Thursday, March 29, 2007

First Time Driving

Lucy sat in the front parlor staring out the bay window at the car parked out front. It was one of those rare times when she was home alone. Her older sister had gone off with friends, her younger brother was working at the bakery along with her parents. She didn't have much homework to do so there was no need to do it right now. The neighborhood was quiet, not many people out and about. This could be my chance, she thought excitedly.

It was the spring of 1936 and almost-eighteen-year-old Lucy still didn't know how to drive a car. She didn't really need to drive a car. There were plenty of street cars traversing the city of Detroit to take her wherever she wanted to go. But she was tired of being teased by her older sister Helen who'd already learned how to drive. Her younger brother Ziggie, started driving recently and ever since then her sister's teasing had been relentless. Not that Helen's teasing was anything new. She'd been teasing Lucy her whole life. But now Lucy had a plan to put Helen in her place.

She had it all figured out. She would show Helen that driving is no big deal. The next time Helen started teasing her in front of her friends she was going to put her on the spot and tell her to put her money where her mouth was. She was going to bet Helen that she could just get in the car and drive because driving was sooo easy. But she didn't want to make a fool of herself stalling out in front of everyone. She knew the clutch could be tricky. She'd heard others say so. So she wanted to take a practice drive with no one watching first. That way if she did stall out she wouldn't embarrass herself. This was the first chance Lucy had to drive with no one watching since she'd come up with the plan. This is my chance to make Helen look foolish! she thought with determination.

Lucy grabbed the car keys off the hook by the door, walked out of the house and pulled the front door closed behind her. She glanced up and down the street but didn't see anyone. It was getting close to dinner time and most everyone was inside cooking or on their way home from work. The neighborhood kids were doing their homework and wouldn't be out to play until after dinner. The coast was clear. She hurried down the steps and front walk and took one more quick look up and down the street before opening the driver's side door and getting into her father's car.

She put the key in the ignition and felt her excitement build. She was really going to do it! She was going to drive a car! Focusing on the foot pedals she remembered her mother telling Helen that you always have to push the clutch pedal to shift gears. But she didn't remember if she had to push the clutch in before she turned the key to start the engine too. She decided to turn the key gently and see if it made a grinding noise. She took one more look around the neighborhood and satisfied that there was no one about she turned the key.

The engine made a sound but it wasn't grinding. So far so good. She remembered that she had to step on the accelerator pedal to give it some gas. She did so and heard the engine turn over and catch. I did it, she thought, I started the car! Her heart was racing and she could feel the tingles of excitement dance up her spine and down her arms. This was it, she was ready to go.

Lucy looked behind her to make sure there were no cars coming down 30th Street then pushed the clutch in. She pulled the gear shift into first gear while slowly letting up on the clutch like she'd heard her father explain to Helen. The car began to move slowly as she pushed on the accelerator and turned the wheel slightly away from the curb. The car picked up speed and she didn't even stall! Her house was only five houses from the corner and by the time she got there her confidence was building. This wasn't so hard, she thought.

She didn't want to go up to Warren Avenue because there was too much traffic there, Warren being a main street and all. So she turned right on Devereaux. The car sounded like it was going to stall in the turn so she hit the gas. The car lurched forward and all at once Lucy noticed a car parked at the curb just in front of her. She frantically tried to turn the steering wheel away from it but she wasn't fast enough. WHAM! She hit the car.

Now what the heck is that car doing there?! Lucy's heart beat raced as the reality of what just happened sank in. I just crashed pa's car. Holy Mary Mother of God, help me! She jumped out of the car, left the door open and the engine running and took off running herself. I've got to find pa and tell him what's happened. Oh boy, I'm in trouble now. She headed back to 30th Street but before she got more than a couple steps she heard a voice call out to her.

"Hey, where are you going? Come back!" the voice yelled.

Lucy looked back over her shoulder and saw a man walking towards the cars. Must be the owner... he looks upset. Oh no, pa's not going to like this! She didn't stop though. She made it back to 30th and turned up the street running as fast as she could. The bakery was on the corner at the end of the block so she just had the length of it to run. But the block seemed like a mile long.

She finally reached the bakery, opened the door, and went inside. She was relieved to see her father up front emptying the day's baked goods out of the front counter. Out of breath, she called out to her father.

"Pa! Come quick! There's something I have to show you!"

"What? What's the matter? Why are you out of breath?" he replied, sensing her alarm.

"Please Pa! Just come with me! I have to show you!

Vince untied his apron and pulled it off. He followed Lucy out of the bakery with still no clue as to what was going on. She took off running up the street looking back over her shoulder to make sure he was following her.

"Lucy, what's going on?" he called to her, now becoming really alarmed.

"Please Pa, just hurry! It's right around the corner." she called back to him.

Lucy ran up to Devereaux and turned the corner. The man who'd called to her was standing by the cars now, scratching his head. She looked back behind her and saw her father making the turn from 30th Street. As soon as Vince saw the two cars he realized what had happened. He stopped running and walked up to the cars taking in the accident scene.

"Lucy, how did my car get here?"

"I drove it, Pa. I was trying to learn how to drive. I got it started just fine and made it around the corner but I couldn't turn the steering wheel back fast enough to avoid the car."

"Are you alright? Did you get hurt?" he asked her.

"I'm fine, Pa. And I'm sorry. I didn't mean to crash your car!"

Vince recognized his neighbor and went over to talk to him. He knew everyone in the neighborhood and they all knew him from the bakery.

"Hello Ray, looks like my daughter has run into your car." he said, reaching his hand out to shake.

The man shook his hand and replied. "Hello Vince. It doesn't look like any damage was done. I guess we all have to learn to drive sometime, don't we?" he said and winked at Vince.

"I'd have much preferred if my daughter would have taken a lesson with me in the car before she tried driving on her own. But at least she didn't get hurt. I'm very sorry for your trouble, Ray." Vince said. He reached for his wallet, took out a $5 bill and handed it to him.

"That's not necessary, really. It's just a scratch. You can't hardly notice it." Ray replied and waved the money away.

"No, no. I insist." Vince said firmly. It's the least I can do.

Ray took the money and gave a nod to Vince. "Thanks then. I'll just be on my way. Dinner's almost ready. You be careful driving now young lady." he said to Lucy. "Your father can't be handing out $5 bills to everyone!" With that he chuckled then turned and walked away.

Lucy wasn't sure what to say next. At least the man wasn't angry. Now Pa, well, that might be another story. She looked over at him and said, "I'm sorry, Pa. I'll never take your car without asking again. And I'll work extra hours at the bakery to make up for the money I cost you."

Vince looked his car over one more time and motioned for Lucy to get in. Then he went around to the passenger side and opened the door.

"What, Pa? You want me to drive?" Lucy asked, dumbfounded.

"If you've a mind to learn we better teach you now. Like the man said, I can't go around giving away $5 bills to everyone.", and he winked at her. And then he burst out laughing!

Lucy's face lit up. She was so relived. "Oh, Pa! You're the best!" she said and climbed back in the driver's seat.

"What I don't understand is why you didn't just ask me. I would have taken you out driving anytime you wanted. You know that."

Lucy confessed her scheme to pull one over on Helen to get back at her for all her teasing.

"Well, then. This will be our little secret. We won't tell anyone and it's not likely Helen will find out from Ray.", he assured her. "Now, push in the clutch and put the gear shift in reverse. It's time for a short lesson and then on home. Your mother will be starting dinner about now."

Lucy followed his instructions, pulled away from other car, and went on up the street. When she came to the next intersection she stepped on the break a bit too hard and the car made a screeching sound. "That's OK" Vince said. "You'll get the hang of it. Just a little gentler next time. Turn here."

Lucy eyed another car parked in just about the same position as the last car, right around the corner. "Oh no, Pa. Not here. If I can't turn the wheel back fast enough I might hit that car too."

"The thing is Lucy, you don't have to turn the wheel back at all. Just let the wheel go after you've made the turn and it will turn back by itself." He smiled at her and nodded.

She looked over at him with a surprised look and then they both started laughing. Who would have figured the car would right itself?

This is a true story of my mother's first attempt at driving a car. My mom has told this story a hundred times and every time she has she's laughed out loud. She never did actually try to fool Helen by driving away like she knew what she was doing. She had a few driving lessons with her father but preferred to ride the street cars with her friends. It wasn't until five years later, in 1940, that she actually got her driver's license which she is proudly displaying in the photo above.

My grandfather really did give the man $5 for his trouble. It doesn't seem like a lot of money by today's standards but back during the depression it was a lot of money. An inflation calculator equates $5.00 in 1935 to $73 in 2006. But given how many people were unemployed and losing their homes during the depression that $5 was a generous amount. And according to my mom... it really was just a scratch. They sure don't build cars like they used to!

Don't forget... the next edition of the Carnival of Genealogy will be coming out soon. The deadline for submissions is 3 days away, April 1st. So what's funny about your family?