by Dave Friant
t was one of the frustrations we all felt as middle-aged teens. The hassle of having to bum rides from our parents or licensed friends who maintained that exclusive privilege of being legally permitted to negotiate the asphalt. Getting behind the wheel alone was one of our most anticipated events to be experienced. With somewhat lessened enthusiasm these days, it remains an asset to our existences.
We grew up in the pint-sized South Jersey town of Haleyville. Population of 100 or so with two stop signs at the only intersection. Nothing close to traffic concerns in our beloved little settlement. The occasional fender-bender from rarely plowed icy roads and a few “laying rubber” episodes by bored high school seniors was the extent of drivin’-related mishaps.
High on the list of pavement-related observations in my 1960’s involved the antics of “Crazy John” Newcomb. He was the letter carrier for Haleyville and the adjoining small communities. Our mail transporter gunned it thru the area in his light blue automatic Chrysler Imperial. His unique delivery approach was characterized by sudden stops and swerves which earned him the apt nickname. Newcomb was a tall, middle-aged divorcee who accomplished the route duties while sitting in the middle section of the front seat. His left foot was miraculously able to maneuver both pedals with little effort while handling the wheel with his left hand. This suspiciously vetted and approved USPS public servant used the passenger side window as his exiting point for mail. Recognition of his drivin’ mastery was a highlight to behold for both adults and still unlicensed teens.
The Friant family vehicle was a dark blue mid-fifties Chevy business coupe. It was standard shift on the column without a backseat, and was the vehicle in which I learned to drive. The remoteness of our area made it ripe for “look the other way” drivin’ allowances for those under the age of 15. My dad was generally a stickler for abiding by rules and regulations. However, my pleas for relief based on friends being allowed to sit and perform in that sought after driver’s seat paid off. During the summer of 1964, I learned the finer points of the process with dad nervously riding shotgun while clutches were popped and brake pedals too often ignored.
The majority of my pre-license driving escapades took place with buddies at the age of 15. The vehicle involved was a beaten-up early fifties and poorly painted turquoise Chevy. We drove it on 200 or so acres of land owned by the Morrie Sand Company behind the properties of our parents. Pine trees lined portions of our self-made track, and turns were sharp with deep ruts. We for the most part were not guided by safety measures; no helmets, no seat belts, and very little reluctance to slide around corners. The drivin’ failed to mirror anything found on legitimate streets and highways, but we had fun.
Painted on the passenger front and back door side was, “Bomb Shelter for Blonds, Brunetes, and Redheads.” Yes. My best friend’s older brother who owned the car left one of the “t’s” out of brunette while constructing the invitation. Spelling had never been his forte. He was certain that his self-proclaimed masculine charm would override any spelling deficiencies in making plays for females.
These were the 1960’s. A group of parents had a small and marginally built underground bunker in the neighborhood to escape the ravages of a possible but unlikely nuclear war. It was sufficient for safety of a dozen or so if and when the Russkies ever decided to play hardball. With tongues completely in cheeks, our joint consensus was that a less restrictive and mobile arrangement would be a better option for the not-yet-adult female crowd. We were guys. We were inexperienced. It was viewed as one of our clever, but as it turned out lame attempts to have girls (only three viable candidates in the extended community) accompany us during our drivin’ adventures. Never were there any takers.
Included during the 60-plus years since those remarkable teenage years have been a variety of drivin’ episodes. From the bombardment of “how much longer?” questioning by our kiddos during trips to Florida to somehow managing the swerves of mountain drivin’ in Colorado and New Mexico, we survived. Recalled are the 10 laps of Texas Motor Speedway sweat-inducing 165 MPH drivin’ in a NASCAR vehicle, as well as two hours of 20 MPH “it’s in your hands God” maneuverings while drivin’ on ice from Fort Worth to Dallas for a Stars hockey game.
As years have gone by, the excitements associated with getting from point A to point B have varied considerably for us all. It remains our primary form of transportation as we work, vacation, and persevere on the highways of life. Embrace the journey, no matter the distance.