License to Drive by
(137 Stories)

Prompted By The DMV

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1967 yearbook entry on Driver Ed

Turning sixteen was a coming-of-age ritual.  Not a sweet sixteen party—getting a driver’s license!  Having wheels in mid-twentieth century US meant mobility, freedom, unsupervised hanging out with friends, romance.

Turning sixteen was a coming-of-age ritual.  Not a sweet sixteen party—getting a driver’s license!  Having wheels in mid-twentieth century US meant mobility, freedom, unsupervised hanging out with friends, romance.

I signed up for the high school’s driver ed class as soon as I could–Maryland required it if you wanted a license at sixteen.  First thing—buckle up!  Seatbelt laws were relatively new but the lesson was drilled into us, never forgotten.  We used turn signals and looked over our shoulders when changing lanes, first navigating around the parking lot, then on the neighboring streets.  We faced the dreaded parallel parking challenge, negotiating around the orange traffic cones into the narrow parking space. After all, if we wanted to move beyond the learner’s permit, we had to pass the DMV exam.

I got lots of practice with the learner’s permit, driving my parent’s Dodge Coronet sedan.  It had a manual transmission on the steering column—my mother insisted on it because everyone should know how to drive a stick shift.  Automatic was newish, and besides, you never know. Just as she insisted that we take typing, even though she had no idea we would need it for computers, not for a back-up job as a secretary.

I felt confident of my new skills and the minute I could schedule my driver’s license exam, I signed up.  And wouldn’t you know, my mother needed the car that day.  My friend Bob heard me bemoaning this disappointment and kindly offered that I could use his car instead. It was a station wagon with a standard transmission, but that was no problem—I could use a stick (thanks, mom!).

The first step at the DMV was the written test.  The booklet they provided had all the answers, but it was still nerve-wracking.  What do you do when you come to a yellow light—speed up to get through the intersection quickly, or slow down and proceed with caution?  Well, of course slow down, but actually, if you did that, you might run a red light, so better zip on through like everyone does.  I chose the wrong answer, but still passed the test. Whew!

Then the road test.  I got behind the wheel of Bob’s station wagon, buckled in and found it was a bit harder to maneuver than I thought and the gears not so easy to find.  But I got it down the street,  around the corners and through its paces, coming to full stops, looking over my shoulder, remembering turn signals and all.  It didn’t even stall.

Then the parallel parking.  Only three moves were allowed—back in, pull forward, and pull back to final placement.  It turned out that the station wagon was quite a bit larger than our family Dodge.  The visual cues were hard to pick out and I hadn’t practiced with the station wagon before.  I couldn’t see the cones.  The reverse gear was tricky.  The wagon stalled and lurched.  The cones may have gotten tipped.  At the end of three moves, it didn’t look good.  I failed.

Disaster.  Embarrassment, shame, ignominy.  Chastened, I had to come back another day.  It was more daunting to try to pass the second time around, knowing failure was a definite option.  This time, I brought the trusty family sedan and did better—I got my license and soon spent far too much time carrying friends and family around the suburbs.

Shortly before my father died, he got an automatically-renewed driver’s license in the mail—good for another ten years.  No test, nothing.  He gave a short, rueful laugh; he was approved to age 102? What were they thinking? In contrast, British Columbia caused a bit of a kerfuffle when they required people past eighty to have a medical exam and take a driving test via computer simulation to get their license renewed.  This was a demographic that could drive a real car on a real road, but not necessarily handle basic computer skills, let alone video games.  Unfair! Losing a driving license is another difficult rite of passage brokered by the DMV, a waypoint in North American car culture where we lose freedom and mobility.  Unlike turning sixteen, this is not something to look forward to.  Better start studying.

Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry

Characterizations: been there, funny, moving, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Yes, Khati, a true rite of passage! Freedom and mobility, just as you say. You learned your lessons well (and good for your mother for the stick shift imperative). But, oh goodness, that blasted station wagon! Nice of your friend to lend it, but unfamiliar and much more difficult to park. I truly sympathize with that parallel parking dilemma and how you felt failing your first road test. (I had to pass a written test again when I married and moved to MA. Like you, I thought too much about those multiple chose answers, got a few wrong, but did pass the test. That’s what comes from being a critical thinker.)

    I appreciate your final thought about your elderly father’s automatic renewal at a time when his license should be evaluated, but taking away that freedom at that point of life is the opposite end of the spectrum from the start of your story, as you deftly point out.

  2. Thanx for your driving stories Khati!

    Indeed getting one’s license was an exciting rite of passage we all remember.

    But now we’re at the stage when one dreaded day our failing eyesight, or some infirmity, or our worried family may force us to give up that license to independence and freedom! Yikes!

  3. You took us on a very nice ride–not bumpy at all–through your memories of those early driving tests, behind the wheel and inside the office. And provoked our own messy memories with your well chosen details.

    On a separate note: are you now living in British Columbia? My nephew got married in the Okanagan Valley in summer 2022 (his wife is from the area). It rivalled any place I’ve ever been for stunning beauty.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Ah yes, the days of driving license anxiety and foibles. Glad you didn’t mind the ride.
      And on the other note, I live in Penticton in the Okanagan Valley. You mean you were here and we didn’t connect? Rats. Let me know if you return. It is pretty spectacular.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    My test was so much easier. All I had to do was driving around the block (I’m not sure left turns were involved) and pull into a parallel spot in the Civic Center lot. I pulled in so close to the car on my right that my mother had to pull the car out and drive us home. Yet, somehow I passed. They put a pretty green, barely qualified 16-year-old on the road. Taking away the car keys from an elderly parent is pretty painful. When my mother handed hers over and sold her car, she could barely see.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Glad to know your test went well—even if you were still pretty inexperienced. There certainly comes a time when driving is not longer safe, and taking away car keys can be painful for all involved. Fortunately, most older drivers are safer than the newly-minted.

  5. Jim Willis says:

    This brings back so many memories, Khati, and you tell it so well. I’m pretty sure most of us remember our first driving test to get our license at the magic age of 16. And I’m pretty sure most of us were just as nerve wracked. Like you, I took my test in a stick shift and paid the price for it, barely passing with a score of 77/100. Too much downshifting coming to corners, the instructor said, and too much riding the clutch. I blamed the car’s transmission; the cop blamed the driver. I passed. The score didn’t matter then. Somehow, it does now.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Thanks for your comments. IMHO Jim, the travails of the driving test don’t really matter now either (not to deny your feelings), they just intensify the memory. And isn’t it something that we remember that trial so well? It always amazes me that so many young people don’t jump to get a license as soon as possible. I wish that meant we were moving on from car culture to other forms of freedom and mobility.

  6. Dave Ventre says:

    As soon as you mentioned the question about the yellow light, I was reliving one of the funniest scenes in sitcom history, in the Taxi episode where Rev. Jim goes to get his driver’s license.

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