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McCallum: Driving School

08/23/11 5:55PM By Mary McCallum
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Commentator's Brunch Sampler

(HOST) VPR commentators took on the theme, "Picture This" for the annual brunch this spring, and we're featuring a recorded sampler of some of their thoughts this week. In this excerpt, commentator Mary McCallum recalled a truly memorable scene from her childhood.

(MCCALLUM) My name is Mary McCallum and this is called "Driving School."

In 1954 my mother Dot decided it was time she learned to drive. We lived in a farmhouse on a small plot of land with a weathered barn. With housework and five kids, Mom let Dad do the driving.

My father was a practical man with a thin wallet. He taught himself the skills required to jack up a foundation, install plumbing and mix cement. He would in fact have made a good schoolteacher if he'd been able to get an education. Instead, he taught us kids. From him we learned how to work hard, be self sufficient and save for tomorrow .

When Mom decided to learn to drive Dad became her instructor and turned the barn into his driving school. Filled with junk and dust motes, it smelled of wooden beams roasted by a hundred summers.

Dad transformed a cow stall into his classroom, and he and Mom disappeared there summer evenings after supper while it was still light. We kids ran around the lumpy yard catching lightning bugs, shrieking and hitting things with sticks, oblivious to what we called Car School.

At the end of summer Dad called us into the barn to witness Mom's driving skill. In my childish imagination I expected to see the barn transformed into a racetrack with Mom zooming in circles, downshifting and having a grand time.

Alas, picture this : my mother on a dilapidated car seat from the dump bolted to the barn floor, gripping a worn steering wheel nailed to the wall - another dump cast-off. At her feet were recycled brake, gas and clutch pedals. In the tricked-out cow stall Mom rolled her eyes at us, awaiting my father's commands.

"Okay kids, watch your mother," he announced. He turned to Mom. "Now Dot, you're heading down the road, another car behind you, and you need to turn left. What do you do?" Mom, bless her heart, pretended to drive, stomped on the brake pedal and extended her left arm straight out to indicate a turn signal.

"Watch out!" yelled Dad. "Clutch to downshift into first or you'll grind up the gears!"

Anticipating earsplitting sound effects, we kids covered our ears. There was however a horn, and Dot leaned on it hard, signaling her exasperation and the end of the ride for us all.

That fall she took her driver's test and failed. In 1956 she tried again and passed, in time to take the wheel of Dad's new red Nash Rambler Super Sedan, with whitewall tires and automatic transmission - the latest in clutchless driving.

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