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Driving Miss Baby: Swift's confessions of a 14-year-old licensed driver

Tammy Swift, Forum columnist.

So my friend's son is studying for his driver's test.

It's quite a process, which seems to involve written tests, fees, waiting periods and various driver's education classes. Like everything else, it seems a lot more complicated than it used to be.

I am almost positive that I was able to get my driver's license — which means I was fully qualified to take the family brontosaurus for a spin — by age 14.

Back then, it was called a "farm license" because, as a farm kid, I had supposedly been driving a pickup since age 3 and could easily parallel park a combine inside an outhouse.

This was actually true for my older sister, Mabel, whose confident disposition and unflappable common sense had made her Dad's right-hand man. Mabel couldn't have been more than 7 when she started driving a pickup on our country roads, and by age 12 could expertly rake hay with the Cockshutt, a Flintstonian tractor that belched black, oily exhaust and was devoid of the most rudimentary comforts, including a windshield or shock absorbers.

Sadly, I did not inherit any of her Future Farmers of America DNA, partly because I was so afraid of breaking machinery or infuriating Dad that I would conveniently hide anywhere — the root cellar, a nearby county, alongside a rabid skunk inside the chicken coop — whenever he was looking for extra help.

Long story short: By age 14, my driving experience had been limited to inadvertently mowing down Mom's dill plants when driving the garden tractor and occasionally driving the station wagon from the shop up to the house (top speed: 14 mph).

In other words, I was in no way qualified to be captain and commander of a family truckster that had a V-8 engine and was as long as a bloodmobile. I could barely run the timer on our VCR, much less operate a station wagon devoid of shoulder belts, air bags, front-wheel drive or anti-lock brakes.

Thankfully, driver's ed was taught by the football coach, who was known for his empathy, sensitivity and cool calm in the face of danger. Said no one ever.

Our behind-the-wheel experiences consisted of "Mr. Sledge" periodically stomping on his brake to scream: "What is your problem?! Do you realize you almost backed over Mrs. Wilson's cat? WHY CAN'T YOU RELAX?!!"

Meanwhile, your peers sniggered, howled and elbowed each other in the back seat, and you could bet your last St. Frances of Rome statue that your accidental trip over the McGurneys' wash line was going to be headline news in the lunchroom that day.

After a full quarter of this trauma, the actual driver's test was laughably simple. I took my class from a highway patrolman in the bustling metropolis of Hebron, N.D., where my main challenge was deciding which grain truck should go first when we all arrived at a four-way stop at the same time.

In fact, the streets were so bare that we couldn't find two cars parked close enough for me to attempt parallel parking. In the end, the trooper gave up and just had me back in behind one car. (This may explain why I didn't learn how to REALLY parallel park until I was 27.)

I scored an 88, and walked away that day with the first and last driver's license in which I didn't have to lie about my weight. From that moment forward, I was a completely legal, road-ready driver — a fact that still horrifies me.

I'm guessing the only thing that kept me alive for the next four years was my refusal to drive in any city that had a stoplight, a 55 mph speed limit and no fewer than 720 novenas said on my behalf by my mother.

Thank you, St. Frances.

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