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Kentucky by Heart: Learning to drive is a daunting task, Kyians share some of their rookie driver stories

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

Recently noticing a sixteen-year-old neighbor preparing to take her car driver’s license test, I recalled my own experience many decades ago. Although I passed my written test easily, sitting alongside a policeman while he judged my fitness to drive an automobile on public roads — “the driver’s test” — was scary. You might say it was a genuine case of distracted driving without any texting involved.

Well, I flunked the first try. Among other mistakes, I notably turned right down a one-way street. I don’t remember if eye-rolling was in fashion back then, but if so, the officer likely held back doing so with difficulty. You know, being professional and all…

Steve’s hard-earned license

I’m embarrassed to say, too, that I made a few bad judgments after I obtained my license within the first few years — two tickets. After those, I vowed to become a careful and conscientious driver. Honestly, for the most part I have… and my wife even thinks I’m too careful sometimes. But I digress.

Figuring other fledgling drivers have their own stories, I checked around with a few fellow Kentuckians.

Carol Dawson, of Union, had an experience that rural folk might understand well. “I learned to drive in our old blue Chevy Nova, a stick shift,” she said. “We lived on a farm (in Campbell County) and Dad lined up hay bales in the lot between the house and barn so I could practice parallel parking. Mom took me out on the narrow country backroads and two-lane highway for driving practice. I did have plenty of driving experience prior to getting my temporary license. As the oldest of three girls, I was the designated John Deere tractor driver when we went to the hayfield to pick up hay bales and the tobacco field to load up our tobacco crop.

“Would that driving experience transfer to city driving where I was scheduled to take my driver’s test? Let me just say, there were no one-way streets in the country and no practice in city driving. So, I flunked my driver’s test — as the trooper said, ‘operating a vehicle on a one-way street in the opposite direction.’”

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

Susan Gall now lives in Florida but grew up in Lexington where she took her driver’s test. “My sister taught me to drive on the side streets of our Chevy Chase neighborhood when I was 14 and a half and she was 16,” said Susan. “When I was 15, I got my ‘official’ lessons by my dad in the Commonwealth Stadium parking lot. When I turned 16, I took my driver’s test on Patterson Avenue behind Rupp. The officer giving the test, sitting in my passenger seat, put his right ankle on his left knee and placed his cowboy hat on his right knee. He said ‘If the hat falls off, you fail.’ Guess what?… the hat fell off on the parallel parking part of the exam.”

From the western part of the state, in Owensboro, Amy Foreman shared a story of her initial driving cautiousness and her mother’s patience. “I was at the courthouse when it opened on my sixteenth birthday to get my permit,” explained Amy. “The first Saturday I had my permit, Mom drove to the Audubon Parkway, pulled over, and we changed drivers. It was the longest drive from Owensboro to Henderson since horse and wagon days because I was afraid to get over thirty-five miles per hour. Mom never said a word. We finally arrived in Henderson, ate lunch at Red Barn, and started the long trip home.”

One of my favorite “rookie driver” stories regards a former fourth-grade student of mine, Jason Robertson. This one is a bit humorous—and maybe even heroic. His father, Dave, shared what happened on the first day Jason had his license.

“We were getting into my huge Toyota Sequoia SUV with him doing the driving,” explained Dave. “Up to that point, I was doing most of the driving so it was a new experience for me getting in on the passenger’s side. The door opened MUCH easier than expected and caught me square in the forehead, opening a gash from my hairline down into my right eyebrow. It was bleeding profusely, and when I moved my hand away Jason’s only comment was ‘Oh God, Dad’!

Dad’s next comment must have been jarring to Jason.

‘You’re taking me to the hospital.’

‘I can’t, I don’t even know where it is. I can’t do this!’

‘Well, I do know, and you HAVE to drive us. No choice here.’

Dave Robertson with his son Jason (Photo provided)

“And off we went,” continued Dave. “Jase did great! Kept his composure and drove us straight to the hospital with no problems. When I came out of the ER, he was on the phone with his mom and told her ‘We’re going to be late for supper. Dad’s done it again!’”

Shelia Shain, of Shepherdsville, was a teen who may have been a bit overconfident about her beginning driving abilities. “Growing up in the snow belt, we learned how to drive in snow immediately,” she said. “So when it started snowing the night I got my license, I was unconcerned, even though my mom thought I should stay home.

“Needless to say, I didn’t and ended up stuck in a snow drift less than half a mile from my house. I was less afraid of being broke than I was my mom’s reaction, so I spent a precious $35 to get the neighbors’ sons to pull it out rather than go home and get my brothers to help. I don’t think I ever told my mom what happened.”

One person, Linda Morefield, of Winchester, told me that she had smooth sailing through her driver’s test, but found out she needed glasses when she failed the eye test. Bev Caywood took five days of training from her uncle and passed the test easily, then drove the bookmobile for the Woodford County Public Library for twenty-three years. Sharon Berning drove a friend’s VW Bug in her test in Newport. She ran a stop sign but got her license on the second try.

It’s refreshing for me to hear that my shaky early driving moments are not unique to me. I just hope all of us came through those times with a wise perspective and a good record behind the wheel on our Kentucky roads and beyond.

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