There is nothing, nothing more important than having your own car. Just know that. The world’s deepest divide is between those teenage boys who have a car and those miserable, hopeless failures who do not have a car. To have a car was to have near absolute freedom. When I was 15 that was my Raison de vivre, my dream, to get a car and drive directly to my Destiny, a place and a space of my own providing me with crazy, laughing friends and girls, yes the girls, the females were the prize and the four door, 55 Chevy sedan which I managed to buy for 250 dollars, that was my ‘Little Red Corvette’.
The summer of my 16th year tumultuous. My father was quite ill from a combination of old war injuries and habitual drinking then ended up at the Veterans Hospital in Des Moines. We had moved to a small 80 acre farm, small enough that my dad could farm it during the day and work at Grey Iron Foundry in Marshalltown at night. It was brutal and his already damaged lungs could not take it. At this point I had to do all of the farm work myself including milking 10 cows morning and night. School was in between milking the cows. This lasted for about a month until my Dad got out of the hospital and decided to sell the cows. I was glad but knew that our situation was dire and that another move was coming.
I worked all summer long for other farmers making hay, doing chores and hauling manure. The old farmers liked me because I could operate tractors and heavy equipment with skill and confidence, sometimes better than them because my dad taught me to look and listen to machines. He said a good mechanic can tell what is wrong with an engine by the sounds it makes. He taught me how to take things, machinery apart, step by step, remember what it looked before you start. It took me all summer but by the beginning of September I had 250 dollars and bought my first car from Ronny Tuttle who was graduating from High School and stepping on up to a new car. White with a blue interior it Was ….
September 24, 1963 at 4:00 am I got up, did chores, had breakfast and got into our 1958 Ford sedan with my dad and drove to Nevada, Iowa to the Court House and at 9:00 sharp I walked into the Sheriffs office and told the Deputy I wanted to take my driving test. In those days there wasn’t any written test, to get a drivers license you had to take a drive with the official deputy examiner who was known as a tough guy about signals, turning and what have you.
He looked at me and I looked at him. I was little, barley 5 feet tall and 95 pounds. He smiled and asked me, ‘how old are you?’. I straightened up as much as possible and said, ‘16’. Deputy Figgins looked at my dad, who said nothing and looked back at me and smiled. That was all it took in those days, a look from one man to another. The Deputy said, ‘Let’s go’ and just he and I walked to the official Sheriff’s parking lot where the car was parked. I got into the drivers seat and Deputy Figgins stood in front of the car and told me to turn on the lights, then the left turn signal, then the right and finally the brake lights. He opened the passenger side door and got in, there he was, and told me to follow his instructions, exactly. ‘Drive out of the parking lot and turn left on Elm.’ I started the car, backed out and approached Elm, came to a stop and turned on the left turn signal, looked both ways and proceeded down Elm for two blocks. ‘Turn right at the next street’, ok, turn signal, ‘Turn right on Brook’. Now Brook St was a hill, kind of steep that ran along one side of the Court House. Cars were parallel parked along the street. As we moved up the hill Deputy Figgins said, ‘Stop’. I was only going 10 miles an hour and stopped quickly. Deputy Figgins said, ‘ Parallel park in the space.’ This was a surprise. I knew that parallel parking was part of the test but thought it would be more space and not on a hill. The Deputy was experienced and knew exactly when to tell me to stop. I was exactly even and parallel with a parked car on my right, then an empty space and then another parked car. I was in perfect position and took my foot off the brake, put the car in reverse, turned my head to see the hole and gently touched the gas pedal. The car coughed and died, no power and the Ford started rolling backwards. The maneuver had begun, driven by gravity. If I braked and tried to start the car I would have to drive forward and try again. Deputy Figgins knew I had a problem and said nothing. I was looking at the space and knew the car could fit. I took my foot off the brake and let the car roll backwards. I slowly turned the wheel to the right and the rear end of the car begins to arch into the space. As the rear wheels of the car pass the middle of the parking spot I turn the steering wheel sharply to the left swinging the front end of the Ford into the space clearing the car parked in front by one foot, aligning perfectly in the assigned space.
I knew the parking job was good but was still in fear of being flunked because the car had died. Deputy Figgins laughed and I must have still looked scared because he smiled and said, ‘You passed, you can drive’ and I know he meant it. …..
It is impossible to over emphasize or exaggerate how important and epochal getting a drivers license and a car was to a 16 year old rebel without a cause. The car itself was symbol and substance of manhood. In 1962 America was a car culture with the autos a physical and moving symbol of just how dynamic life could be and for me it gave official sanction to have unlimited fun, friends, parties, racing, never ending girl searching and of course skipping school. My new found freedom was power, power to find out what was out there, power to leave the social structure that had developed a slightly negative attitude toward my potential for trouble, the running away from home thing would never be forgotten, until the next infamy.