Jack D. Hunter's Blog

08 December 2007

Uncle Nick's Driving Test

Last week I did some ruminating about my Uncle Nick and his stubborn determination to carve the Thanksgiving turkey at whatever cost to his dignity, to Aunt Ruth's serenity, to the dining room decor, and to the nerves and credibility systems of assembled guests. And that little episode naturally triggered memories of the day in 1937 when I took Uncle Nick to the Pennsylvania State trooper station that supervised driving tests and issued licenses to those who wanted to motor legally in the Keystone State.

Hindsight and comparison tell me that the turkey had gotten off easy.

Uncle Nick was a round, bald little man with a vest, a watch chain, and lousy eyesight. He and my Aunt Ruth lived in Ridley Park. He was a tech rep for the American Stoker Co., was assigned to the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Eddystone, and knew everything there was to know about the construction and operation of steam engines.

In 1937, a used car salesman delivered a nondescript tan Plymouth to Uncle Nick's front door — a historic moment, since it was Uncle Nick's first automobile. Aunt Ruth, forever loving and patient, said, "But dear, why? You don't need a car."

"It was a helluva bargain. Couldn't pass it up."

"But Nick, dear. You don't know how to drive."

"Baloney,” said uncle Nick in his elegant way. “There’s nothing to it. Any guy who can drive a 14-wheel locomotive ain't about to have any trouble with a four wheel Plymouth.”

In deference to Pennsylvania protocol (and my aunt’s clenched-teeth insistence), he obtained a learner’s permit. But I don’t think he ever used it. He simply announced one afternoon that he was going to Upper Darby, or wherever, to take his drivers test, and, since the same protocol required that he be accompanied by a licensed driver, he enlisted me, who, at 17, had been officially okayed for tooling around in my Model A Ford, "The Mayflower."

I began to have misgivings in the driveway, when, after climbing into the Plymouth’s driver’s seat, Uncle Nick tried to stick the ignition key into the cigar lighter. When he sought to use the hand brake as “the reversing rod,” I suggested that maybe it would be better if I drove. I became even more uneasy when he gave silent assent, because silence and assent were never considered to be his strong suits.

After we’d arrived at the testing station, Uncle Nick took the question-and-answer exam first, and, since he was no dummy and had been peeking at his driver’s manual, he did fine on that. But then came the decisive moment, when the trooper climbed into the front passenger seat and, with a nod and a wave forward, signaled him to drive through the prescribed course of straightaways, curves, intersections, turn-arounds, parking maneuvers, and stops.

I stood in the shadows of the administration building, watching incredulously as Uncle Nick ground the gears, raced the motor, and then drove off (like Leacock’s lone horseman) in all directions.

Leaping and bucking, tires squealing and puffing smoke, the Plymouth jounced kangaroo-like down the roadway, through a dead-end, over a curb, across a sidewalk, through a hedge, and up an embankment, at the top of which it completed a gyration vaguely similar to an Immelmann turn and came roaring back to street level, still upright, in a cloud of grass, leaves, and exhaust. After skidding over a few saplings and flowerbeds, it stalled, hissing, against the reverse side of a stop-sign.

The passenger door opened and the trooper stepped out, his Boy Scout hat over his eyes and his sunglasses resting on his chin. Adjusting these, the officer brushed some dust from his jacket sleeves, then sauntered over to where I stood, frozen.

“That gentleman a friend of yours?” he asked quietly, nodding toward Uncle Nick, who still sat in the car, clutching the wheel and staring glassily ahead.

“He’s my uncle,” I managed.

“He failed his test,” the officer murmured.

“I see.”

“You’ll have to bring him back another time,”

“Oh?” I said, as if this were news. “When?”

The trooper consulted his watch and then said in his quiet way, “Let’s see: I’ll be retiring in 19 years, 11 days, and three hours. Any time after that.”

He squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, and strode off.

I’m not sure Uncle Nick ever did get his license, because he sold the Plymouth a few months later.

Copyright © 2007 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.