Every young teenager anxiously awaits the age of 16. It’s the age you can get a driver’s license. It’s the age that represents freedom.
At the beginning of the school year I started getting pulled from Physical Education classes to attend Driver’s Ed. I hadn’t really expected that, or planned for it. It just happened. I was supposed to. I had been putting off getting a driver’s license for environmental reasons. Partly apathy, too, because I didn’t think I would be able to afford a car anyway.
The in-school training was fairly uneventful. We’d go out with the instructor and three students, and all take turns at various lessons around Little Lake Valley. We didn’t do a whole lot in the town of Willits itself, instead getting our practice out in the more rural areas. After completing Driver’s Ed, I had to go get some private practice in. I did well on the written test (100%) and got my Learner’s Permit. I probably would have just stopped there if Ma hadn’t brought me out for practice.
Ma’s car was a little stick-shift Chevy Geo Metro. She’d always had used cars, but this was her first brand-new car. It was the “Sport” edition. I think the distinguishing factor there was that it had floor mats and a stripe on the side that said “Sport”. She had gotten it by way of an insurance payout. We’d had a Ford Escort before that, but that got completely totaled one night. We were eating dinner in front of the TV in our upstairs apartment at the mortuary, where she worked as secretary, when there was suddenly a loud crash and the house started shaking. We thought it was an earthquake, it shook so hard. When we opened our front door to see what the noise had been, we were greeted by quite a sight. Where once had been a staircase was now a vertical drop to street level below. Our car was upside-down on the debris of our former porch, and a big Buick was trying to disentangle itself from the wreckage. It turned out the Buick was owned by the proprietor of a local bar, who was drunkenly trying to find his way home and had taken a seriously wrong turn. At a speed high enough to launch our car upside-down to the second floor, no less.
Ma got a free Chevy Geo Metro out of it.
I got my private driving practice in that tiny little car. Ma would take me out around Little Lake Valley for practice. For a more difficult challenge she would have me drive up into the hills and park on gravel turnouts and shut everything down. Then, I’d have to restart the car and get us going again, uphill on a gravel shoulder with a sheer drop-off beside us. Harrowing lessons, but in hindsight I appreciate the experience, dubious logic aside.
To get the actual license, though, takes a lot of hours (100? I don’t remember.) Ma decided the best way to get a big chunk of hours in would be to go on a road trip and have me drive. She was on something of a Disneyland kick for a few years there, and the drive there and back would cover the rest of the miles of practice I needed in one fell swoop. One long, straight, fell swoop.
We signed up to participate in Hands Across America while we were at it. We reserved a room at a motel that was walking distance from the gate to Disneyland (the same one we always used for Disneyland trips) and made the journey. There was actually a songbook to go along with Hands Across America that we got in the mail with our registration packet. We practiced all the songs on the drive down, belting them out at the top of our lungs. We were quite the nerdy sight, I’m sure. On the Big Day, we took our places in line inside Disneyland and held hands with strangers and belted out the songs we’d been practicing. We were so proud.
On a side note, I bought a pencil at Disneyland that trip that I still have. In a recent class of mine last semester I was using it to take a test and realized I was using a pencil that’s older than any of my classmates. None of them had ever heard of Hands Across America.
After the trip we returned home and I didn’t drive much again until the end of the school year. That’s when I got hired for my first “real job” (first one to last beyond summer) as the delivery boy for the Willits Rexall Pharmacy. Suddenly, I really had to get that license together. I scheduled my test at the county DMV in Ukiah and passed with one point taken off for a jumpy transition between gears, and one for going out the “in” driveway at DMV.
The driver’s test itself was ludicrously easy. There was a huge development in Ukiah that had never been developed. Decades earlier wide streets had been laid out and paved for a shopping center that had never been completed. It’s since become a slew of big-box stores, but at the time it was completely empty. Fields with city streets and streetlights and no traffic. I had to do a three-point turn on a street that was wide enough to do U-turns. I had to parallel park on a completely empty shoulder. I had to hand signal for imaginary traffic, and stop at imaginary stop signs. Really, it was perfect for a test driving range and I have to appreciate how easy I had it.
I had already started the Rexall job a couple of weeks earlier, doing restocking and cleaning, but now was licensed and could do the deliveries my job required. Every day after school I would drive prescriptions to customers’ homes and to the convalescent hospital, then go back to the store for the restocking and cleaning. Over the three years on the job, I discovered the longest possible route to any destination. Anything to avoid getting back too early and having to spend more time vacuuming the store.
I had my first and only accident the second day I was a licensed driver. I had learned on Ma’s stick-shift car, and the little Toyota pickup used for deliveries was an automatic. I was accustomed to pushing two pedals at a stop, and hitting two pedals on an automatic doesn’t work out quite the same. I turned the corner from East Valley onto Madden too fast, and suddenly found myself on top of a chain link fence and plowing down a row of rose bushes. Oddly, I was not fired, nor was I asked to repay the store for replacing the fence and roses.
Ironically, later that year Madden was widened and that very fence and row of roses were paved over. Taken from the homeowner by Eminent Domain. The first room I rented when moving out on my own was right across the street from that yard, and every day I had to be reminded of the incident when I opened my curtains.
I wasn’t terribly well-liked by the pharmacy owners by the end of my employment at the Rexall. I’d started off clean-cut, but by the time I was eighteen I’d discovered hair dyes, peroxide, piercings, and the all-black Goth look. Whenever I finished a shift and would say “see you tomorrow,” the response would most often be, “God willing.” I was oblivious to the insult, and would usually return with a new hair color the next day anyway. The only time I ever got a raise there was when minimum wage was increased statewide.
That being said, their level of respect for me was matched by mine for them. One of my favorite things to do on deliveries was to practice “catching air” on the raised railroad tracks out on Blosser Lane. I freaked the hell out of many a friend and hitchhiker that way. The tracks crossed the road on an elevated ridge, and at just the right speed (72-75 was the ideal range) I could get the truck airborne. Too fast and I’d skid out and careen around on landing. Too slow and the front end would bottom-out in a nose dive. It took much practice to perfect. I spent as much time as I could get away with driving friends around on joyrides. Sometimes I’d pick up hitchhikers and take them to Ukiah, twenty miles away, just to avoid interacting with the bosses. If only they knew the miles and wear that little truck was getting!
I still have never owned a car of my own.
Being a delivery driver was also being a therapist. I’d participated in a program called Peer Counseling all through high school. It was a program where we were trained in empathetic listening to be able to, well, serve as counselors to our peers. That training has followed me all through life. There are many lonely elderly people in the world, whose only “friends” and visitors are those who bring them things and perform services. Some of my delivery customers awaited my arrival with great anticipation. I was often the only human interaction they would have, aside from barely-tolerated obligatory family visits at holidays. Still others had no families at all, and they were the last survivors among their friends. Or, they were too infirm to leave the house.
I spent many an afternoon hearing fascinating stories of days gone by. Reading McGuffey Readers that had been saved from childhoods where all grades of students shared a single room. Having tea and biscuits that had been purchased solely to entertain me on my visits. Taking someone on an outing around the valley for some fresh air. Taking out the garbage. Listening to sadness of siblings gone by. Sitting. Hearing. Feeling guilty for taking tips despite their insistence, because I came to think of them as friends, too.
I had a favorite spot to take my elderly friends on excursion, and they loved it. About five miles west of Willits towards Fort Bragg is a spot on Highway 20 where the road transitions from the gentle climb out of Little Lake Valley into the winding redwood-enclosed turns. As you reach the first summit coming out of town, you’re suddenly presented with a grand panoramic view on the left that looks out for miles and miles across the mountain tops. We would bring our tea and biscuits and pull off the shoulder, and walk a few dozen feet to a big rock in the grass where we could sit and enjoy the view while enjoying our snack. It’s always been my special place in Willits.
Sitting there, enjoying the sun and the vista, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever come to a point in my own life where I felt I had to tip for friendship. It was a melancholy thought, but I found it simultaneously peaceful. If I do, it gives me comfort to think the delivery boy might think of me as a friend, too. I’ll have plenty of stories to tell, and I’ll make sure we have tea.