Rite of Passage: The Dreaded Driver’s Test

By ANTHONY DiSIPIO | Nov 08, 2017

Got an invitation to my high school 50th reunion earlier this year – Class of 1967, 50 years! One of my special “50th” moments was the anniversary of my getting my driver’s license in 1965. Freedom from walking and public transportation! Go where I wanted, when I wanted! Well, maybe it didn’t exactly work out perfectly, but there was always hope.

I think about that seminal experience often as I drive around here in New Jersey. Seems you New Jersey drivers must have had a different driver’s test than we did in Pennsylvania. We had to be able to parallel park, drive around some poles, and recognize that a yield sign meant to merge into traffic. We weren’t allowed to drive in the left lane, speed up upon approaching a red light, bogart the traffic pattern when entering from an on-ramp, or make a left-hand turn from the right-hand lane, as is done in New Jersey. I find myself watching my rear-view mirror more and more these days as I drive the highways of my current home state.

The driver’s test was held for us from South Philadelphia at the Belmont Barracks of the Pennsylvania State Police, just off City Line Avenue. I got a Saturday morning off from my job as a delivery boy at Al’s Meat Market, where, it just so happened, my brother John was a butcher. Nepotism was a practice developed early in the precincts of South Philadelphia, where the battle cry was always “Vote early, and vote often.” My brother had a 1962 Mercury, white with a red leather interior, a beautiful car. It would be the car in which I would take my test.

The line at the driver’s test course was long so I had the windows down as my oldest brother, Larry, and I waited in line, going over all the “hints” that had been passed down from people who had already taken the test; some had even passed. As I crept closer to the starting point, I watched as a driver several cars ahead of me fell for the “make a right turn into the first available stall” trick. There was a stop sign before the right turn. If only I had a dollar for everyone who ignored that sign and, just as the trooper said, took off for the first stall without stopping – not to mention failure to use the turn signal.

Suddenly a torrential summer thunderstorm downpour erupted over the Belmont Barracks course. I immediately put up the windows on the Merc, not wanting to offend the trooper who was soon taking the passenger seat my oldest brother had occupied. I flipped on the dash knob for the wipers, too (that was long before every accessory available on a car ran through the steering wheel).

“Make a right-hand turn and pull into the first available stall,” the officer said before his butt was fully into the leather seat.

I stopped at the stop sign, put on my right turn signal, looked both ways for any phantom traffic and pulled into the second stall as far up to the front curb as possible. You only got three “back-ups” to make the “k-turn” to get out of the stall, so the strategy was to maximize the back-ups. The rain continued to pour down and the humidity and my heavy nervous breathing were beginning to impact the visibility through the front window.

I could have pulled out of the stall in two back-ups, but I didn’t want to get cocky with the state trooper sitting in the front seat, so I took all three allotted back-ups and made my way to the next obstacle on the course, the staggered poles. (Where in driving do you actually have to negotiate zig-zagged poles?) The humidity and my nervous breathing had by now fogged up the front window pretty badly. The rain poured down.

“Pull over into the parking area and turn off your vehicle,” the trooper instructed after I had successfully managed not to hit any of the spread-out poles, even though the front window was almost totally obscured by the humidity.

“How many feet does it take to stop your car on dry pavement at a speed of 40 mph?” the trooper inquired in the last part of the test. The rain poured down, my breathing intensified and by now all the windows in the car were fogged over. I had studied all the stopping distances on all types of surfaces, but I had memorized them in car lengths, figuring that car lengths were a better measurement since I had never seen foot markers on any road I had ever been on in my life.

“Sir, I didn’t study the distances in feet,” I confessed, “but at 40 mph it takes about nine car lengths to stop your vehicle,” I apologetically responded. I could see my junior driver’s license flying right out the completely fogged-up windows. The trooper never looked up from his clipboard. His Dudley Do-Right hat hid his face.

“Your windows are pretty obscured from the humidity. Do you know how to turn on the defroster?” inquired the trooper. Aha, a chance for redemption. I deftly slid the guide on the heater unit to defrost, put the heat indicator on high, and turned the fan up to the highest setting.

Nothing happened!

“Don’t you think it would work better if the car was running?” sneered the trooper in a low, haughty voice.

All hope was lost. I turned the ignition key and immediately the fan came on, slowly clearing the moisture from the windshield. The rain had stopped, the sun had come back out, but the black cloud of a failed driver’s test hung in the front seat of the Merc. The trooper never looked up from his clipboard as he made notes on my application.

“I should fail you for this,” he began. I stared at the heater unit that had betrayed me. “But I won’t. Take this form inside and have them stamp your permit.”

I flung the door open and ran into the barracks to have my permit stamped as a junior driver, legal to drive in the state of Pennsylvania. As I drove back to work as a full-fledged driver, I wondered how many other people were driving who had been told, “I should have failed you but …”

That evening as we finished work and were driving home, I turned to my brother John with the question that had been burning in my chest all day: “John, can I have the car tonight? Everybody on the corner has a car.” That, of course, was a giant fib. Lying to family members was different than lying to a state trooper, I told myself.

“That’s it, Anthony. You don’t be like everyone else. You be different. You don’t have a car.”

And I didn’t, until halfway through my senior year when I got to routinely drive my aunt home from our house.

Anthony DiSipio lives in Manahawkin and is the author of Return Address: Atlantic Ocean, a collection of SandPaper columns, some published and some that didn’t make the cut. Order at whenim64ajjr.com or adisipio@excite.com.


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