“No, Mr. Wishard…” By Henry Regehr
Bob Newhart immeasurably raised the public image of driving instructors when he unveiled his famous monologue about those brave souls who “face death in a thousand ways and never know if they will return home at night”. In 1955 I started my summer job, driving the famous white Joe Vine Diving School cars with their dual controls around Winnipeg, and Bob Newhart understood.
“No, Mr. Wishard, you can’t make a left turn on this street”. I spoke quietly but tensely, holding my side of the dual steering wheel. “That is a one-way street”.
“But the cop just made the turn”, he shouted back, still putting all his energy into trying to turn the steering wheel while I wrestled with keeping it immobile.
“Did you notice that the cop had his siren on?”, I responded, trying to remain calm, still clutching the wheel. “And did you notice the cop had a lot of red lights flashing?”
This was our third lesson, and I was starting to feel more confident as a driving instructor. My dream summer job would allow me to be doing what I loved: drive a car. The Joe Vine Driving School gave me that happy opportunity and siting on the instructor’s side of the familiar white car would now be part of my new adventure. It was a perfect fit.
Mr. Wishard was a middle-aged man, short and overweight, with strong muscles. He had recently inherited some money and decided that it was time to buy his first car, learn to drive, in that order, and enjoy his new-found wealth. He had bought his dream car, now sitting in his garage, so we were both living our personal dreams.
But he had an authority problem.
When Mr. Wishard finally gave up, well past the intersection, and took more reasonable control of the wheel, he kept loudly arguing that, if the cop could do it, so could he. Since I had now become the authority figure, the colorful language was directed at me.
“Why are you taking the side of the cop?” he shouted. It was my opportunity to learn quiet diplomacy. I asked him to pull over to the side of the road, and we had a “time out” where we both settled down, had a reasoned discussion about cops, safety, and following the rules of the road.
Learning to parallel park was a hurdle. I set out the tall poles that could easily be seen by most students, described in drawings what was expected, and coached him through the first attempts.
“I can’t see the darn posts” he repeated many times, using more colorful language, as he knocked down the posts, or drove over them, or missed them by far too much. Each time I would patiently get out of the car, reset the posts, straiten them out when necessary, and would say, “That was a better try. Now let’s do that again but do it more slowly. You don’t need to accelerate nearly as much and always be ready to put your foot on the brake instead of pressing the gas pedal. Did you notice that we had overshot the parking spot”? I did not say aloud that the boss was getting tired of replacing the poles.
“Why do I have to learn to parallel park?” he demanded. “I have my own garage at home, and on the street, I’ll drive around till I find and easy place to stop”.
I learned to simply listen and get on with the lesson. I had my own authority issues which needed attention.
And then there was Mrs. Pesch. At age fifty-five her husband decided that it was time for her to drive and had tried, apparently unsuccessfully, to pass on his skills to her. I had noticed them at the Driver Test office after she had failed the exam. To be gentle about it, they were both looking very discouraged. The husband seemed to gaze for a long time at one of our white cars, as though he was working out a plan. Now, through the grapevine, I had known about this pair and recognized them. I had an odd panic grip me, but the fates had already decided. Two days later I found that she had been assigned to be my student. I was worried, but she was terrified. Deep breathing exercises at the beginning of each lesson could help only so much for both of us. I quietly and frequently thanked Joe Vine for adding a brake pedal on my side of the car. We stopped at intervals for her to catch her breath but gradually, over the weeks we both settled into a more even routine and within a few months she was ready to try parallel parking. I was confident enough, after several successful attempts, to step out of the car, like other instructors were doing next to us, while Mrs. Pesch did a solo try. It was a mistake. Panic gripped her. She put a tense foot on the accelerator and in terror began shifting the gears on the steering column, in quick succession from drive to reverse to drive while I, unable to get into the car, coached her in a somewhat calm voice to take her foot of the gas and put it on the brake. Other instructors next to me were standing on the sidewalk staring in terror at this near-death experience. Finally, I was able to coax Mrs. Pesch to move her foot and the car slowed its rocking enough for me to jump into the instructor’s side and take control of the car and save my job.
It was a grand occasion when I took her to the driving test, a few months later, and she and the examiner came back safely from the test. Not only safely but successfully, a triumph for both of us.
These were early lessons in the psychology of drivers and people in general. They were my first experiences in understanding people in moments of distress, like the man who had been involved in an accident that took the life of a child. He had not driven for ten years since then. I learned to let him blame the car we were driving for the anxiety he was feeling. I was unable to help the man who, after a lesson, asked if I could refer him to a young prostitute. I was able to teach a police officer, a former London Bobby, to drive a Canadian police car. I met a priest who wanted to convert me to the Roman tradition, and a man who had recently been discharged from a mental hospital who needed an understanding person next to him.
At the end of four summers, a degree and a job in sight, I graduated from driving school.