Learning to drive - in Mom's Studebaker

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John Stanger

When it came time for me to learn how to drive, there arose a question as to which of the two drivers in our family would be my teacher. My uncle Gene really didn't want to do it because he didn't want anyone but himself to drive his car. He was very particular about how his cars ran and how they looked, and if he discovered any problem that he couldn't fix, he would buy another car.

Besides, he had a heavy foot on the accelerator, and he wasn't the most patient person I ever knew. The job fell to my mother, who was very patient and was an extremely safe driver. I learned to drive on a 1954 Studebaker that had a stick shift. My mother took me out every other day for a one-hour lesson. We started out for a week in the Concordia University parking lot on Augusta Boulevard and progressed to Oak Park Avenue, Chicago Avenue, Lake Street, Harlem, Austin, Roosevelt, and finally to the brand new Eisenhower Expressway from Laramie to Kedzie (the Oak Park stretch wasn't completed until 1960).

When she was satisfied that I could drive in rush hour traffic, she took me out at night. My lessons lasted for nine months, and we drove in all kinds of weather. I was especially worried about driving on ice because I kept remembering the story of how my dad lost control of his car on the ice during the winter of 1929 and wrecked it when the car hit a lamp post on Michigan Avenue. Because of this near tragedy, he never bought another car for himself. His driving days ended in 1929.

Besides, it was easy to use public transportation to get to the Tribune where he worked. I did have one "accident" during my "driver's ed" course. It occurred in the Jewel parking lot at Chicago and Maple (later, Villager Food Market). An elderly lady and I backed into each other's car, but there was no damage, so we went on our respective ways. In March of 1956 my mother bought an Oldsmobile that had automatic transmission. One day I was driving, and she and I were stopped at the light on Oak Park at Chicago. When the light turned green, I shifted like I always did on the Studebaker, and the Olds shot backward about 60 feet. Fortunately, no one was behind us, and I quickly shifted to Drive. I "graduated" from my driving course when I drove the Eisenhower from Laramie to Michigan Avenue and back to Oak Park.

I went to the driving test site on a Saturday in June of 1956. The facility was on Desplaines Avenue, a block north of Jackson Boulevard in Forest Park. The grumpy guy who was the tester failed me because I stopped so that a squirrel could cross the street. He told me it was better to run over a squirrel than to get rear-ended. I went back the following Saturday, had a different tester, did not cross paths with any squirrels, and passed the driving test. I have been driving for almost 57 years, and I have a good driving record, but I must attribute any success I've had to my very patient teacher who, with the possibility of injury to herself, decided to be my driver's ed instructor.

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