman was a veteran of far too many years in the saddle and he could see retirement peeking over the horizon.   After a perfunctory introduction to the primitive car’s knobs, pedals and levers, he asked who already knew how to drive.  Two us had been riding motorcycles and driving under supervision on restricted licenses for two years, but there was a mama’s boy and a cute girl whose parents had abdicated the responsibility to the professionals at the school.  Each day, Mr. Gabbard would have one of us ‘old hands’ pilot the Falcon out of the school lot as he slouched like Jabba The Hut in the shotgun seat—leaning heavily against the door so he could both observe the driver’s performance and address the three students packed into the rear seat. The lone girl was in a most uncomfortable situation, always being scrunched up between a couple of guys, neither of which were about to sit in the middle, and it was made much worse by having to learn a strange new skill under the harsh scrutiny of these loathsome peers.


The first stop every class period was the donut shop down the block. Mr. Gabbard would dispatch someone inside to get him a couple of glazed and coffee.  We would then ride around the local area, five miles an hour under the limit, gently braking well in anticipation of stops, signaling every course change and generally clogging traffic as Mr. Gabbard worked on the donuts and offered occasional tips.  After the easily-sloshed coffee had been dispatched, one of the novices would assume the helm.  Even with the automatic, starts were jittery and stops even more so.  Corners taken too tightly would have the inside rear wheel up over the curb, and reminders to watch the mirror, pay attention to other traffic, use the turn signals and other fine points were constantly being made, accompanied by sniggers from the back seat.  Once, the mama’s boy was overloaded by all these inputs and completely failed to notice a stop sign.  Mr. Gabbard tromped his auxiliary brake pedal and screeched the Falcon to a halt, tumbling all of us into a heap (no seat belts in 1962!).  The girl, coiffure askew and deeply offended by the entangled intimacy, seethed in outrage.  We thought it was hilarious, as Jabba gestured with his donut at the ignored sign and barked his point across.


The parallel parking exercise was even more fun.  Mr. Gabbard set up the obligatory orange cones in the school lot and demonstrated the procedure.  We two ‘pros’ aced our turns the first time, and then assumed the out-of-cone personas of the parking pylons with appropriate yelps and moans as our conemates were bumped into and backed over by the poor novices.  Mr. Gabbard made us sit on the curb downstream a ways while he worked patiently with the ‘girls.’  (He actually said that once, to our utter rapture and the other boy’s eternal mortification.)


The next week found our group back in the classroom for the film strips and lectures while four others began abusing the Falcon and Mr. Gabbard.  By semester’s end, nearly all had passed the course and qualified for the coveted insurance discount.  Heaven only knows if the underwriters’ experience over time with our class has justified the reduced rates, but our parents appreciated it.   In retrospect, it probably would have been better to more closely match the students’ existing skill levels in the driving groups,  but nevertheless lessons were learned.  For all I know, our brave, prickly young lady may have become another Denise McCluggage or Janet Guthrie, but I can tell you that whenever I’ve parallel parked for the past forty years, I always find myself remembering the 1-2-3 steps Mr. Gabbard kept repeating to the ‘girls.’


                                                                                                -- Bill Orth –