By Rosemary Rains-Crawford
Today, there is a name for every mental ailment – nearly everyone I know seems to be bi-polar, a name unknown when I was a teenager. However, I have yet to see “inappropriate laughter” in the blurbs I read about mental health issues. I can attest to the fact that all of my sisters and I suffered through a childhood with a tyrannical father with that affliction. While it doesn’t seem to be life threatening on the surface, when combined with a mercurial personality running the show, we knew it could be. Never was the affliction more hazardous than when Daddy decided to teach someone to drive. Daddy had strong ideas about everything, and he had nothing but scorn for the new-fangled invention of an automatic transmission. So all of his driving lessons were in a car with a stick shift. To the younger generation, unfamiliar with this type of automobile transmission, it will be hard to understand the serious difference it presented to a new driver.
My first observation of Daddy’s Driving Lessons, occurred when I was about 10 years old. He had gotten a new car and it was his pride and joy. For the first time in his life, he owned a car that was only eight years old. The 1946 Ford sedan even had a custom paint job – white on top with a big black strip along the bottom. The upholstery had yet to see its first tear. Anxious to show off this wonderful machine, he decided it was time for my grandmother to learn to drive. Why everyone involved acquiesced to this plan is still beyond me. Grandpa took good care of Grandma and couldn’t imagine a time when she would need to drive, Mama knew Daddy’s short temper and limited patience, and Grandma had never liked Daddy at all. We all watched in wonder as Daddy and Grandma set off in the new car with Daddy at the wheel, explaining the operation of the clutch, the brake, the gas pedal, the turn signals, and all the various switches on the dash. Grandma’s face was glazed, but she refused to show any weakness to Daddy, so off they went. My sister, Molly, and I sneaked off to the fence where we peeked out to watch the lesson on our little private road.
I can still see Grandma as she took the wheel, her head held high, eyes staring straight ahead, ignoring Daddy as he began to swear at her. She refused to acknowledge anything he said when he was shouting, which caused the shouting to accelerate. Grandma finally got the car started.
“Put your left foot on the brake and your right foot on the clutch and push it all the way to the floor, and move the gear shift to low!”
The moment Grandma depressed the clutch, she forgot about the brake, and the car began to roll.
“PUSH THE DAMN BRAKE!” Daddy shouted.
Grandma held both pedals with both feet as hard as she could. Both of her hands gripped the steering wheel.
“Now gradually let up on the clutch while you take your foot off the brake.”
Grandma immediately took both feet off the pedals, and the car lurched forward, rapidly jerking Daddy’s head back and forth. As they disappeared around the corner, Molly and I dissolved into helpless laughter.
About a half hour later, Daddy returned alone.
“Where’s Mildred?” Grandpa asked.
“She got mad and got out of the car and refused to get back in!”
“You left her out on the road somewhere?” Grandpa asked incredulously.
“It wasn’t that far, and the walk will do her good! She just can’t follow any damn instructions!”
Shortly after that, our family moved out of our Grandparent’s home.
As Molly and I reached our teenage years, we saw driving as an important step in our journey away from our childhood home. Tired of being under Daddy’s thumb, we were highly motivated to learn to drive, and we had forgotten the episode of Grandma’s lessons. So when Daddy suggested teaching us to drive, we both jumped at the chance.
Since Molly was the oldest, she got first crack at the wheel. Suddenly Grandma’s lessons came roaring back into my head as Daddy screamed and Molly cried, and we lurched down the road. In spite of the gravity of the situation, I found myself laughing uncontrollably. Fortunately, Daddy was too involved yelling at Molly to notice, and Molly was too miserable to see. Molly, like Grandma, eventually refused to take any more lessons. When she married, her new husband gently taught her to drive his Ford Fairlane with an automatic transmission.
“That’s not driving,” Daddy insisted, “That’s just steering!” Nevertheless, I was impressed that Molly had her driver’s license, and I once again asked meekly if Daddy would teach me to drive.
In spite of his classroom techniques, he eventually pronounced me ready to get my license. The car I learned in was a 1951 maroon-colored Nash. It had the appearance of an upside down bathtub. We all knew it wouldn’t pass even the most cursory safety inspection, so Molly generously offered to let me use their car to take my test. Although she worried that I might hurt the car and she would have to answer to her husband, she accompanied me to a nearby town and gave me a few instructions before my driver’s license appointment. Somehow, I managed to pass the test on my first experience with an automatic transmission.
It wasn’t long after that that Daddy traded in the purple Nash for a brand new Mercedes sedan. The auto dealer gave him a trade-in allowance for the Nash with the proviso that he remove it from the up-scale Mercedes lot immediately. Daddy saw the benefit of having me drive the younger siblings to their school events, so he turned the purple Nash over to me, and the door to freedom opened for me just after my 16th birthday.