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Wheelingeezers: hair-raising tales of driving back in the day

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos from the author’s collection.

I’ve been driving legally for nearly 70 years now. And I know it’s tempting fate to say this, but in all that time I’ve never had an accident.

Well, that’s not strictly true.

I did get hit once by a woman who used my car as her brakes. Here’s what happened.

I was waiting at a red light when I heard this mechanical grinding, growling noise behind me. I glanced over my left shoulder and saw a white Chevrolet Nova bearing down on me. The driver was trying desperately to shift her automatic transmission into Park because, as I learned later, her brakes had failed. When she discovered that she couldn’t get the selector into Park, she turned abruptly and planted her front bumper in my left rear door.

She was doing about 10 mph at the time, and if she hadn’t run into me, she would have gone out into cross traffic, and goodness knows what would have happened then. So actually she did the right thing. Luckily we both ended up unhurt. My car (actually it belonged to Subaru; I was working for Popular Mechanics at the time and had borrowed it from the San Francisco press pool) ended up quite bent and unhappy.

But that’s the only car accident I’ve ever been personally involved in. I mention this—my amazingly accident-free driving record—because I’d like to talk about cars from the perspective of a senior citizen and longtime driver/survivor. In case you hadn’t noticed, I do find myself of the senior persuasion, although my good wife says I’m 84 going on 18. Would that she were right.

Anyway, I believe that we seniors, given our experience, have a duty… nay an obligation… to instruct the whipper-snappers of this world about cars; specifically, about driving, preserving, collecting, tinkering with, buying, selling, engineering, designing and a whole lot more. If you’re a fellow senior, so much the better. I call these ramblings “Geezers on Wheels” or, in a more breathless moment, “Wheelingeezers.” So let’s get wheelin’, geezin’, wheezin’ and breezin’.

Skill tends to be useful in driving, but so does luck, and I do consider myself extremely lucky. I could tell you all sorts of hair-raising tales (assuming you have more hair than I do) about driving back in the day and, in fact, I will lay one such experience on you before we move along.

This happened in 1952, when I was 16. I owned a hot rod. I was driving my hot rod between my little hometown, La Feria, Texas, and the big city, Harlingen, population 15,000 and eight miles away. At that time, there was a three-lane highway connecting the two metropoles.

Three-lane highways, in case you’ve never driven on one, stand out among the loopier ideas that traffic engineers have come up with. The barking mad road planner who conceived the three-lane highway intended the center lane to be used for passing or turning left, and he extended that favor to drivers going in either direction at any time.

The citizens of La Feria had a saying about that highway: “The left lane is for going to Harlingen, the right lane is for coming home, and the center lane is for Dr. Lamm.” Dr. Lamm was my dad. Because the local hospital was in Harlingen, he often had to drive there fast. When my dad wasn’t zipping down the center lane, ordinary motorists used it cautiously, intensely aware that someone might already be in it and coming at them from the opposite direction.

On this particular summer day in 1952, my best friend, Mike Eaker, and I were driving to Harlingen in my hot rod, going lickety-split. There was a car up ahead, poking along in my lane, so I started to pull out to pass. Instantly, not 20 feet ahead of me and coming my way at warp speed, was a pea-green 1950 Ford Crestliner. I hit my brakes and whipped the steering wheel to the right. The Crestliner missed us by, I’d say, a couple of inches. A minute later, I was shaking so badly that I had to pull over.

Now I’m sure we’ve all had close calls, and if you’ve been as lucky as I was that day, you survived. But the question is, What did we learn? Or in my case, what did I learn?

Not much, frankly. I didn’t weigh my mortality; I didn’t realize by some epiphany that teenagers don’t live forever (that came way later); I didn’t drive more slowly; I didn’t get a safer car. So in academic terms, I learned nothing from that harrowing, near-death experience. I have learned a lot, though, since then.

Last Saturday, I took my teenaged grandson, Benjamin, out for a driving lesson. As we pulled up the street, I asked him, “Ben, what’s the most important thing to remember when you drive a car?” He hesitated and then answered, “To keep my hands on the steering wheel, I guess.”

“No,” I said, “That’s not it at all. Want to try again?”

“Come on, grandpa, just tell me!”

“Okay,” I said, “The most important thing to remember when you’re driving a car is that you’re driving a car. Anytime you’re not consciously aware that you’re driving, your mind starts to wander, and when that happens, you might as well close your eyes. You’re in imminent danger. So yes, you have to constantly remind yourself that you’re in a car, driving, not doing anything else. When you’re behind the wheel, moving, the act of driving is the most important thing in your life—and the lives of those with you and around you. End of sermon.”

I enjoy driving—always have. So I don’t find it a chore to remind myself that I’m in a car, controlling it, and that I’m essentially in a chess game on wheels. To win—that is, to keep from running into things or getting run into—I have to predict what might happen as I move through two-dimensional space. And that’s what I mean about experience, because the longer you’ve been driving, the better you become at predicting and being able to react to the dangers, real or potential, around you.

For example, the danger in driving in freeway traffic at 70 mph usually isn’t with the cars immediately around you. It’s with the cars or trucks three or four ahead. Most drivers keep an eye on the vehicles just in front of them but tend not to pay much attention to traffic ahead of those. When something goes wrong with the car four or five cars ahead, it’s going to impact you in one way or another, so you have to focus on those vehicles, too.

Which brings me to the magic of the self-driving car—the dream machine so many moderns are talking about. Lots of people, including my excellent wife, can’t wait not to drive. There’s apparently great progress being made in that direction, and I use the word “progress” loosely because it’s not all smooth sailing yet. Somehow the people involved in teaching cars to drive themselves haven’t been able to integrate what I call experience into those machines’ activities.

Any vehicle can drive itself. All you have to do is put the automatic transmission in gear and set a brick on the accelerator. Autonomous cars are a little more sophisticated than that, but they’re still lacking certain graces, like “seeing” glare ice on the roadway and interpreting it as a big puddle—things like that.

Meanwhile, we who enjoy driving and do so relatively well owe it to future drivers who’ll someday probably not even need that skill, like my grandsons…teach them how to steer and turn and brake safely so that, in their autonomous pillboxes of the future, they’ll know when they’re about to hit or run over something that they shouldn’t. That’s the long-term goal. For now, I’d like my two grandsons to simply survive the perils of our evermore crowded streets and highways. So far they’ve been as lucky as I have.