“That best portion of a good man’s life,
his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”
from Tintern Abbey by William Wordsworth
In the South of 1970, rites of passage for young men had largely been abandoned, or at least they had been in the middle class world of my North Carolina hometown, Mt. Olive. However, the ritual that came closest to marking the transition from boyhood to manhood was getting a driver’s license. Even now, from a distance of over three decades, I still vividly remember the urgency and anticipation I felt at the coming of my sixteenth birthday that August. The days seemed all the longer that summer because most of my classmates were older than I was and had already gotten their driver’s licenses. I dreamed about the day when I could affirmatively answer the question, “Did you get them?” A driver’s license was always referred to in the plural because it was not just a license, but a passport to all the freedoms, powers, and adventures, but none of the responsibilities, of manhood.
A major obstacle between my driver’s license and me was the unalterable fact that the DMV Examining Office in Mt. Olive was only open every other Thursday. My sixteenth birthday fell on a Tuesday following one of these Thursdays and I was going to have to wait a full nine days before I could earn that manly privilege of driving solo. The only thing I really wanted for my sixteenth birthday was to go someplace where I could take my driver’s license test. But I knew there was no place for that sort of frivolity in our household. So, I reconciled myself to wait out the nine days in silence.
During that long summer before my sixteenth birthday, I worked in my father’s wholesale warehouse. I helped drivers load and unload trucks and gathered goods for delivery to Dad’s customers. I trolleyed huge pallets of merchandise to the loading dock. There they were loaded onto trucks for delivery to the country stores that we restocked each week with such staples of country living as cigarettes, chewing tobacco, snuff, Vienna sausages, pork & beans, nickel crackers, tobacco twine, feed, soap, bleach, vinegar, salt, sugar, and flour. On the morning of my sixteenth birthday, I reported to work at the usual time, 7:00 a.m. Dad generally came to his store between eight and nine, but on that morning, my birthday, he arrived at 7:30 a.m. and was looking for me. Upon finding me, he said that I had to go to Goldsboro to take my driver’s license test. The reason offered for the urgency was that he had already given one of his truck drivers Friday off and I would have to make this man’s deliveries. He specified Goldsboro, because this grand metropolis--a distant fourteen miles away--had a driver’s license office that was open every weekday.
So off we went, and we arrived at the Goldsboro driver’s license office at 8:00 a.m. sharp, just as it opened. (The term “sharp” dated from Dad’s years in the Marine Corps. He appended it to arrival and departure times, especially in the morning, in an enduring display of optimism, undimmed in the face of the daily chaos that accompanied any movement of “the troops,” his seven kids.) I took the driver’s test, passed, paid my $3.25, and received my driver’s license. I still have my receipt for the $3.25 fee dated 8-17-1970, my sixteenth birthday.
Dad even let me drive back to Mt. Olive. I was very happy. That evening, when I drove myself to football practice, I was consumed by that curious combination of bashful pride and intense self-consciousness that seems to perpetually plague teen-age boys. But in no time, I was driving around with one arm on the wheel and the other resting on the open window, acting as if I had been driving for years.
In the years since that glorious morning, a few holes have appeared in my father’s justification for making me take my driver’s license test on my sixteenth birthday. Dad was no fool--he wasn’t about to let his inexperienced sixteen-year-old son drive one of his trucks. I didn’t know how to drive any sort of standard transmission, let alone the split axle transmission on his trucks. And, I didn’t even know the Friday route of the driver I was supposedly replacing. Despite the flaws in my father’s purported rational, glaringly obvious in retrospect, at the time I wasn’t about to challenge any reasoning that led to the conclusion that I had to take my driver’s test on my birthday. Dad could have based his actions on the explanation that he needed me to make a delivery to the Moon and I would have accepted it without hesitation or question.
Without my saying a single word, my father knew how important getting that driver’s license was to me. He decided that taking an hour or two out of his day was a small price to pay for the joy it would give me. Despite his responsibilities as a husband, father of seven, head of the family business, and caretaker for his aging father, he still found time to fulfill his youngest child’s unspoken wish. Dad probably doesn’t even remember this story. But not because of failing memory, but because it was just one of the innumerable occasions where he anticipated my wants, needs, and desires; even before I understood what they were.
That best portion of a good man’s life . . ..