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Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride

By J.J. Gasparotti

Anyone who attended high school in Laguna Beach during a certain time had Mr. Ferguson’s driver education class. This was a sublime high school class experience because it allowed students to lollygag about in the back seat of the cheapest car the district could find while some other classmate drove it around the village.

None who had that class will ever forget Mr. Ferguson’s incantation for shifting a three-speed manual transmission on the steering column, “For first and reverse gear your palm should face you, and for second and third gear, your palm should face the windshield.” Really useful stuff in today’s era of 10-speed automatic transmissions.

Fergy did have one little trick he saved for his special students, the wise guys. He’d have them drive around down by the canyon, and then on the way back to school, the route would take them up Third Street. Once they were half way up, he’d have them stop the car and then restart it up the hill.

This was tons of fun in a manual transmission with three peddles, the brake, the clutch, and the gas, but only two feet to operate them with and a driver possessing only 20 minutes time behind the wheel. They could always roll back down the hill, protected by the big student driver sign on the trunk lid and accompanied by much derision from classmates presently lollygaging about in the back seat.

Today’s student drivers take private driver instruction courses. Public schools rarely offer this instruction anymore. There’s no AP at the DMV.  Instead we send our student drivers off to the tender mercies of someone who immigrated to the U.S. two weeks ago, by an uncanny stroke of luck passed their drivers license test a week ago, and are currently learning English as a third language, teaching others to drive. We shouldn’t be surprised at the resulting legions of bad drivers, always texting.

Back when we were first entering the automobile age, the second car in St. Louis ran into the first car, 15 minutes after it arrived in town. That’s progress. Today we’re in the period where it doesn’t seem like they put brakes or turn signals in big expensive luxury cars, just a powerful motor and a loud horn.

Then there’s the world famous intersection of Glenneyre and Thalia streets. This gem is designed just perfectly for those who don’t want to make eye contact or await their turn. There’s no neighbors or friends at this intersection. Fergy knew what to do—press the accelerator.

J.J. Gasparotti moved to Laguna Beach with his family when he was 11 years old. He has loved it ever since.

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