I’ve been driving now for over 40 years, but I still remember the nerves, excitement, and fear of learning to drive and taking my driver’s test in Branson back in 1980.
Before taking my test, I had to endure the scrutiny of my dad learning to drive. He had an old Chevy truck with three-on-the-tree transmission. He’d pick me up after basketball and later baseball practice and make me drive home. We lived about 11 miles from town on the curvy highway 248. I remember driving with him constantly yelling at me to “Slow down!” or “Watch what you are doing!”. By the time we got home I was always a nervous wreck.
We were able to find a 1975 yellow Fiat for $750. It was probably the ugliest little car you could imagine. It had a very tight manual transmission (at least the stick was on the floor and not the steering wheel)! I remember practicing in our yard going forward and back, learning when to engage the clutch.
When it came time to take my driving test, I remember this very stern older man walking up to me saying I was next. The man never smiled. I did fine until he had me parallel park on Pacific Street in Branson, which is a very steep hill running up from the downtown area. When I completed my parallel park, he asked me if I noticed the little alley I had parked in front of. I said, “Umm, no.” He then told me to go on. I was so unnerved I put the car in third gear instead of first and when I started to go the engine stalled. The car started to roll back down hill and I hit the brake hard in a panic. I can still remember seeing the instructor’s head bob forward. He quickly directed me back to the license bureau and told me I needed more practice driving a stick.
I was devasted. I had a date with Brenda McAllister that coming Friday night, I believe the Buccaneer Ball. I was whining to Ed McFarland that afternoon in school and he offered to let me drive his automatic Chevelle, a tiny car that barely climbed the highway 65 hills.
We set off the next day, skipping the afternoon classes (don’t tell Lonnie Spurlock please). We drove up to Ozark where they did driving tests on Wednesdays. I passed the test (though my parallel parking was terrible) and was set for my date with Brenda!
I still had a lot of work to do with driving the clutch. I remember early that next summer taking Brenda to Silver Dollar City. We parked on a sloped hill. When we were ready to leave a few hours later, the parking lot was full, and a car was parked in front of me not too far away. I had to back my car up the hill without rolling into the car in front of me. I was completely stressed out and almost hit the car twice. I’m sure I really impressed Brenda!
About a month later I followed me Dad to Springfield where he worked a construction job to get new tires for the Fiat. Dad paid for the tires, and I remember him telling me to not drive fast going home. I listened until I turned off highway 65 to highway 160, about five miles from home. Highway 160 has lots of bending curves. My new tires gripped the road tightly. Soon I pretended I was in a formula one race and sped around the curves. After a bit I approached a curve and allowed my car to drift off the road a bit. As soon as I felt my tires slide off into the grass I pulled my steering wheel to the left, but too sharply. The tight rack and pinion steering caused the car to lurch, and my back wheels slid to the right. I panicked and tried to hit the brake but believe afterwards slipped off the brake and hit the gas. The car was out of control and went off the road, down a steep ditch and head-on into a tree along the fence-line of Earl Seaton’s land. I remember Electric Light Orchestra was pounding on my 8-track player mixed with my screams as the car hit the tree and flipped end over end, landing back on its wheels in Earl’s field.
Miraculously, I only sustained a bad cut on my knee. I was not wearing a seatbelt. The whole passenger side was crushed. If Brenda or anyone else would have been with me, they would have been killed. I remember walking from the accident scene crying over and over, “Dad is going to kill me!” as I made my way to a friend’s house I knew lived on highway 160. It turned into a mile and a half walk. My friend wasn’t home but his dad was. Kindly he took his tractor and pulled my crumpled car back to our place where I had him park it in the field a few hundred yards from our house and next to highway HH where we lived.
My Mom was home. She didn’t drive so called where my brother Mike worked and had him come home to take me to the ER, where I got stitches for my knee. When it was time for Dad to come home Mom stationed Mike at the top of the road to meet Dad to warn him about my wreck, since Dad would see my Fiat, that once looked like a banana and now looked like a smashed banana peel. Mike said he followed Dad to where my car lay. Dad slowed down to a stop, looked at the car, then peeled out towards the house. I lay on my bed with my back to the door, ready for Dad’s explosion. He walked to my room, opened the door, and said gruffly, “Are you alright?” I managed to get out, “Yeah.”
Those were the last words any of us heard from Dad for three days. I think his silence was more painful than if he would have screamed at me or even whipped me. By the third day I was sick of the silent treatment and complained to Mom.
Mom looked at me and said quietly, “Greg, when your dad was younger, he was very close with his cousin Bub Chaney. One day your dad was with Grandpa driving home from work and ran across a wreck scene. Bub had crashed and was in the middle of the road badly hurt. Your Dad and Grandpa picked Bub up and put him in between them in the truck and raced to the hospital. On the way to the hospital Bub died in your dad’s arms. Your wreck reminded him of that, Greg. It scared him.”
Well, I wasn’t mad at Dad anymore. I felt terrible I had put him through that. A few days later Dad surprised me when I got home from school (riding the bus) with a 1970, Black Camaro hiding behind the house. Dad didn’t say the words, “I love you,” but this gesture of forgiveness meant a lot to me. And for the most part I drove the Camaro slow, except when challenged on highway 65 by my friend with his yellow Mustang!
Now, I’m about a month away from my 21-year-old son’s accident, that truly should have killed him. Again, the passenger side of his truck was completely crushed. If his girlfriend or anyone else would have been with him, they would have surely been killed.
I wonder if the same angels who protected me 41 years ago protected my son. I don’t know, but I’m grateful. I remember driving to the hospital angry with my son for his accident, which was his fault. That anger quickly left when I saw him laying in pain in the ER, head covered in blood and his right ankle showing bone sticking out and his foot pointed in the wrong direction. My son hurt badly, and my anger turned to deep, powerful love and compassion.
Do you remember the mixture of fear, excitement, and stress you felt when you got your driver’s license? Do you remember the amazing feeling of getting your license and the freedom and independence you felt? I sure do. Great memories. It makes me wonder why so many young people today aren’t in a hurry to get their driver’s license when they turn 16. I’ve heard from many friends who have experienced this. Could it be today’s teens already feel connected with their cell phones and Instagram and Snap Chat? For us, there were no cell phones, just the phone with the cord in the kitchen with everyone asking who I was talking with. A driver’s license meant freedom to drive to town to be with my friends. I just wonder if teens today are missing out on this wonderful rite of passage.
I live on the land I grew up on, so I often pass the place on highway 160 where I drove off the road on that hot summer day. I still slow down and reflect as I pass the spot and stare at the tree. ELO blares again in my head and memories of being 16 and wonderfully free balance the fearful memory of that day. And now each time I’ll pass I’ll thank the Lord for protecting my son as well.