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JACK SMITH

Driven to Drive : In Southern California, You Are Not Truly a Citizen Until You Have a License

August 31, 1986|JACK SMITH

My wife was going to drive our younger son and his family up to Bakersfield in her car recently, to visit her family, and just before they started out, our son asked whether our 15-year-old grandson could drive the car.

The boy has a learner's permit and is practicing to take the examination for his driver's license when he reaches 16.

I had not foreseen that I would ever again have to make the decision to let a 15-year-old boy drive on the highway. The first time I had done it was when I let our older son drive on that god-forsaken stretch of road between Paso Robles and Lost Hills. Nothing in sight moved but us and an occasional buzzard.

Of course, since I wasn't coming along, this was not my decision. It was hers. But she consulted me.

"Well," I said weakly, "it's your car."

"I'm sure he'll do fine," she said.

In Southern California, you are not truly a citizen until you have a driver's license. In an automotive society, it is the basic ID. In Los Angeles, if a cop stops you for anything , the first thing you hear is, "Let's see your driver's license." To be without one is virtually not to exist.

So one of the primary functions of parents is to see that their sons and daughters learn how to drive and acquire a license, without which there is no hope for anyone in our society.

Sometimes this responsibility falls on the grandparent. So my wife did the right thing.

But I worried until that evening, when I called Bakersfield to make sure they had got there.

"Did he drive?" I asked her.

"All the way," she said.

"How did he do?"

"He did fine. Of course, he had two back-seat drivers--his father in front and me in back."

I sort of felt sorry for the kid.

I don't know if parents know any anxiety more acute than when their children first go out at night--alone--with the car. They can't sleep until they hear that well- known motor, and the slamming of the car door, and the opening of the front door. That is one of the most reassuring sounds in a parent's career.

Do any of us ever forget our own first turn at the wheel?

I was lucky. My father didn't teach me how to drive. A friend and business associate of his did. T. E. Martin--a big, flashy, sartorially splendid man-of-the-world who had women and a bootlegger and drove a big maroon air-cooled Franklin brougham with maroon upholstery. It was a memorable car.

The summer when I was 15 I went up to a two-week camp at Big Bear Lake, and my father sent T. E. Martin to fetch me home. He came in his Franklin, and when we started to get into the car, he said, "Why don't you drive?"

I was incredulous. I had hardly driven at all, and here was T. E. Martin offering to let me drive his gorgeous car down the mountain road and all the way to Los Angeles.

What boy could turn down a chance like that? With thumping heart I got into the driver's side and took the wheel.

I made it home with only one bad moment. At one point on the curving two-lane road we encountered a Ford roadster coming up the mountain with what looked like my cousin Irene and a strange man in it. It would have been a family scandal if my cousin Irene were going to the mountains with any man other than her fiance. I almost ran us off the road.

"My God!" the usually imperturbable T. E. Martin said after I had regained control. "What was that about?"

"I thought I saw my cousin," I said.

"Thank God it wasn't your grandmother," said T. E. Martin.

I remember that we came into town on 9th Street. At Figueroa I turned right, and at 7th Street I had to turn left. We lived in the Prince Rupert Apartments at Witmer and Ingraham, just one block north of 7th.

"What do I do now?" I asked.

"Turn left," said T. E. Martin.

I had never before made a left turn in city traffic.

Holding my breath, I ventured into the intersection and made the turn without creasing one of T. E. Martin's fenders. It was a rite of passage. I was a driver. I knew I could pass the test. I would be a citizen.

When it came time for our two sons to drive, I chickened out. I had them both take lessons from a professional driving school--one of those that has cars with signs saying "Student Driver."

It turned out all right. Both received their license, entitling them to full rights of citizenship in Los Angeles, and neither has ever had a serious accident.

But I'd hate to have to go through it again.

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