Yesterday's Magazette

15 – Driving Test

How I Drove My Driving Test Officer Crazy

By Carrillee Collins Burke

I was a late bloomer about many things in my life, and learning how to drive was one of them. I was nearly fifty years of age when I decided to add that task to my bucket list. 

At the time I was nursing my ill mother. I looked at the difference in our ages and thought, “Is this all there is? Will I be gone, too, in a short time, and be like my mother who never learned to drive an automobile?”

I didn’t enjoy the feel of controlling a machine, such as an automobile. Let someone who enjoyed it do it was my reasoning. So I continued to put off taking any driving lessons. But then a friend close to my age got her driver’s license and another girlfriend chose an old Nash Rambler from a used car lot and told the salesman she would buy it if he would teach her how to drive. Well, he did, and she did. So we took several out-of-state trips in that old Rambler before it finally fell apart. But that ignited my desire to drive a car too.

My friend sent me straight to the State Police Headquarters for my learner’s permit. I took the written test along with a large group, some older than me, and zipped through it before the allotted time allowed like it was a grade school quiz and I was a college graduate. I walked away from the building on feet of air carrying my permit test and my grade of 100%. Why had I waited so long? That wasn’t so hard, I thought.

However, 6 weeks later I needed to pass the road test or else I’d have to start all over from scratch. Could I do it? It concerned me a lot.

I searched the telephone directory for the nearest driving school. I made an appointment for the next start of classes. After a class on the driving rules (which I knew by heart) I took my first real driving lesson with me behind the wheel.

My instructor was a young man with tattoos on both arms and a punk hairdo. He jumped in the car and  immediately turned the radio to a hard rock station and strummed what he called an “air guitar.” I covered my ears. After he turned the radio volume down enough as to not deafen a beagle dog five miles away, he told me that his name was Steve. Then, before I knew it, he directed me to the outer-beltway of the city.

Did he have a death wish? “It’s noontime,” I said, my voice shaking along with my knees. “The traffic is extra heavy right now.”

He gave me a wicked grin and said. “Yeah, I know. Don’t worry. I have my own set of brakes. It will be a gas.”

He ignored my pleas and kept up a lethargic one-sided conversation that I’m sure he didn’t expect me to answer. 

I became frozen with fear as I pulled out into that mad blur of fast-moving traffic. My fingers froze on the wheel and sweat began running down my arms and face. My heart pounded in my chest for the next hour until I finally turned into my driveway and waved goodbye to sadistic Steve. 

My hands trembled recalling my race with death. I was exhausted and became sick to my stomach. I stumbled and sat down and vomited. God! Two more lessons to go! I had serious doubts whether I could get back behind a car wheel again. It wasn’t a necessity, I told myself. Why should I put myself through such agony? Thankfully, I had a week to think about it.

I was still thinking a week later as I waited on “HardRock” Steve to drive up in his GTO. Outside, there was a storm brewing with dark clouds and a light drizzle. Did I want to tackle wet streets? I stared out the living room window and mumbled a prayer for guidance. “Dear God,” I prayed, “please give me a sign as to whether or not I should drive today or just give it up.”

Suddenly, a white cloud lightened a dark one and formed a cross. 

“There’s your sign,” my husband, who had worried with me, said.

“Do you think it means I should continue?” I asked.

“I think it means you should continue … and try not to kill someone,” he said with a grin.

Another glance at the sky showed clouds disappearing and a rainbow arching into view. As it turned out, my second lesson went pretty well. I didn’t come close to killing one person. 

My third and last driving lesson with Steve went well, too. Steve was pleased and said he’d make an appointment with the State Police for my official road test. He said he would pick me up and take me. I felt good about using the same car I had driven with Steve.

At the testing location Steve and I waited outside for the officer who would give me my driving test. Steve whispered that I would pass because every student he  had up to that time had passed the test on the first try. Well, that’s all I needed to lose the little bit of confidence I’d worked so hard on keeping. I didn’t need or want any additional pressure from my young instructor. 

Of course, Steve was oblivious to my condition, and to the world around him for that matter. He slapped me on the back and gave me a thumbs-up sign as an old crotchety-looking cop in full dress uniform approached with papers attached to a clipboard and barked: “Okay, let’s go do it.”

The minute I laid eyes on this cop I had a sinking feeling. He was stocky with a big Santa Claus stomach. But he was no merry ol’ gent. He walked with a very bad limp and had a cane. Steve had told me the route I would probably drive but this wasn’t on this old cop’s agenda. Instead, he took me down a one-way alley, over a bridge, up a hill, through stops and turns and down a narrow country road that took thirty minutes or more. Steve had said the drive would be no more than ten or fifteen minutes. Also, being short, I had sat on a cushion before but Steve had taken the cushion out. I needed that cushion to see comfortably over the dashboard.

From the very start, the old cop did nothing but gasp, moan, and groan. At one point, he screamed at me at a stop sign, He said I didn’t make a “dead stop.” With tears in my eyes, I said, “I did, too. I’m still pushing the pedal.” He shook his head and said, “Not good enough. You need to rock the vehicle.” He demoted me for speeding on a dirt country road and once he stomped on his brake so hard near a red light, long before we got to it, that it knocked me hard against the steering wheel. He may have been scared or overly cautious, but I was terrified. 

Then when it came time for the parking test, I slightly touched an orange cone when I slipped into the parking space. I thought I had done quite well, considering. The old cop didn’t agree. “Little lady,” he said, humorlessly, “you failed big time!”

I trailed sheepishly behind him into the office where I signed my test papers. Then, for the first time, he bared his teeth and said loud enough for all to hear: “Mrs. Collins failed her test.”    

But I wouldn’t let him beat me. So the next week I returned for another road test. And, as bad luck would have it, I got stuck with the same old cop.

This time, thankfully, his mood was a little better. He recognized me from before and said that we both would probably never forget our last experience. This time he said he would take me over the official delegated route. However, as I entered into the morning traffic, a lady stepped unexpectedly from the curb and ran across the street, right in front of me. Startled, I stomped the gas pedal instead of the brake. God! I could have killed her! I could see the blood drain from the old cop’s face.

Needless to say, I was such a nervous wreck I could barely finish the route without crying, and then there was the parking test again. For this test, I had taken our family car, a big Oldsmobile. It was much wider and longer than the first car I used and I found it impossible to back it up and park it between the cones. In fact, I ran completely over one of the cones, crushing the rubbery life out of its orange body.

“You just can’t do this, can you little lady?” the old cop said with a smirk. He was trying to intimidate and humiliate me, and he was doing a really good job of it. 

I was disgusted with myself. But I still would not give up. I practiced driving every day until the very last day to take the test again. I knew that if I failed this time I would have to consider it a lost cause. I dreamed that if I drove a small compact car for the test, one better suited to my small stature and one that I could control in small places, I might have a slim chance of success. 

Well, as it turned out, my husband had rented a small Ford Escort. Compared to the big Olds and Steve’s GTO, the Ford drove like a toy. I loved it. The next morning my husband drove me to the test area because Steve no longer wanted anything more to do with me. I guess I had blemished his winning streak, or something.

Anyway, this time the State Police tester was a young woman. She was very pleasant and patient, taking me through the proper route and back into the parking lot. I drove carefully between the orange cones, backed up and parked. The young woman smiled and nodded as I pulled out again and drove to the office like a seasoned pro. She congratulated me with a high five and said: “Great job.” I floated beside her as we went to her desk to sign the test papers and to wait for my prized license.

The officer behind the desk shook my hand and announced over the loud speaker: “See, this lady here never gave up. And she finally made it.”

The old cop who had been so frustrated with me was standing next to the desk waiting his next student driver. He took a red rose from a vase on the desk, smiled, and gave it to me and said, “I just knew you would never give up. Congrats.”

A week later I saw that same old cop’s photograph in the newspaper announcing his retirement of forty years on the State Police force, fifteen of them giving road tests. The paper said he had suffered broken arms, torn ligaments, concussions, busted lips, black eyes, broken ribs, and recently a broken hip, from accidents caused by new drivers while taking their road tests.

No wonder I had made him so nervous. He sensed that because I was so scared I could be very dangerous. And he was right to fear me.

Even today, I still have dreams of almost hitting that woman who ran across the street in front of me on my second road test. 

But the strangest thing is that after that long agonizing struggle to get my driver’s license, I seldom ended up driving a car at all, except maybe for a few rare trips to the nearby grocery store. 

In fact, today, more than two decades later, I don’t drive a car at all. And I really have no desire to. However I still renew my driver’s license. I guess I like to look at it as my badge of courage.

Right now, as I write this, I’m sure that poor cop is somewhere up there scratching his head and muttering madly to himself.

Vol. 38 No. 2 – Copyright © Yesterday’s Magazette

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