Learning to drive -- in 1919

April 01, 1994|By Ruth Bear Levy

IN MY sophomore year at college, I was attracted to the automobile. In Lonaconing, Md., there weren't many cars. The year was 1919.

I was an only child of adoring -- and protective -- parents. We never had a horse and buggy. I was not permitted to ride a two-wheeled bike, go ice skating on the creek, ride a pony, walk in the middle of the road or guide a sled "belly-bumpers-style" down the steep snow-clad mountains.

But early in my young adult life my parents informed me that they had bought a car -- and I was to learn to drive it. They told me they would meet me, with the car, at the Queen City Station in Cumberland on my arrival for summer vacation from Goucher.

I was ecstatic. I eagerly awaited the big B&O engine pulling the train of passenger cars as it arrived in a cloud of steam at Mt. Royal Station in Baltimore on the first day of my vacation.

We seemed to pass all the familiar landmarks, so slowly -- to Washington, then to Frederick, along the C&O canal and the tow path, Harpers Ferry, Hancock, Point of Rocks, closer and closer to the car.

Finally, after five hours, with my nose squashed against the window, I saw in the distance the twin mountains of Cumberland. I was 20 years old, and my enthusiasm knew no bounds.

Surrounded by a burst of steam from the engine, I jumped off the train and embraced my parents. There was the car! It was a Peerless with mountain gearing, extra horse-power engine, leather upholstery, sleek running boards and seats for seven passengers. I gazed in awe, then turned to my parents with a question.

"Why do you permit me to drive this car when you would never allow me to ride a two-wheel bike, go skating on the creek, ride belly-bumper down the hills?"

The answer: "Because this automobile will be a part of your future. You will need one in a busy and productive life. It will provide access to opportunities -- social and professional -- in a new modern era."

Wise words from my parents.

In our town a man, lovingly called "Fats," handled baggage at the train station. He had a big automobile truck which took the place of his old horse and wagon. He liked to study the workings of the automobile engine. My parents chose Fats to teach me to drive the Peerless. He was sensitive and sincere, with a grasp of pedagogy equal to that of any college professor.

Fats revered the car so much that when he parked it in the front of our house for my first lesson, he performed a little ceremony. He asked my mother and father, "Are you willing to have this girl learn to drive this car?"

My mother answered, "I am." My father answered, "I am." It was like a wedding.

Then Fats turned to me. "Jump in," he said.

Methodical and truly professional in his teaching methods, Fats insisted that I be able to identify every part of the automobile.

I quickly learned about the horn, mounted outside the driver's window. I proudly squeezed the rubber ball to produce my first honk.

Fats explained the emergency brake and gear shift controls on the floor at the driver's right. Three speeds forward, reverse and neutral.

Fats instructed with tips such as, "Don't jam on the brakes, depress them gently. When you throw out the clutch, let it return easily as you engage the gears."

The skill to direct the controls smoothly took a lot of care and training. It was no small feat to keep that car from sliding down a steep incline while in a forward gear.

Fats showed me how to operate the hand-controlled window wipers and pointed out the spare tire, bound in leather, attached to the rear. And the leather curtains with isinglass inserts to attach around the car whenever it rained. (Usually, by the time everyone piled out of the car to attach the curtains, it had stopped raining.)

The final instruction from Fats was that the "most important thing to remember when driving is the ped-es-train." But try as I might, I could not locate that particular car part. Fats was outraged that a college student did not understand about ped-es-trains. In unabashed ridicule of my scholastic training, he explained that ped-es-trains are the people who walk across the street in front of the car. Forever after, I have called those people ped-es-trains.

That summer we inched our way carefully along the road from Lonaconing to Cumberland. I had to be careful to avoid cows and children along the narrow, rough, curving roads. Otherwise there was not much traffic. My mother and father sat in the back seat at every lesson. A visit to the ice cream parlor when we reached Cumberland was respite for all of us. And Papa and Fats would have a smoke.

At the end of that summer, I returned to college. I had learned to be a good driver.

Life was so much richer.

Ruth Bear Levy graduated from Goucher in 1921. At 95, she lives in Baltimore.

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