Man alive, what a privilege to drive

Bishop’s Mantle column by Jim Bishop

What an unforgettable day, a literal turning point in my life.

Only problem was, I made an improper turn at a critical point and failed my initial attempt. A second try proved successful, and I went on my way rejoicing.

The milestone event – successfully passing my driver’s test and being handed my conditional license to drive. At the time, this 16-year-old was some 300 miles from home, spending the summer on staff at Laurelville Mennonite Church Center in Western Pennsylvania. I couldn’t wait for summer to end to complete this long-anticipated ritual, so I made my way to the closest Division of Motor Vehicles testing site at Greensburg in my Uncle John Dayton’s Volkswagen Beetle.

I thought that driving a smaller vehicle would provide a certain advantage for the required maneuvers on the driving course. At first, it seemed that would be the case, as I accelerated and made the proper turns, keeping within the marked lines and shifting to second gear while accelerating.

“I did that pretty smoothly,” I thought to myself while catching the DMV official scribbling notes out of the corner of my eye. All went well until instructed to parallel park and to back into a parking space. That’s when my obvious lack of experience with a manual transmission came to the fore. I had difficulty getting the VW into reverse, and when I succeeded, the gears protested loudly, and I ended up on a 45-degree angle.

I was permitted to try again, with little improvement. I was told to come back and try again. Uncle John knew immediately from my downcast expression that the prized certificate had eluded me.

So, I practiced within the safe confines of the camp, then returned to Greensburg and passed the test.

With my license came a realization that life for this young buck would never be quite the same. I was now an experienced driver – at least, I thought so – and the best part, I could invite a member of the opposite sex to sit next to me on the bench seat of my parents’ 1960 Chevy Impala. Off we’d fly on the highways and byways of Bucks County, windows down, the radio blasting the WIBG “top 99” hits of the week.

Driving – what a thrill, a privilege, and, grasped too slowly, an awesome responsibility. It took several close encounters with other motorists, a serious accident my senior year of high school in 1963 and the financial drain of owning my own car – too soon, looking back – for that to sink into my thick cranium.

Shift forward to the present – the sanctuary of Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Va. The occasion: an annual ceremony to recognize young persons in the congregation who have just received their driver’s license or soon will.

Some years ago, former pastor Duane Sider wrote a liturgy to mark this serious, yet celebrative, signpost. The ritual took place again at Community on June 3 this year. The liturgy opens:

“Here you stand on the edge of car keys, increased freedom, bumper-to-bumper traffic and more responsibility.

“You have anticipated these days for a long time, the time when you are behind the wheel. We thank God for you as well as this period in your lives.”

The nervous parents then chime in, pledging support to their driver-to-be. The anxious young people ask for their support and trust in turn. For many years, each youth was given a key chain with a dime encased, later a quarter, “just in case you need to call home unexpectedly.” Now, with pay phones harder to find, they receive a phone card.

The ceremony ends with a corporate response from the congregation:

“Let us remember this day: when we pledged to journey together and trusted God to guide us. Lord, keep us safe … and bring us home.”

Amen. Start your engines . . .

 

Jim Bishop is the public-information officer at Eastern Mennonite University.

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