Show Me the Way

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(Pictured: a driver’s ed student practices parallel parking, 1976.)

Forty years ago today—April 13, 1976—I got my driver’s license.

It was the culmination of a process that started in the fall of 1975 when I took the required one-semester driver’s ed course. It seemed easy to the point of ridiculousness—but it couldn’t have been too easy, since my report card from that semester shows I got a B for the first nine weeks. The course was taught by a man who taught only driver education in addition to proctoring a couple of study halls. Just as nobody grows up wanting to be a middle-relief pitcher, I suspect this guy didn’t go off to college nurturing the desire to teach barely respectful sophomores the rules of the road, but a job is a job.

After completing the classroom course, the next step was to take behind-the-wheel instruction. You’d drive with an instructor in the passenger seat, and share your hour with a partner. My partner was a girl I barely knew. We didn’t even know the same people, so we had quite literally nothing in common, and as a result we barely spoke, either in the car or out of it.

I remember only two things about my behind-the-wheel test. One, that I was not asked to parallel park, which is something that had kept more than one of my friends from passing on the first try. (Since I never had to learn to do it right, I have never done it well.) And two, the smile I eventually got from the cop who had ridden along with me. After I parked outside the local DMV office and watched him calmly making notes on his clipboard, the suspense was killing me. I finally asked, “Did I make it?” “Yeah, you passed.”

(I was spared the fate of one classmate, who had apparently aced the behind-the-wheel test until she ran into a parked car while returning to the lot.)

On the radio that week, the #1 song on WLS was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” in its second of five weeks at the top. Holding at #2 was “Lonely Night (Angel Face)” by the Captain and Tennille, a record I like more now than I did then. The hottest song on the chart was at #3: the Sylvers’ “Boogie Fever,” which took a mighty leap from #12 the week before. The glorious variety of 70s Top 40 music was on display within the Top 10, where Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” Foghat’s “Slow Ride,” and Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver” sat alongside the Four Seasons (“December 1963”), Johnnie Taylor (“Disco Lady”) and Dr. Hook (“Only Sixteen”). Besides “Boogie Fever,” only one other song was new among the week’s top 10: “Right Back Where We Started From” by Maxine Nightingale, which went from #18 to #9. Other big movers on the WLS survey included “Lorelei” by Styx (#17 to #11), “Baby Face” by the Wing and a Prayer Fife and Drum Corps, a disco version of a hit from the 1920s (#31 to #21), and “Show Me the Way” by Peter Frampton (#45 to #28).

Their Greatest Hits, 1971-1975 by the Eagles held at #1 on the album chart; fast movers included the Captain and Tennille’s Song of Joy (#14 to #5), Fool for the City by Foghat (#15 to #9), and Frampton Comes Alive (#17 to #11). Notables on the album chart include two Aerosmith albums in the top five (Aerosmith and Toys in the Attic), a listing that reads Runes (Led Zeppelin IV), which moved from #20 to #19, and Robin Trower Live debuting at #31. The list is actually pretty solid, with a bunch of greatest-hits compilations and plenty of classics: A Night at the Opera, Desire, Still Crazy After All These Years, Fleetwood Mac, One of These Nights.

After I passed the test and tucked the license safely into my wallet, my father let me drive the family car—the banana-yellow ’73 Mercury Montego—home in triumph. With the radio on, of course.

12 thoughts on “Show Me the Way

  1. Yah Shure

    Having an older brother who was more than happy to drive me to the record store every week, I didn’t get around to taking my road test until almost seven months past my 16th birthday. The downside to having procrastinated? My older sibs all got to take their tests in the family’s ’65 Mustang, which had recently been traded in for a decidedly less-flashy ’67 lime-green Mercury Cougar. Or maybe they had to use the white ’64 Pontiac Safari tank, masquerading as a station wagon. That would’ve been sweet payback for all the other times *they* got to drive the ‘stang.

    The upside? Their exams took place in the heart of Minneapolis. With the Pontiac Tank having also been swapped for a more boat-like blue ’67 Mercury Park Lane, I was given the choice of taking the test in either The Big City or a nearby exurban county seat, so I opted for the small Minnesota River town of Chaska. Thankfully, I had all the requisite training needed to face the intrinsic complexities involved in negotiating the town square, which had virtually no traffic. The sleepy town’s only traffic light was maybe two blocks away. Piece of cake,

    Or so I thought. Who knew getting out of the starting gate would be end up being the toughest part? There were several *very* awkward minutes spent trying to find the damn parking brake in the still-new Park Lane. After suffering through that embarrassment, the parallel parking was such a non-event that I don’t even remember it.

  2. I would have passed my driver’s test the first time if the guy had randomly decided not to make me parallel park.

    Aerosmith released its Rocks album in early May ’76, so quite possibly they had *three* albums on the WLS chart not too long after that.

  3. porky

    I got my license the Fall of ’76 (on the car radio as we practiced, Rock ‘n Me, Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald, Year of the Cat, Disco Duck). The night I passed the test I had my first performance with my high school rock band; we played for all our friends at a rich classmate’s farm, in a fixed up out-building with kitchen and other amenities. Got to drive our olive-green Pinto there, on cloud nine. If I could bottle what I felt that night and sell it I’d be rubbing shoulders with Zuckerberg et al.

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  7. Random postscript to the comment above: My older son passed his driver’s test last June — perhaps in part b/c the instructor didn’t make him parallel park.
    (State law at the time left it up to the instructor’s discretion whether to require parallel parking during the test. The instructor had apparently seen my son do it in a previous lesson and decided he didn’t need to see it again.)
    The law has since changed, so my younger son will be required to parallel park when his turn comes.

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