Whenever teenagers ask me what it was like learning to drive when I was their age, I tell them, “There were few rules of the road. Often there wasn’t a road. I just had to remember to hold the reins loosely and try to keep the wagon wheels out of the ruts, because it might throw a wheel. If so, I’d lift my long skirt and show a few inches of ankle to any cowhand who might gallop by and help. That usually worked.”

The teens would look at me quizzically as they tried to estimate my age and figure out if that time frame was feasible, or if I was kidding.

I’m not sure what a lady in distress would have to reveal today, to drivers whizzing by on the expressway, to get one to stop and help. Whatever it is, I am past the age where that would work. I’d have to wave handfuls of cash.

I got my driver’s license in the late 1960s. It took three tries because I kept failing the parallel parking part of the test. The uniformed tester would stand on the curb in front of the Department of Motor Vehicles, his pen poised over his clipboard and a stern, judgmental look on his face. Other teens waiting for their turns watched out the large front window. I freaked out, bumped the curb, and knocked over the traffic cone marking the allotted space.

The third time I took it, the tester told me if I failed it again, I’d have to wait six months before I could try again. I considered this possibility disastrous.

I made a mess of the third attempt, but still, he passed me. I think he felt sorry for me. Mom, who’d driven me there and was waiting inside, told me later that she heard one of the teens watching inside say, “Wow, it they pass her, they’ll pass anybody!”

The effort so traumatized me that even now, if I arrive at an event that requires that I parallel park, I just turn around and drive home.

Gas in the 1960s cost 39 cents a gallon. Price wars often drove the price even lower. It was bargain-hunting time for drivers. I could fill the tank for $4 and cruise my small, rural town all day, with a friend or two along for the ride. We started at one end of town, by the farm supply store, and cruised down Main Street and through both traffic lights, then circled the local dairy bar, beeping the horn and waving at classmates.

I bought the gas one dollar’s worth at a time. This allowed me four opportunities to interact with the young man who worked there, on whom I was nursing a huge crush. As was the case at all gas stations, the attendant would hustle out when you pulled up to the pump. He not only pumped the gas, he checked the car’s oil level and tire pressure. Then he washed the car’s windshield. This gave me a close look at my crush’s green eyes and the cute way a lock of his hair fell in a curl across one eyebrow. Might this be the day, I wondered, as I batted my heavily-mascaraed eyelashes at him in adoration, he’d finally ask me for a date? He never did, the scum-sucking pig. Not that I am bitter.

There were other perks of a stop at a gas station in the 1960s, other than mooning over the teenaged staff. They also offered premiums to attract your business. Drinking glasses were a common giveaway at gas stations and grocery stores.

Mom collected those, as well as other freebies. She bought a brand of laundry detergent that included a full-size drinking glass tucked into the box. Jelly also came in reusable glass jars with decorative images. My brother once dropped a former jelly jar which featured the entire Flintstone family in vivid color. It shattered and Mom cursed and yelled, “I guess we can’t have anything nice in this house!” Those must have been the Sunday company drinking glasses.

I don’t think Mom ever purchased a drinking glass in her entire marriage. We had a cupboard full of different shapes and sizes, most with corporate logos or cartoon characters. Mom also bought detergent that included free towels. Most of our serving dishes at the dinner table said Cool Whip topping or Miracle Maid margarine on the sides. Reuse and recycle was her motto long before that became common.

However, this is such a thing as taking thrift a little too far. Mom bought a brand of feminine products which included little pink waxed paper bags, which were intended to be used for disposal of said items. She never used them for that. Instead, she saved them, in case they “might come in handy.” When I hosted my first party as a preteen, she served my guests popcorn in them. I was mortified and hoped that no one would recognize them for what they were. They did. It was even more mortifying than the time she stormed into the local movie theater in the middle of a movie and dragged my sister and me up the aisle and out of the theater, because when we asked permission to go to the theater, we had neglected to mention that it was the movie “Splendor in the Grass,” which was considered pretty scandalous in the 1960s.

I don’t think I could have survived the humiliations of my childhood if I didn’t have a driver’s license, four dollars a week for gas, and a green-eyed gas station attendant in greasy coveralls who wouldn’t give me the time of day. Not that I am bitter, but have I mentioned that scum-sucking pig? I’m totally over it.

Now that my Mom has passed, I’m going to throw out all my Cool Whip bowls and margarine tubs and finally watch Splendor in the Grass all the way through.


2 thoughts on “Driven to Distraction

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