16, Licensed to Drive

The crumpled front fender can be seen in this photo of the GTO in its red oxide primer stage.

Auto Speak by Dewain E. Peek

With the 2020 cruise-in season put on hold, I looked back 20 years and found an old column about when I first started driving. So if any of you longtime readers have a feeling of deva vu as you read this, then yes, you have read most of this before, though I have modified it from its original form.

Anyway, maybe it will jolt your memories of when you first started to drive. I hope they are happy ones.

I remember the experience that taught me how to drive. I remember the moment I learned how to drive.

Many kids learn to drive at an early age, driving a tractor or a truck in a field or the family car on back roads. I didn’t.

The first real driving I did was in Coach Don Farley’s Driver’s Education class at Livingston Academy in the fall semester of 1979. Within a month of completing the class, I turned 16 and took my driver’s test at the Cookeville THP office, right where it still is today.

I passed the written part easily. Next was the driving part, and that was where lack of experience driving different vehicles reached up and bit me.

The LA Driver’s Ed. class used a white 4-door Chevrolet Malibu with power steering. But I didn’t have that car to do the driving exam with the nice lady THP officer in the passenger seat. I had my parents’ 1974 Challenger Rallye with no power steering, and I had not driven it enough to get used to that. I would consider that a big mistake, but my only other option was Dad’s 1965 Chevrolet step-side pickup, again with no power steering and the added difficulty of three-on-the-tree, which I had not yet mastered.

And there was also my car, which we had just bought from my uncle Joe, a 1969 GTO, with a 4-speed, which again I had not yet mastered straight-shift transmissions.

So the nice THP lady asks me to drive out of the parking lot and down the street to about where French’s Shoes & Boots is now, and then to turn around and go back up to the THP office and park in a parking space. Sounds easy, yet the difficulty I had with the stiff steering, as well as my nerves with having a THP trooper on board watching me drive, gave me trouble when parking between the lines.

I explained that I wasn’t used to driving a car without power steering.

The THP tester asked, “What will you be driving?”

“A 1969 GTO – with power steering,” I told her.

“Well, I think we’ll just give you a permit for now, and you can retake the driving test in a month,” she said.

A month later, I went to the Livingston National Guard armory, which was torn down to build the Overton County Justice Center , to retake the driving part. The same THP was doing the Livingston testing, and she had me pull out of the parking space, turn around in the parking lot, and pull back into the same space, which I did this time without any problem. I was now licensed to drive.

But I had not yet really learned how to drive; that manual shift thing still had to be mastered.

So, each evening when I got off the bus from school, I would drive the ’69 down the road and back, but I would have trouble getting back in the driveway. You see, the gravel driveway had a slight incline and I would usually stall the GTO when I started to pull up the hill. I would restart it, pop the clutch, and throw gravel everywhere.

One day I got a bright idea. Instead of slowing all the way down before I turned into the driveway, I would keep a little speed up when I turned in, thinking this would keep it from bogging down.

Oh, it didn’t bog down.

I approach the drive, let off the gas, but don’t hit the brake. Whoa! I can’t get turned. There goes Dad’s newly planted maple tree. Oh No!; here comes the porch. Slam the brakes. Crunch.

Assessing the damage, I saw a crumpled right front fender, bent Endura bumper, and smashed turn signal. At least the concrete porch was undamaged. Now I needed to back this thing away from the porch without tearing up the yard.

I don’t know if it was the fear of wrecking that had now lifted or what, but when I sat back down in the driver’s seat, I eased out the clutch pedal perfectly and never again had trouble controlling it. I got so smooth at shifting the GTO that a friend of mine thought the car had an automatic.

As for the GTO, thankfully, a neighbor had a rough 1969 GTO body that I bought to repair mine. But that is a story for another time.

If anyone wants to share their story of when they learned how to drive, just send it to me at news@overtoncountynews.com.