Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Bill Archer

January 14, 2013

Early challenges with learner’s permit sets course for life’s highway

A few weeks before Christmas, my wife picked out a small flashlight/key chain for our grandson Seth when we were Christmas shopping at New Graham Knives. We’ve always tried to shop locally as much as we can, and we’ve made New Graham Knives an important part of our Christmas shopping tradition.

When Evonda showed me the little flashlight she was buying for Seth, I thought that was nice, but asked what does he need a key chain for? She answered that Seth will be 15 on his birthday on Jan. 15 — that’s tomorrow — and he’ll be getting his learner’s permit soon. After I picked myself off the floor, I thought that we’re not old enough to have a grandchild driving. A moment later, I remembered how anxious I was to get my driver’s license when I was 15, and when I finally got my license, I had a lot more to worry about.

Back in the early ’60s in Pennsylvania, a 15-year-old could operate a motorcycle on a learner’s permit without an adult to supervise. I couldn’t wait to earn $75 so I could buy Larry Wycoff’s well-used and brush-painted Vespa motor scooter and start riding it to work and school. My dad was working at C. Powell Chevrolet, and he sold me three older model cars before I turned 16 — a 1957 Chevrolet station wagon, with the third bench seat facing out the rear window, for $25; a 1953 Dodge with a gyromatic shift for $25; and a 1953 Chrysler with a hemi engine for $75.

Mom forgot to set the parking brake on the Chrysler, and it drifted down Main Street and wrapped itself around a telephone pole. That really hurt my feelings because I had plans to make that car my primary ride, but I really didn’t mind. I still had a few months until I could take my driver’s exam so it was OK. At the rate I was going, I thought I would have an even better car when I passed my driver’s test.

I learned that I figured wrong when the Pennsylvania state trooper who conducted my test said I failed the written part. At that point in my life, I had been driving tractors for 6 or 7 years, but I missed two questions: “What is a safe speed for night-time driving?” and I forgot the other one. I had to wait six or eight weeks to take the test again, so I read the driver’s manual over and over again, and didn’t miss two questions on my second try. I missed the same question about the safe speed for night-time driving. It had been a two-parter. The trooper gave me partial credit and I passed. (Answer: “A speed where you can stop within the distance illuminated by your headlights, and the posted speed.”)

Once I got my junior operator’s license, I didn’t drive very much. I just needed to have my license mostly to get to work. I did, however, lose that license before I turned 18. There as a short three-lane stretch on U.S. Route 40 between my high school and my home, and I got a ticket for failure to drive to the right. I had put the old ’53 Dodge back in service and I was avoiding the ruts in the right lane caused by heavy truck traffic using that lane.

The trooper who arrested me wasn’t following me. He was parked behind some junk cars on the right side of the road about two-thirds of the way up the hill. I was in the wrong and I kept my mouth shut, but my mom kicked up a lot of sand a few months later when the state sent me a letter, revoking my junior license until I turned 18.

Of course, Mom couldn’t talk the state police out of revoking my license, but she was able to get them to delay the revocation until I went off to college. After another summer of working at Green Cove Farm, I drove to a church outing at Kennywood Park one Sunday afternoon in late August 1967, came back home, sold the Dodge and caught a ride to Morgantown with another kid from McGuffey High School who was also going to West Virginia. He was a sophomore and already had a car. I didn’t buy another car until a year after I flunked out of college. After that, I walked to work for six or seven months until I had enough money to buy my 1965 Corvair convertible. I later took summer school classes at WVU to build my GPA up high enough to earn another swing at life’s piñata.

Seth doesn’t seem too excited about getting his driver’s license, but he’s a lot more cerebral than I was at his age and I have always thought of him as one of those “still waters run deep” guys instead of the shallow rapids that characterized my late teenage years.

But each of us takes his or her own path on the way to becoming who we will be and the life of one person can’t be the blueprint for the life of another even if they’re family. My mother always repeated a saying that her mother told her. If you could put all the troubles of the world in one bag, and reach in that bag, you’ll pull your own troubles out every time. The amount of challenges you face in life doesn’t mean a thing. In the end, it’s the way that you face those challenges that makes all the difference.

Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at


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