Driving Ambition

The test is a rite of passage that takes teen-agers from youth to adulthood in the blink of ... a blinker. It only seems like forever.

January 11, 1999|By KEVIN COWHERD | KEVIN COWHERD,SUN STAFF

You remember the feeling: hands trembling slightly, butterflies doing a trapeze act in your stomach, a vaguely metallic taste in your mouth.

It was your 16th birthday, a freezing day in December, snow light as talcum powder dusting the sides of the roads. You were about to take your road test. The Holy Grail of suburban adolescence -- a driver's license -- was shimmering, finally, within your grasp.

Your tester was a small, frail-looking man with a face like one of those brooding stone statues on Easter Island, only not as cheerful. Jenkins, he said his name was as the two of you climbed into your mom's Falcon Futura -- MISTER Jenkins. "Ready?" he asked in a clipped, officious voice.

God, that was nearly 30 years ago, and yet the memory remains vivid. So much about the world has changed. Does the road test still inspire such full-blown anxiety? Is getting your driver's license still a big deal? Still the Holy Grail for young people in the age of 300 cable channels, Nintendo 64, the Internet? You wanted some answers.

So you went and found a kid going for his road test. And what you discovered is this: Much about this achingly familiar rite of passage has changed with time.

But some things have changed barely at all.

It's a little after 3: 30 on a weekday afternoon when Jon- athan Cichon noses his mother's 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee into the parking lot of the Motor Vehicle Administration's Bel Air branch on West MacPhail Road.

Today is his 16th birthday. It's the day he's pointed toward for months. If all goes well, he'll pass his 4 p.m. road test and receive his provisional driver's license. His dad plans to take him to a sushi restaurant in Cockeysville to celebrate.

But right now, Jon looks as if there might be a dead fish decomposing on the dashboard. Which is to say he looks slightly queasy.

"I'm OK," he insists as he jumps from the Jeep and his mom alights from the front passenger seat. "I'm not really nervous. I know what I'm doing.'

"I think he's a little nervous, especially with you here," whispers his mother, Terry Cichon, to a Sun reporter and photographer.

This is just what every kid needs, of course: a man with a notebook and another with a Nikon wide-angle lens tailing him as he takes his driver's test. But Jon seems an unusually composed young man; weeks earlier, he'd agreed to let the newspaper chronicle his road test. And while he's understandably a tad jittery at this moment, he also seems quietly confident and eager to get on with things.

More than 40,000 provisional driver's licenses were issued in Maryland last year, and on this sunny, unseasonably warm winter day, Jon Cichon hopes to get his.

A snapshot biography: Jon lives in Baldwin. Junior at Dulaney High School. B to B-plus student. Works part-time at McDonald's. Three brothers, all younger. His father, Richard, is vice president of sales and marketing for Great Coastal, a trucking company. His mother is a reading specialist at Perry Hall Elementary School.

All in all, he considers himself an average kid. He says he's been thinking about this day since ninth grade. But when you ask what getting a driver's license means to him, there is no existential blather about freedom, the lure of the open road, blah, blah, blah.

"Basically, it means not having to ask for rides, and set up rides with my mom or dad or friends," he says.

As with anyone under 18 applying to take the road test, Jon was required to take an approved driver education course (his was at Bentley Driver Training School in Cockeysville). This consists of 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours of behind-the-wheel training.

Then he got his learner's permit, and after school and on weekends, he practiced on the rural roads around northern Baltimore County. But he also learned the peculiar joys of Beltway driving and the notorious Towson traffic roundabout, where cars shoot in and out at random and a singular thought screams through every motorist's brain: Am I going to die?

There were the usual jangled nerves whenever the new driver drove his parents anywhere, a reaction that seems genetically hard-wired from one generation to the next.

One night, after Jon got off work at the McDonald's in Jacksonville. his dad let him drive home. But from the moment he guided the car into the inky darkness of Sweet Air Road, there were problems: "It was kind of rough. I kept forgetting to turn the high beams off. I was too close to the yellow lines. My dad wasn't flipping out, but he wasn't sitting back calm, either."

There was another Kodak Moment between father and son the first time Jon drove on the Beltway. As Jon recalls: "He kept saying: `Get into this lane. Now get into this lane. Put your blinker on. Check your mirror. Look behind you.' But overall ... he was calmer than I was."

Still, Jon's first weeks as a novice driver have gone smoothly enough. But right now, he is fidgeting in the bright sunlight outside the MVA office, waiting to meet the person who holds the key to his immediate future.

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