I was sitting in the living room on the avocado green couch watching daytime TV when I heard the back door open.
I was the only one home, but I didn’t even turn around to see who it was. In the mid-1970s in Arkansas, you didn’t worry about who was coming in your house. People just let themselves in. Especially if it was a relative.
I heard my uncle’s voice.
“Hey,” he said. “I need you to drive a car home for me that I just bought.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Let me get my shoes on.”
I started to put on my boots, but decided that my tennis shoes would likely be a better choice. I wanted to make sure that I had complete control of the brake and gas pedals. Particularly since I’d never actually driven a car before.
I was about 12 or 13 years old at the time. I’d driven several motorcycles, riding lawnmowers, and, at the request of my mother, had even backed the car out of the carport during the winter months to crank the engine and get the heater going.
Cranking the car in the winter was a good deal for both my mother and me. She got to slide into a toasty warm car when she took my sister and me to school, and I got to tell my buddies that I got to start the car that morning.
Today, you go out and turn on the key and the vehicle fires right up, runs smoothly, and can be driven almost immediately. But, 50 years ago, cars had to be caressed a bit to get them started and warmed up. Before you could head down the road, you had to pump the gas pedal (not too much or you’d flood the engine), turn the ignition, and then keep your foot on the gas just enough so that the car wouldn’t die.
You always knew when you’d hit that sweet spot where the automatic choke was taking over. The engine would then smooth out. Once the engine was hot, so was the air coming out of the heater under the dash.
My mom letting me start the car for her from the time I was about nine or so allowed me to bluff my way through driving my uncle’s newly-acquired car.
Should I have told him that I’d never actually driven before? Sure, I should have. Was I going to? Not on your life.
I got into his truck and we headed over to a man’s house. The car he bought was only a few years old at the time and I can still see it clearly in my mind. It was a 1971 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. It was pretty.
It was a typical color for the day. The car was gold, and if memory serves, it had a black vinyl top.
My uncle shook the man’s hand, took the keys from him, and then handed them to me.
“Follow me home,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” I answered.
Reality began to set in. Should I come clean and tell him that I don’t really know how to drive?
I began to comb through my young mind, trying to recall watching my parents and other relatives drive so that I could do the best job possible. Also, I fleetingly thought about how I’d seen Steve McQueen drive, but decided that I’d better stick to how I’d seen my mom drive and hold the Steve McQueen technique for another day.
I cranked the Monte Carlo after pumping the gas pedal a few times, held the pedal in just slightly after the engine cranked, and once the engine smoothed out, I put it in drive and pressed the accelerator.
The car lurched forward a little too much, so I backed off. With my hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel, I eased onto the roadway behind my uncle.
At this time, Ashdown, Arkansas, had just one blinking red light at the main intersection. There were no traffic lights with red, yellow and green. So, I watched how my uncle proceeded through stop signs, the blinking red light, and just did what he did.
Along the way, I weaved a little, but for the most part, I think I did just fine.
Obviously, my uncle didn’t think I did too badly, either. He never said a word about my driving after we got to his house.
“Park it over there,” he said when we arrived. So, I did.
I got out of the Monte Carlo and back into his truck.
He took me back home and left.
Thirty-plus years went by. At a family gathering, someone mentioned the old Monte Carlo and how much my uncle had loved that car. By this time, the car was long gone, having been wrecked by my cousin.
I decided it was now safe to come clean.
“You remember when he had me drive that car home when he bought it?” I asked my aunt.
“No, not really,” she said.
“Well,” I said. “The truth is, when he came by to get me that day, I’d never driven before.”
“What?” she said.
“Yeah, I don’t know how old he thought I was,” I said. “But, I not only wasn’t old enough to drive and didn’t have a drivers license, I’d never driven a car.”
I was glad she laughed. Even when you’ve reached the age that you’re eliglble for a discount at Denny’s, you still have that feeling when you’re around your parents, aunts, and uncles, that you might be on the verge of getting grounded.
Honesty is the best policy. But, I didn’t lie that day about not knowing how to drive. I just wasn’t asked the question.
©2017 John Moore
John’s new book, Write of Passage: A Southerner’s View of Then and Now is available on Amazon.