In this reminiscence, Dorothea (Pfister) Nordstrand (1916-2011) relates the story of how she learned to drive in Seattle. The year was 1936, just 36 years after the first auto arrived in Seattle in 1900. Dorothea Pfister, age 20, lived in the Green Lake area, and her friend Ernie of the Model A Roadster lived in Maple Leaf, a north Seattle neighborhood that at the time had dirt roads. In 2009 Dorothea Nordstrand was awarded AKCHO's (Association of King County Historical Organizations) Willard Jue Memorial Award for a Volunteer, for contributing these vivid reminiscences to various venues in our community, including HistoryLink.org's People's History library.
The Driver's License
I learned to drive a car in 1936, when I was in my early twenties. Back in those days, before Driver's Ed, we learned to drive when someone had the courage to teach us. My teacher was friend Ernie, who bravely let me practice on his beloved little 1929 Model A Roadster, what we now would call a convertible. He really loved that car, washing and waxing its dark green body and tenderly tending the black tires. My first efforts were not confidence-building. Letting out the clutch at the exact same time as applying the gas was difficult. We kangaroo-hopped up and down hills in an alarming way. I got very discouraged. Then, one day, I hit the gas pedal instead of the brake and nearly put Ernie's little gem into a ditch. I was ready to concede defeat, but not Ernie. He wouldn’t let me quit.
I practiced shifting and clutching while sitting on a chair in Mom's kitchen and got it down pat. That chair didn't jump at all. Soon the car didn't either.
The day came when we went to the State Patrol Office in downtown Seattle, between Westlake and Dexter. I was shaking so hard I was a blur and I'm sure Ernie must have been having second thoughts. The written test was easy. I had almost memorized the instruction book. I had practiced the hand signals for turning and stopping until they were second nature. My head was in order ... It was the actual process of driving where I was shaky.
The longer I sat waiting for a patrolman to take me out for the driving test, the more apprehensive I became, and with reason. This area was downtown and I had never driven anywhere except on lonely rural roads north of the city. There was traffic down here. I had never tried to parallel park and didn't have the least notion of how to go about it. All I could think of was how stupid I was to even try to get my license. My knees were jelly and my mouth so dry I was sure I couldn’t speak. I nearly fainted when I saw the uniformed officer approaching.
The officer said, "Well, young lady, we've had so many applicants today that we've run out of time, so, since you did so well on the written test, we will assume you are as well qualified for the driving test and will grant you your license", and he handed me the precious piece of paper.
I've been driving for 70 years without getting a traffic ticket, but I still haven't learned to parallel park. I am almost paranoid about getting my license renewed on time because if it lapses I might have to finally take that dreaded driving test. I'm sure I couldn't beat the odds twice.