Joseph Leverette: Memoir : January 2021

I know what it feels like to walk barefooted behind my daddy while he plows that red Georgia clay on a hot summer day. That fresh turned dirt was cool on my feet, and a feeling like no other for a little boy. You can’t go back in time but I am southern all the time.

Education in Driving

The three-point-turn. Turn left, turn right, back up, turn left, then go.  Learning that standard method for turning a car around in Driver’s Education in the High School was a basic requirement. But, I learned much more in that class – just how deadly an automobile can be. 

Mr. Remus was my driver’s education teacher. He had been a local sports legend way before my time. Legend had it that he played professional football for the Chicago Cardinals back in the late 1940’s.   During my time in the mid-1980’s he was apparently riding out the final years of his teaching career with a bunch teenage want-to-be drivers.  Coach Remus, as we called him even though he hadn’t coached anything in twenty years, was in pretty bad health.  His six-foot former athletic body was nearing 400 pounds by the time he was my teacher. He complained of bad knees that he said was the result of, “chop blocking for Charley Trippi while playing the game for peanuts.” However, his breathing seemed to be the biggest health issue. The coach was a heavy smoker, and it was painful listening to him just trying to get out a wheezy sentence.  I am sure the guy had what we call today C.O.P.D. – Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.  

A requirement to pass the class was two hours of actual driving with the instructor – old Coach Hard Breather. The public-school system provided a gliding hunk of steel for the purpose of completing the academic necessity.  A two-door, brown 1972 Chevy Malibu with vinyl bench seats and no air conditioner was the tax dollar provided vehicle.  The car had a musty smell, kind of like someone had left a pair of old, wet shoes in the car on a hot day. Only the best for training a future generation of competent drivers.  The car did have an AM radio with an old 8-track cartridge player, but the radio had bad reception -mostly static. The only clear signal the radio could receive was a classical musical station, so it was useless to Guns N’ Roses fans.  The vehicle did have one unique customized option – it had a second brake petal installed on the passenger’s side so the driving instructor could stop the vehicle when needed.  It was definitively needed while co-piloting driver education students.

Once we had completed our class room driving instructions, we were put in groups of threes to get some real driving time with Coach Remus. If we were lucky, we got to practice driving once a week. The coach had a pretty hard time getting into the front passenger seat of the vehicle – bad knees and all. He stood for a moment balanced by the open door, one foot in the Malibu, and then dropped down heavily into the ripped vinyl seat. The seat groaned in protest. He was determined to go driving and his motivation was nicotine.  While the students and teachers were allowed in smoke cigarettes at school, it could only be done in a designated smoking area for the students, and in the teachers’ lounge for the faculty. Old Coach Remus needed a smoke, and a nice leisurely drive provided him the freedom to burn’em down.  

After the four of us got settled in comfortably and fastened our lap seat belts properly, a halo of smoke began to form. Coach Remus struggled out his commands while lipping a Kool. 

“Put’t in gear, turn it out,” he wheezed out choppy instruction to the driver in training. We where quickly off for our compulsory driver training. 

It was great to be away from school for a little while, and we all felt pretty cool just cruising around the neighborhoods near the campus.  Coach was calmer than expected during these adventurous driving expeditions.  He had been conducting these trips for a very long time, and the supply of cancerous air undoubtably steadied his nerves. 

Coach Remus was a good guy, and us kids liked him for the most part, but he had certain rules when we were driving that we didn’t particularly like.  Hands always at ten and two o’clock on the wheel, no speeding, and no talking, other than about football, while driving were a few of his rules. But the ruled we disliked the most was no playing music on the radio. If a student touched that radio, the ire of a former professional left guard would immediately be upon the offender.  Coach Remus apparently preferred peace and quiet while smoking his cancer sticks and getting paid to cruise the town. How can a teen driver learn realistic skills without music playing?  

The no radio rule was tested one fine autumn afternoon.  My group had been driving around about ten minutes when Coach Remus reached up to his front shirt pocket for his second coffin nail of the trip. He discovered a major problem; he had run out of smokes.  This was going be a very long drive with a grumpy down lineman if the problem was not resolved quickly.

Lucky for Coach Remus and us, one of my classmates in the car, Steven, was a smoker in training as well as a driver in training.  He had a fresh pack of Camels with him, and made Coach Remus an offer he was not going to refuse.  Steven told our panicking instructor he would trade him two cigarettes for the pleasure of being able to listen to some music while we were driving.  

“Okay, okay, just give’m here, and turn left at stop sign,” Coach Remus said as his panic from lack of access to tobacco began to lessen.          

I think Steven had been waiting for an opportunity to strike a bargain for our musical enjoyment.  He reached into his backpack that he had in the back seat of the Malibu and produced an 8-track cassette from the rock band Styx, and quickly plunged it into the AM stereo.  Steven said he had borrowed the music from his older sister, and it was her favorite 8-track from an aging collection of soon to be classic rock.   

The first song starting playing, and we were motoring down the highway to “Renegade.”  Coach Remus frowned as he took his next puff, but the driver trainees were smiling from ear to ear. We were smiling so wide that our teeth could have popped out.  

Steven, who was driving, was singing along happily to the music but started to cough from his early formation of black lung.  The combination of rock music, cigarette smoke, and coughing must have become a cognitive distraction. A small black dog jetted out in front of the Malibu, and it was Coach Remus who slammed on the brake from the passenger’s side.  He was too late.  There was a screeching of tires, then a thump and a yelp. Steven had hit the poor little mutt square and hard with the Malibu.  

We all stared straight ahead in silence; unsure of what to do next. The Coach lit his second negotiated cigarette. The dog was laying on the asphalt ten feet in front of the car.  It was not moving.   

“U boys check it out,” Remus instructed in a raspy voice.

The three of us exited the vehicle to inspect the animal while Coach Remus continued to drag down a Camel Joe as he sat in the front seat.  We quickly report back that the dog appeared to be dead.

“U sure?” Coach asked in the haze from the lung dart.  

Steven reported in distressed voice, “The poor little fella’s tongue is hanging out of its mouth and it was not breathing. It was an accident.”

“It dead then. Got a collar?” We told our driving instructor there was no collar or name tag or anything of the such.  “Load it up in the trunk,” he then ordered as he handed Steven the keys to open the trunk compartment.

We did as we were ordered and gingerly loaded the fleecy dead animal into the back of the Malibu. We are all quite ready to return to school at that point, especially Steven. 

As we slowly approached the school, Coach Remus instructed me, as I driving the car by then, to pull around behind the lunchroom.  When we got near the lunchroom, Coach Remus directed me to back up to a big green dumpster. I had to do a three-point turn for the maneuverer. Not a word was spoken by anyone.  The victim of our driver training was unceremoniously placed in the dumpster, as the coach finished his last few drags on a Camel.  I then drove the Malibu back to the driver’s education classroom.

Come sail away, Come sail away, Come sail away with me,” was blasting from the speakers of the Malibu when I put the car in park and killed the engine.