Unless you lived in Smiley in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I'm betting I'm the only person you know who learned to drive from a Catholic priest. Father Charles Pugh from the St. Phillips Catholic Church of Smiley was the local Driver's Education teacher, holding classes in the summer just after the close of the normal school year.
I was a late bloomer in the driving department for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, our family only had one vehicle and there was no reason for me to learn to drive since the vehicle was in the constant company of my father on his appointed pastoral rounds.
Secondly, my father had managed to scare the absolute puke out of me on the one occasion he had offered to let me behind the wheel. For some reason he had gotten it into his head that I should back the car out of the driveway one day, I guess to pique my interest in learning to drive. However, when he told me to step on the gas after instructing me to put the car in reverse, he panicked as soon as the car started moving. (He was standing outside the car, not riding inside with me where he should have been.) Yelling at me to "hit the brake!" and simultaneously hanging onto the open window and dragging his feet like he had a prayer of stopping the car the way you would a runaway bicycle, he scared me so bad that I forgot what a brake was for a few seconds. Which panicked him worse, which panicked me worse, and it went downhill from there. I never cleared the driveway, but it was a tossup which of us was more discombobulated when it was over. I swore off driving for the time being.
When I finished my Junior year of High School, it could no longer be put off. It was my last chance to take Driver's Ed, so I enrolled. I was probably the only 17 year old in town who wasn't already buzzing around in the family car illegally. I was definitely the only 17 year old I knew who had never really even tried driving. I gritted my teeth and told my father that I needed a quick driving lesson so that I didn't go into the class completely ignorant. This time the driving lesson went without incident. (This was not exactly the case later on when Daddy bought himself an old Ford pickup with standard transmission and insisted I try learning to drive a stick shift. He had me drive it to the city dump, probably about 5 miles away, but he drove back. He was afraid he wouldn't have a transmission left if he didn't. I think I might be able to learn now that I know more about driving and gears, but at this point I'll probably never have another chance.)
Poor Father Pugh earned his money that year. After passing my written test with flying colors, I was partnered with 3 younger girls and our driving practice was no end of giggles. We drove the back roads around Smiley, over to Yorktown, over to Nixon, almost to Gonzales, and managed not to kill ourselves in the process no matter how much we tried. I can remember a hair-raising attempt to parallel park that resulted in the one and only time Father Pugh used his teacher brake. I wasn't doing badly, but it was a tight squeeze and he got a bit nervous. I can remember pulling out in front of a chicken truck and then freezing for a second when I suddenly decided I didn't have enough time to merge into traffic. Debating whether to go forward or swing into reverse and back up, I was told to floor it and I did.
My night driving practice was a trip. I have a bit of night-blindness and I am a very cautious driver after dark. I was paired that night with a boy a year behind me who probably had been driving for years. I did my pokey little lady routine for a 20-30 minute period while Shannon sat in the back seat and didn't say a word. When he took over, we made the trip back to our starting point in a third of the time. I have to hand it to him, he never snickered once.
The day finally came when the class was over and we were ready to take our driving tests. I was escorted over to the Gonzales courthouse by my parents and even though I was nervous, I really had never met a test I couldn't pass. Until that day, that is. Later on I learned that they made it a standard practice to take the new drivers straight into the parallel parking test, where if you made it through, you pretty much had the rest of the test made. The weird thing is that I did the parking part flawlessly. But then, in my nervous state, I forgot to put the car into parking gear. When I started to exit the space, it rolled backwards briefly because I was still in reverse. He flunked me, even though I immediately caught it and did the rest perfectly.
It was a hard pill to swallow, but it turned out that about 50 percent of the new drivers did something unforgiveable while parallel parking, so I wasn't alone. A couple of weeks later, I was not so flawless in the parking part, but I didn't forget any of the steps and I passed. In the years to come, I became a professional parallel parker and I can put my vehicle into a spot with 2-inches to spare on each end. Not that there's much opportunity to parallel park anymore.
I heard someone say one time how many miles a driver has to drive to become a competent driver. I've forgotten what that number is, but I estimate that I've driven about 3/4 million miles at this point in my life and regardless of what the men in my circle think, I'm a good driver. I wonder sometimes how Father Pugh managed to live through the years he sat beside the students taking their first driving steps, and I think of him every now and then when I see something on my way that reminds me of things he taught us. And every time I pass the Gonzales courthouse, I remember the agony of defeat and the thrill of victory.