I was looking at some very old pictures the other day and uncovered one that showed me standing beside a 1959 DeSoto and on the back Mother had written, “Doug, the day he got his driver’s license.”
That was a pretty big day for me, it is one of those passages that you go through that mark some of the pivotal moments in your life. The day a male teenager gets his driver’s license is monumental.
The entire U.S. was sort of a “car culture” back when I was a teenager. You Couldn’t turn the radio without hearing a song about fast cars or drag racing. Groups like the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, the Ripcords were all made wealthy from the play on the radio and the records they sold. It was a big deal in the movies too. Movies about juvenile delinquents and they always drove a fast, customized car.
However, as a young driver back then, you could not possibly be cool if you couldn’t “lay a patch” when you were behind the wheel. “Layin’ a patch had a lot of other names as well. You could “squeal out,” “peel rubber,” “grab a wheel,” “patch out,” or “mark a Firestone.” It all meant the same.
It meant you put the car in low gear, revved up the engine real good, and then quickly released (“popped”) the clutch. The tires would spin, the speedometer show about 65 but you just were standing still until the tires got more traction and the car took off. The burning rubber would peel right off and the high-pitched squeal (eeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrk) could be heard for blocks.
I am pretty sure that some major tire companies were kept in business for several years, (until we had to buy our own tires). If your car was “hot” enough to lay another patch in second, you were likely to get a mention in the yearbook.
The problem for me was that Pop never owned a cool car with a standard transmission. As a matter of fact, Pop never owned a cool car of any type. His cars when I was a teen. His cars were always big, ugly ones with four doors, big fins and automatic transmissions. I suspect that when he went to a car lot and asked the salesperson whether there as anything on the lot that was so ugly it wasn’t selling. I could have looked cooler wearing a hoop skirt than sitting behind the wheel of one of Dad’s cars.
The picture I referred to earlier was one of Dad’s uglier cars. That was me standing beside Pop’d 1959 DeSoto. That was the last years they made DeSotos – and for very good reason. It was just a mass of metal. I think they passed an anti-ugly law that sure so that such a hideous mass of steel as the DeSoto would never be made again. But that day, I put my license in my wallet and talk Pop into letting me take a short spin. Any car is cooler than walking!!
Minutes later I was behind the wheel, windows and my arm hanging out in an effort to look cool, or at least as cool as possible for some pimply faced youth to look when driving something as ugly as a Sherman Tank.
When I came around the corner by the pool hall there was a group of Senior boys sitting around there own personal cars, smoking Lucky Strikes with the pack rolled up the sleeves of their t-shirts. They saw me behind the wheel of Dad’s tank and the only thing I heard from one of them was: “Hey Dweeb, lay a patch man.”
I knew that being behind the wheel of Dad’s big DeSoto did not confer much status in the eyes of those cooler guys with their own cars, but maybe a good patch of rubber might give me a little acceptance. It was my moment to shine in front of this fraternity of Wheelheads. I didn’t know quite how to do without a manual transmission but I knew it had something to do with romping down on the accelerator. It was in D, which I knew was for drive. I looked a bit to the right and saw the letter “L” which I figured to mean “lay a patch” so I put it in “L” and stomped as hard as I could.
I didn’t hear the squealing tire sound, but the DeSoto shot up to about 40MPH in the time it took my eyes to bug out and notice that Spark, the town constable was just emerging from the adjacent alley. I had been behind the wheel for less than 10 minutes and had my first ticket. And I knew that Sparky couldn’t wait to tell my dad which was doubly bad. But neither of those things was half as humiliating as looking out the rear view mirror and seeing the Wheelheads laying over the top of their car hoods and doubled up with gales of laughter.