When the sunlight makes you pause
a small-town driving test
Ten o’clock and two o’clock. Ten o’clock and two o’clock. The familiar phrase was repeated over and over in his mind. It was a partial mantra that calmed him and a partial reminder to pay attention to the little things in a driving test.
In the small town of Wooten, it was the little things that meant the most in the intricate web of customs, habits, and values that held the town together.
Oliver nonchalantly glanced at his left wrist to make sure the tilt of his hand toward the center would not pull the attention of Mr. Weems. His grip felt comfortable. His lower back rested naturally into the well-worn indentations of the soft-leather driving seat of his grandfather’s El-Camino. Oliver checked each mirror and adjusted each one to give the impression of being both deliberate and careful. He already had the mirrors exactly where he wanted them, but he needed Mr. Weems to see the adjustments. He did a second check and adjustment of each mirror to move them back to their original positions. Out the corner of his right eye, he saw a small, slightly perceptible smile in the cold, formerly terse lips of Mr. Weems. Oliver knew the time for adjustments was over; it was time to start the vehicle.
He’d driven his grandfather's El Camino without a license since he was nine years old. He knew it, Mr. Weems knew it, and the entire town knew it. This driving test had nothing to do with getting a license. Over half the town of Wooster didn’t have a driver’s license, but everyone took the driver’s test. It was a rite of passage. The route for the test hadn’t changed in 45 years.
The small-town gauntlet starts at 10:00 am sharp from a parked position in front of the Johnson hardware store on the right-hand side of the street. Old man Johnson's grandson now runs the store while Old Man Johnson mostly sits outside in a rocking chair. It’s difficult to ignore the mumbled sounds of Old Man Johnson cursing local townsfolk who walk past him if he felt they needed handiwork done on their homes.
A driver turns on the left blinker to enter into the street from Johnson’s hardware store and proceeds east on Main Street into the piercing sun. A driver should come to a quiet stop no closer than fifteen feet from the historic Wooten traffic light.
This test is only done on sunny days. Every so often, a partly sunny day is allowed if a driver is either on their fourth attempt at passing or an older person is being allowed back on the road one last time before the family decides to take their keys for good.
Pulling up to the historic Wooten traffic light at the right distance will block the sun fairly easily. The positioning of the shade is important because it will provide respite for eyes temporarily blinded by locating the traffic lights alongside the presence of the yellowish-white sun. The 10:00 am Wooten sun on Main Street is legendary for the sting it can inflict on the eyes of naive, arrogant, or distracted drivers.
Typically, a third of the town will gather at the first stop of the driving test to see who succumbs to the sun and who keeps their gaze fixed only on the location of the green light. That’s the secret to the first stop; focus only on the green light.
It sounds easy, but sometimes the most veteran drivers will forget to tilt their heads slightly to the left to keep their focus. When a driver is unsure, the red light attracts their eyes. When they’re anxious, the yellow light grabs their attention. When calm and confident, the green light feels like pure affirmation to a driver.
The remaining two-thirds of the town will camp out on the other side of the historic Wooten traffic light in anticipation of the driver’s return for the last leg. Some townsfolk will arrive as early as 5 am to secure the most prime real estate to behold the outcome.
After turning left, the driving part is easy. It’s a slow 15 mph drive past Tom’s bakery and Millie’s barbershop. Tom and Millie died years ago, but the town refuses to change the name despite twice having new owners. Tom and Millie were once married and spent so much time on their business that they rarely saw each other except to complain about which business was better for the town. Their divorce was expected. Originally it was called Millie’s bakery and Tom’s barbershop, but in a somewhat sadistic twist of comical justice, Judge Lancet awarded Millie her husband’s barbershop and Tom the bakery. They spent so much time trying to make sure the other one didn’t ruin the original business that they ended up falling in love again.
At the end of the block is a stop sign. This part of the test requires the least amount of skill. Well-coached drivers know to look both ways twice. An overly meticulous or passively vindictive driving instructor has been known to miss the motion of the driver’s head looking both ways. However, it’s hard for driving instructors to miss a driver staring in their direction twice while a car is stopped. The Johnson family taught all twelve of their children to look three times while their mom stood on the corner with a Polaroid camera. Each Johnson child that passed within the first three attempts has a picture of that moment on the kitchen refrigerator.
Another right turn to the corner of the block. There’s no stop sign or traffic light present. The challenge is to not drive through the bumpy section of the brick crosswalk and avoid the large, bronze World War II monument without falling prey to the steep dip in the road that funnels the town’s rainwater.
Anyone who doesn’t slow down from 15 mph to 5 mph is asking for possible damage to a fender, potential passenger-side suspension issues, or a not-so-subtle grimace by the driving instructor. Car repairs are one thing, but the not-so-subtle grimace by the driving instructor is another. The not-so-subtle grimace by driving instructors is usually followed by not-so-subtle insurance claims for physical therapy.
Another right turn to park at the broken 1964 parking meter in front of Ralph’s tobacco shop. Inside the shop is a picture of James Dean lighting a cigarette at the meter. Each year there’s a special commemoration that ends in a fight over whether the meter should be repaired or made into a historical landmark. Parking within 3 inches of the meter is grounds for failing the test. However, parking more than 18 inches away can also lead to failure unless the side view mirror was classified as a threat to the James Dean Parking meter.
A driver then signals to re-enter the street and proceeds to another 4-way stop. At this stop, the faces of friends, enemies, relatives, and neighbors begin to appear during the final turn of the Wooten driving test.
While turning back onto Main street, it’s hard for any driver to ignore the densely packed throng on the south side. Those that failed the first time or have yet to take the test, watch from the south side of Main street.
Oliver has 23 relatives watching from the southside. He tried not to notice all three generations of his family holding hand-made signs that were all older than him. His family was not alone. There were over 2000 people on the south side of Main street.
Only two or three dozen people stood on the north side. If anyone wanted to observe well-seasoned pride thinly masked by exaggerated cheering, the people who passed the test the first time personified it. They took plenty of pictures in between their yells of encouragement, fast-paced clapping, and dramatic fist pumps. The town knew that the ones who passed the test the first time didn’t want anyone else to pass the test. The ones who passed the test the first time also knew to never admit this truth. Admitting it could mean losing long-time customers from a business, losing long-time friends from childhood, or even losing family members. It is not unwise to intentionally fail in your first attempt if your grandparent ever shared that a major regret in life was not passing the Wooten driving test the first time.
What makes the last leg of the driving test most difficult is the sunlight coming from the East into the traffic light. The red, yellow, and green lights seem to illuminate at the same time. The combination of the shallow casing around the three lights, the translucent colored glass used for each light, and the positioning of the Sun between 10:10 a.m. and 10:15 a.m. is a visual nightmare.
Oliver focuses on calming his body, keeping his speed steady, and remembering all the advice he heard over the last seven years. Mr. Weems shifts all of his attention to Oliver’s eyes to see if his eyes are on driving the last leg or searching for a tip from a strategically planted informant from the left-side of the street. It was not unusual for a picture from those who passed the test the first time to show south side of the street evidence of impropriety the next day.
If Oliver somehow passed, it would mean his family would no longer be seen as part of the unspoken Wooten under-class. Among the 23 family members on the south side of the street are scientists, philanthropists, and other well-respected civic leaders. In any other town but Wooten, they would have monuments, banners, or scholarships attached to their names.
The bitter mixture of hope and shame in the chest of every one of his 23 relatives found its way into Oliver’s throat. He swallowed hard hoping his actions were seen as just a swallow.
He could hear the beating of his heart as he tightened his grip on the steering wheel. The stress was becoming intolerable and he felt a sharp pain in his right leg. He released just a little on the gas and then he heard Mr. Weems swear under his breath. It was an odd-sounding curse word from Mr. Weems who was also among those who passed the test the first time.
It wasn’t the type of curse word you’d hear when someone drives too close to the James Dean parking meter. That type of curse word is involuntary and hard to muffle. It wasn’t even the type of curse word someone made when driving too fast around the monument or staring too long into the sun. Those types of curse words have a timbre of regret to their tone. It was more like the curse words Old Man Johnson would use to try and convince a passerby that it was in their best interest to do the opposite of what they were doing.
Oliver was afraid and desperately wanted to accelerate. However, something in Mr. Weems’ tone suggested he wanted him to accelerate in order to fail. Oliver allowed the car to continue slowing and came to a full stop at the traffic light. He looked over to Mr. Weems whose eyes were now quadruple the size of any normal human. All Oliver could do to keep from laughing was look up at the traffic light. Oliver figured, even if he did fail, the story of Mr. Weems’ eyes would mean everything to his family. He had to use every muscle in his body to squelch the urge to burst out laughing.
At that moment, he noticed it. The light turned from red to green.