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by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

It’s time to confess.

No, I haven’t killed anyone. Worse than that. Though words are hardly adequate to describe the calamitous event that darkened my 16th birthday, here’s the sad tale, with a parallel telling of another Texas teenager’s learning experience in an earlier era.

In the fall of 1964, life was good and about to get better. As a sophomore at Austin’s Lanier High School, I was doing well in school and I had a steady girlfriend, Leslie Playford. All I needed to make my young life complete was a driver’s license.

Toward that end, I had aced the classroom component of driver training and had my learner’s permit. A slight complication arose when a scheduling problem prevented me from getting into the behind-the-wheel course that would have enabled me to perfect my driving on Austin Independent School District time. But my grandfather hired a commercial driving instructor to get me up to speed.

On Saturday, December 26 I turned 16, then the legal age for getting an unrestricted license. The Department of Public Safety’s North Austin driver’s license office would be open until noon on this day after Christmas, but I planned to be there shortly after they unlocked the door to clear the last hurdle to mobility independence -- the driving test.

That night, for once without an adult driving, Leslie and I planned to celebrate my birthday by going to an Italian place for pizza, then a culinary rarity in Austin, followed by a movie at the Chief Drive-In on Lamar Boulevard.

(Yeah, right. Leslie had already confided in me that she would bring a bottle of mouth wash for us to tone down the pizza breath.)

Secure in my private sector training, I drove to the DPS with my granddad beside me. In those days, a DPS trooper armed with a check list on a clipboard sat in the front seat with you and directed you through the test. Turn here. Stop here. Back here.

I handled my grandmother’s 1952 Plymouth with steady, confident hand. The final part of the test was parallel parking, an operation which I had practiced repeatedly. But when I executed the maneuver for the trooper, the bumper of the Plymouth lightly touched one of the wooden stanchions.

With no hint of looming disaster, the trooper matter-of-factly instructed me to pull out of the parallel parking spot and pointed to a parking spot. Once I had properly parked the Plymouth and duly set the emergency brake, I awaited the happy news that I had passed the test.

“Mr. Cox,” the trooper said way too formally, “you hit one of the stanchions. That automatically fails you. You can take the test again on the next business day.”

Unfortunately, that would be Monday. That meant I couldn’t drive Leslie to the drive-in that night. Devastated and humiliated, I went home to call Leslie and tell her I had flunked the test.

I’m sure my granddad said all the right things – It’s not the end of the world; I’ll drive you and Leslie to the show; you’ll pass it next time; and Leslie won’t think any less of you. Obviously, all that made sense, but not to me back then. As far as I was concerned, my life had reached its bleakest moment.

My granddad turned 16 in the summer of 1913 before Texas required anyone to have a driver’s license. Back then, the majority of Texans still traveled by horse or in a horse-drawn buggy. Teenagers did their courting behind Old Dobbin.

“In the early 1900s I saw many beautiful weddings…that were the result of a courtship by horse and buggy,” Ashley N. Beasley wrote in his 1977 memoir, “Blow Your Smoke Toward the Sky.”

No matter the means of locomotion, parents have eternally stood in the way of vehicular teenage romance.

“In my young days,” Lulu Richard Gentry of Denison recalled in 1974 at 87, “girls were not allowed to go buggy-riding with their boy friends, because it just wasn’t proper.”

But, being a teenager, one day she slipped out for a spin with her beau, who had rented a buggy from the local livery stable. The conveyance had a black leather spring seat just right for two.

“It was just before the 4th of July,” Gentry continued. “Mother had made me a real pretty white dress for the 4th of July picnic and I decided to wear my pretty new dress…on this buggy ride.”

Armed with a parasol to protect her from the sun, she rode with her boyfriend to a ferry on the Red River. As soon as they rolled up, she recognized one of her mother’s friends. Cleverly, the teenager used her umbrella to hide from the nosy neighbor.

Safe from discovery, she enjoyed the rest of the afternoon with her boyfriend. At least until he dropped her off near her house. It had been a particularly hot day, and, as she explained, “I had sweated and across my back and across my seat were two great big black streaks [from the poorly dyed buggy seat] on my pretty white dress.”

Making it inside her house unnoticed, she spent most of the rest of the evening washing that dress.

“Mother never did know that I took that buggy ride,” she concluded, “but I was so scared that I never did take another.”

Back to 1964, having practiced until I could parallel park with my eyes closed, I passed the test the second time with no problems. The following weekend, only seven days later than planned, I took Leslie to the drive-in. But before I picked her up, I spent that afternoon at the empty drive-in repeatedly practicing pulling up to a speaker post. I wanted no more embarrassments.

© Mike Cox - "Texas Tales"
December 26, 2007 column
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