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Florence's Family Album: The Joys and Perils of the Motor Car
Voice columnist Florence Holub chronicles her driving ambition in this personal essay, reprinted from the June 1990 issue.
The first automobile in my life was the Model T Ford. It was the car that carried our family from rural Idaho to Noe Valley in the early 1920s, when I was about 5 years old. The Model T had a front seat for my mother and father, and a back seat wide enough for my two brothers and me.
Like most early cars, it originally sported a canvas top, but that didn't survive the winters in Idaho, so my father built and laminated a wooden top, then covered it with black canvas. This withstood the weather but was hard on our heads, for whenever the car hit a bump on the road (and there were many), we three children would fly up into the air, smacking the roof with the tops of our heads.
The Model T was one of those noisy motor cars that chugged and sputtered--sometimes with exploding sounds--and occasionally stopped dead in its tracks. My father would have to get out, go to the front with the cranking tool that fit into the crankshaft below the radiator, and with a vigorous rowing gesture, turn it until the motor started again.
The old Ford managed most of the San Francisco hills easily, but 23rd Street between Church and Chattanooga (where we lived temporarily with Uncle Ed) was too steep to go up in forward gear. My father would turn the car around, put it in reverse, step on the gas, and zoom up the hill backward to Uncle Ed's house.
On weekends, we would be off to new and exciting places, like the concessions at the beach, Golden Gate Park, and the zoo. We went swimming at Sutro Baths and Fleishhacker Pool, and ran into the surf at Ocean Beach. We vacationed in Santa Cruz, at the Russian River, and in the Big Basin redwoods--back when these spots were relatively uncrowded--and that indestructible old car took us everywhere. Eventually, other cars replaced it, but they were never as durable, and none lasted so long.
When my older brother grew up and went to work, his first major investment was a Model A coupe, and he was so proud
of it that he allowed me to share his happiness behind the steering wheel. Actually, that first time in the driver's seat, I froze in terror when a telephone pole loomed up in front of me, so he had to grab the wheel. We decided I wasn't ready for such a responsibility. Girls didn't drive anyway, and boys were only allowed to use the family car on special occasions, so everyone mostly took the streetcars or walked a lot.
When Leo and I got married in 1941, we both had jobs but little else, and our dream was to own a wood-paneled station wagon. Six years and two sons later, we purchased a new maroon Ford V-8 station wagon with natural wood sides. That car has since carried us to many exciting places.
Once when we were driving across the state of Nevada, Leo let me take his seat behind the wheel. The road was very straight, but when my attention strayed to a band of Native Americans moving across the desert on horses, the car suddenly headed for a ravine beyond the soft shoulder. Leo grabbed the steering wheel, and I realized that, like the other time, I wasn't ready. We still own that station wagon, but now it is up on blocks, a little too old for heavy use, yet cherished nonetheless.
By the time I was 40, all of my lady friends were driving, and since Leo and I had chosen to live on the steep 21st Street hill, it seemed a good idea for me to take a few driving lessons to determine, once and for all, if driving was even a possibility. On the first day behind the wheel, the teacher told me to turn right, and I turned left, to which he did a slow take and said, "You don't know your right hand from your left!" Any optimism I had held was squelched with that remark, so the lessons were terminated.
Ten years later when I was 50, my father, who could no longer drive, was having great difficulty walking and needed help, so I decided to give driving another try. Responding to an advertisement in the San Francisco Progress newspaper, I enrolled in a four-week driving course conducted at the YMCA by the National Driving School. We were lectured on everything we were supposed to do, and also on everything we were not, and advised to take a few on-the-road lessons with a seasoned instructor. Then our teacher (who happened to be the owner of the school) stated that the school had two used autos for sale and one of them was a beauty.
Having no car of my own and not wishing to demolish my husband's, but needing a disposable car with a lot of protective steel, I went to assess the autos that were for sale. Like the man said, one was a beauty: a 1968 Mustang with beautiful lines, going for a mere $750. The car had traveled over 100,000 miles, but it sported my favorite colors--white with deep-red upholstery. It was love at first sight. I didn't ask to look under the hood, or even if it had a motor. I just said, "If you can teach me to drive, I'll take it." Confident that he or his instructors could, the owner of the school agreed to hold the Mustang for me, never dreaming how long the wait would be.
Twice a week, month after month, my instructor, Mr. Rowbottom, came to our house to pick me up. His car had dual controls, but I had to start it myself and drive down our steep hill, then return to park it at the end of the lesson. Early in the course of my lessons, I confessed that I was somewhat erratic and didn't know my right hand from my left, to which he responded without concern, "Neither do I!" That helped me overcome one hang-up, but I was a slow, timid learner, and after three months Mr. Rowbottom said, "If you were a teenager, you would be taking your driving test now. You have to become more aggressive."
One month later, he insisted that it was time for the test--a notion I strongly disputed. And so the weeks went on, with Mr. Rowbottom saying I should go for it, and his student pleading, "I'm not ready!"
One particular day, however, upon returning home from a lesson (after five months of instruction), we encountered my good neighbor Janet, who loves to say outrageous things. "Mr. Rowbottom," she said tartly, "are you having an affair with Mrs. Holub?"
My teacher, who was a happily married man and already impatient with his student, turned to me and said firmly, "That does it. You take your test tomorrow!"
It was a Saturday morning when he accompanied me to the Department of Motor Vehicles, assuring me that I would pass. I again denied any such thing, but he was right: I got my license without a bit of trouble. Mr. Rowbottom then drove me to the school where the Mustang awaited me. Still, before I got into my car, I begged, "One more thing, please lead me home and I promise to never bother you again." He protested, but then got into his car, turned in front of me, and began to shepherd me home on Oak Street. When we got to Divisadero, where I had to turn right, he sped straight ahead, on his way to his Marin County home, and I was forced to go it alone, which I did, miraculously, with my fenders intact.
My Mustang has given me 16 years of satisfaction. I have not only been able to transport my father to all of the places that an elderly man must go--plus handle the weekly grocery shopping without having to depend on others--but I've also acquired a deep sense of pride at possessing such a fine old automobile.
It turns out that the $750 I paid for this classic car is the next-to-best investment I have ever made. The best investment was in the driving lessons that allowed me to drive my motor car without imperiling either myself or the good citizens of Noe Valley.