Driving Ambition; The test is a rite of passage that takes teen-agers from youth to adulthood in the blink of ... a blinker. It only seems like forever.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You remember the feeling: hands trembling slightly, butterflies doing a trapeze act in your stomach, a vaguely metallic taste in your mouth.

It was your 16th birthday, a freezing day in December, snow light as talcum powder dusting the sides of the roads. You were about to take your road test. The Holy Grail of suburban adolescence -- a driver's license -- was shimmering, finally, within your grasp.

Your tester was a small, frail-looking man with a face like one of those brooding stone statues on Easter Island, only not as cheerful. Jenkins, he said his name was as the two of you climbed into your mom's Falcon Futura -- MISTER Jenkins. "Ready?" he asked in a clipped, officious voice.

God, that was nearly 30 years ago, and yet the memory remains vivid. So much about the world has changed. Does the road test still inspire such full-blown anxiety? Is getting your driver's license still a big deal? Still the Holy Grail for young people in the age of 300 cable channels, Nintendo 64, the Internet? You wanted some answers.

So you went and found a kid going for his road test. And what you discovered is this: Much about this achingly familiar rite of passage has changed with time.

But some things have changed barely at all.

It's a little after 3: 30 on a weekday afternoon when Jon- athan Cichon noses his mother's 1995 Jeep Grand Cherokee into the parking lot of the Motor Vehicle Administration's Bel Air branch on West MacPhail Road.

Today is his 16th birthday. It's the day he's pointed toward for months. If all goes well, he'll pass his 4 p.m. road test and receive his provisional driver's license. His dad plans to take him to a sushi restaurant in Cockeysville to celebrate.

But right now, Jon looks as if there might be a dead fish decomposing on the dashboard. Which is to say he looks slightly queasy.

"I'm OK," he insists as he jumps from the Jeep and his mom alights from the front passenger seat. "I'm not really nervous. I know what I'm doing.'

"I think he's a little nervous, especially with you here," whispers his mother, Terry Cichon, to a Sun reporter and photographer.

This is just what every kid needs, of course: a man with a notebook and another with a Nikon wide-angle lens tailing him as he takes his driver's test. But Jon seems an unusually composed young man; weeks earlier, he'd agreed to let the newspaper chronicle his road test. And while he's understandably a tad jittery at this moment, he also seems quietly confident and eager to get on with things.

More than 40,000 provisional driver's licenses were issued in Maryland last year, and on this sunny, unseasonably warm winter day, Jon Cichon hopes to get his.

A snapshot biography: Jon lives in Baldwin. Junior at Dulaney High School. B to B-plus student. Works part-time at McDonald's. Three brothers, all younger. His father, Richard, is vice president of sales and marketing for Great Coastal, a trucking company. His mother is a reading specialist at Perry Hall Elementary School.

All in all, he considers himself an average kid. He says he's been thinking about this day since ninth grade. But when you ask what getting a driver's license means to him, there is no existential blather about freedom, the lure of the open road, blah, blah, blah.

"Basically, it means not having to ask for rides, and set up rides with my mom or dad or friends," he says.

As with anyone under 18 applying to take the road test, Jon was required to take an approved driver education course (his was at Bentley Driver Training School in Cockeysville). This consists of 30 hours of classroom instruction and six hours of behind-the-wheel training.

Then he got his learner's permit, and after school and on weekends, he practiced on the rural roads around northern Baltimore County. But he also learned the peculiar joys of Beltway driving and the notorious Towson traffic roundabout, where cars shoot in and out at random and a singular thought screams through every motorist's brain: Am I going to die?

There were the usual jangled nerves whenever the new driver drove his parents anywhere, a reaction that seems genetically hard-wired from one generation to the next.

One night, after Jon got off work at the McDonald's in Jacksonville. his dad let him drive home. But from the moment he guided the car into the inky darkness of Sweet Air Road, there were problems: "It was kind of rough. I kept forgetting to turn the high beams off. I was too close to the yellow lines. My dad wasn't flipping out, but he wasn't sitting back calm, either."

There was another Kodak Moment between father and son the first time Jon drove on the Beltway. As Jon recalls: "He kept saying: 'Get into this lane. Now get into this lane. Put your blinker on. Check your mirror. Look behind you.' But overall ... he was calmer than I was."

Still, Jon's first weeks as a novice driver have gone smoothly enough. But right now, he is fidgeting in the bright sunlight outside the MVA office, waiting to meet the person who holds the key to his immediate future.

Striding toward him in a brown uniform is Carol Bindel.

She does not look happy. Then again, she does not look sad. She is expressionless, neutral in demeanor, professional in bearing. She is the Driver License Examiner.

Jon stares at her for several seconds. He will carry the image of her in his mind for a long, long time.

In the Falcon that day, an eerie quiet seemed to descend like a veil. Mr. Jenkins peered at you. You could smell his cough drop in the cold air. Luden's cherry. You made a big show of checking and adjusting the rearview mirror.

Your test took place right in the heart of a busy town of 15,000 in southern New York. You began the familiar sequence: Start the car. Put on your left-turn signal. Look over your left shoulder. Pull slowly away from the curb.

Hands at the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock positions on the steering wheel. God, you thought, don't forget that! One-hand that wheel, cowboy, and the tester might get so mad his head'll explode. Then you'd have to go to the Philippines to get a license.

"Go up to the stop sign and turn right," Mr. Jenkins said quietly. You could hear him breathing through his nose. Every one of your senses seemed heightened.

Yet somehow you also felt oddly detached from your surroundings, as if you were watching someone else drive a small blue car down a busy street.

In the Jeep Grand Cherokee, parked at the start of Test Course A, on a huge macadam lot bordering the branch office, Carol Bindel says to Jon: "Feel free to ask any questions."

He has none. The test begins.

Later, Jon will report that Bindel seemed "laid back" and "very nice," and that a remarkable feeling of calm enveloped him. Watching from a nearby bench, however, Terry Cichon has developed her own case of the jitters.

The Maryland driver's test is concise, a basic test of a motorist's skills: starting a vehicle, stopping it, backing up, turning, parking, etc. A no-problem test takes an experienced examiner about 10 minutes to conduct. Points are deducted from a starting score of 100 for various mistakes -- failure to use a turn signal, improper stop, etc. If 16 points are deducted, the applicant fails.

No one pretends it's very difficult. There is no driving at highway speeds, no driving in traffic. This is not the FBI Evasive Driving Course. If you can't pass, you should probably operate nothing more challenging than a Schwinn 10-speed.

A few minutes into the test, Jon is breezing. He stops and backs up the Jeep easily in a straight line. He does the 3-point turn well, even though the Grand Cherokee has about the turning radius of the Queen Mary.

His confidence soars. Yet somewhere in the back of his mind, a voice whispers like a tease on the 11 o'clock news: "Coming up next -- parallel parking."

Oh, old man Jenkins, he played it so cool, didn't he? You were doing OK on your test, relaxing a little, enough to sneak a peek at some of the store windows.

Then in the middle of Main Street, Mr. Jenkins cleared his throat and said casually: "Parallel park between those two cars." Was that a hint of a smile forming on his lips?

The space looked too small for a motorcycle, let alone the Falcon. You could hear your heart beating now -- thumpa-thumpa-thumpa -- and you prayed the sound would be drowned out by the car's heater.

You hit your turn signal and pulled parallel to the car in front of the space. Slowly you backed up and cut the wheel. And with all the grace of a Conestoga wagon swinging about on the prairie, the rear of the Falcon inched slowly toward the curb.

"Dear God," you thought, "please don't let me hear that sound." That awful sound. Metal scraping concrete.

Silence never sounded so sweet.

In order to secure a Maryland driver's license, you must parallel park in a space 6 feet wide and 25 feet long. The car should end up 6 to 12 inches from the curb. As it has for generations, the entire exercise can be unnerving to even the best drivers.

If a tire climbs the curb, five points are deducted. Hop the curb, you fail. And the clock is ticking: If it takes you longer than three minutes, you lose points. Three to four minutes, you lose 10 points. Four to five minutes, you lose 13 points. After five minutes, you fail.

Jon Cichon knows all this; the many ways one can fail take on mythological proportions at driver training school. This is the only time his nerves will flare again, but only slightly.

"Just do it like you practiced," he thinks. Later he'll say: "I was on autopilot."

Using a technique he learned at Bentley, which involves looking in your left sideview mirror as you back in and locating certain checkpoints, then cutting the wheel, he maneuvers the big Jeep deftly into the space. Piece of cake.

One more stop sign, then Jon is directed to pull into a parking spot.

"Congratulations," says Carol Bindel. "You passed the test."

In all, Jon lost just seven points: five for hitting the curb during his parallel park ("I didn't feel a thing," he says) and two for not checking his mirror.

As Jon jumps from the Jeep, Terry Cichon asks: "How'd you do?" The answer is a smile on his face you want to paste in a scrapbook.

A few minutes later, after he has his picture taken and waits for his new license to be made up, he is reflective.

"I'm ... glad now that it's over," he says. "Relieved."

What else is he feeling? the reporter asks. Joy? Anticipation?

"Yeah," he says softly. "Both of those."

Mr. Jenkins, he was probably a hell of a card player. At the end of your test, he told you to pull the Falcon into a parking space behind the low-slung government building. Your mother was waiting inside.

Mr. Jenkins jotted something down on his clipboard. His face betrayed nothing. "You'll be notified by mail," is all he said.

A few days later, a letter arrived from the Motor Vehicle Bureau. You came home from school and tore it open, and you whooped and hollered.

You ran around the house to show everyone, except nobody was home, only the dog, and he didn't seem to care much about a stupid piece of paper that said you could now drive all by yourself.

But to you, it meant everything in the world.

Pub Date: 1/11/99

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