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With a crank and a jump

I REMEMBER when I first got my driver's license. That was many, too many, summers ago in my home-town, Los Angeles. Getting a driver's license is an ``event'' in the life of a teen-ager; something like a bar mitzvah or a debutante's coming-out party. It projects the teen-ager from a world of irresponsibility into one of responsibility. I hope. I'm reminded of the importance of all this because I have a bevy of teen-age grandchildren who have been getting their licenses. They have been attending driver-training classes, taking tests, running down birth certificates, and generally creating chaos among their families; among their grandparents, too.

In Los Angeles, I prepared for my driver's license in somewhat different fashion. During the summer before my 16th birthday, I amassed a fortune of $20. I invested this magnificent sum in a Model T Ford that had been sitting in semi-retirement in a neighbor's back-yard. It was somewhat inelegant, as it had no rear fenders, no top, a rusty paint job, and was adorned with cobwebs and dust, but when I paid the $20, it was mine. All mine.

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I should emphasize that this was a Model T; not the later Model A. The Model A was quite a car, whereas the Model T was not quite a car. It's the ``tin lizzie'' that Ford put out for years on end. There was no need for a designer. They were all the same. Over a 10-year span of production all parts were interchangeable. This was my good fortune, for after a few trips to the wrecking yard and the Western Auto store, I had my vehicle whipped into operating shape.

Although all Model T's were basically the same, they all seemed to have individual eccentricities. One thing was certain though: They kicked furiously when being cranked, which caused would-be crankers to approach this starting mechanism very carefully. Also, it was virtually impossible to keep a Model T in neutral, so after cranking it, the operator sometimes had to dodge to avoid being run down.

The most interesting part of the design, though, was the absence of a door on the driver's side. Ford made a raised bead on the side of the body simulating a door, but no door. So after the operator had risked his life cranking, then jumping aside, he had to vault over the side, behind the wheel, and then man the controls. This was a job made for a teen-ager, no doubt.

The summer waxed and waned, and I took trial trips in my vehicle around and about the local area. My driver training was in the hands of a few older friends who had already gained their licenses. We studied the niceties of start, stop, and watch the corners. We also burnished up a few hand signals.

In the meantime, I had discovered an eccentric tendency in my car. It would start missing at embarrassing times. One cylinder would cut out, and the whole motor would start jerking and throbbing.

I discovered it was the third cylinder by taking a hammer and holding the head to the spark plug and then grounding it on the motor head. Whenever the missing occurred, I simply pulled to the side of the road, took out the spark plug, and cleaned it, and I would soon be on the road again.

So, after my neighborhood course in basic mechanics and driver training, and after my 16th birthday, I toured into downtown Los Angeles to get my license. It was a warm Saturday morning in September, and the Department of Motor Vehicles was in the center of town at Tenth and Flower streets. I parked at the curb in front of the building, went in and took the written test, and was ushered back out by an official to take the driving test.

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He looked a little startled when he saw what he was going to have to ride in, but he has game. However, he didn't offer to get into the car until I had started it.

I set the spark and gas feed and marched bravely to the front and started cranking. Nothing happened. I cranked again. Nothing. I pulled out the choke and cranked again. Still nothing. Whereas I had been sweating from nervousness before, now I was sweating from exercise. The clock had run down from 10 to 12 to about 2 minutes to 12 when I finally admitted defeat.

``It won't start till I clean the plugs,'' I told the examiner.

He smiled and nodded. Apparently he knew Model T's. Then wonder of wonders, he said I wouldn't be here if I didn't know how to drive, so he gave me my license after all, and went in and closed the office.

I was left out on Flower Street with the hood up cleaning a spark plug. It was the third cylinder all right.

Then, with the first turn of the crank, the motor started, and I trundled off around the corner in a cloud of smoke and up Figueroa Street. At Seventh, I got stopped by a traffic signal. In those days the signals were little arms. The red one said ``Stop'' and the white one said ``Go.'' Obviously, they worked oppositely. There was a slight uphill incline at this corner, and when the white showed and I started to go, I killed the engine. I started to climb over the side to man the crank when a policeman standing on the corner signaled me to stay. He marched over, gave the crank a jerk, and the motor took off with a healthy roar. My rescuer smiled and waved me on my way.

Getting my driver's license was an ``event'' all right, but what I remember is the kindliness of the examiner and the policeman who were so pleasantly patient with a 16-year-old who was having trouble with his Model T.

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