Great Jobs 22-New Jobs And Ventures I Never Dreamed Of
After many stupid moves and set backs in the early 60s, and after a Divorce in 1964 I had just about given up on myself. Russ was gone, Mom was gone, Audrey was gone along with Mary Ann mostly my fault and I had come to the point that even I thought I had nothing else to look forward to. This was not a typical me thing, but my life was coming to a standstill while I tried to cope with new situations.
What did I know? Did I want to go back into the Merchant Marine? Viet Nam was going on. I did renew my seaman’s certificates and had in mind to go back to the West Coast and sign out again. But, the war was controversial, and really my sentiments were not with it.
Also in 1964 I had to go to the hospital to get an eye operation. My old problem caused my right eye to go blind because my retina detached. At Barnes Hospital in Saint Louis they had a lot of new procedures for eye problems but the laser was a new invention and even after sticking my retina back in place it would not hold so now I was blind in one eye. So what was going to happen next?
After the divorce and meeting Anita, I put up with living in ‘ease’ for a couple of years, but actually it became disgusting to me, to think I was absolutely useless and living off a woman. My new found buddy, Charley, who was Anita’s brother in law and lived two houses away, began to take notice and told me to do something, anything, even if it’s wrong.
“Quit moping around here, bitchin’ and complaining”, was his admonition. “There are worse things than being half blind”
Soon I heeded the advice, I decided I would start a Driving School of my own, after all I was a great driver, and even if I was ‘blind’, I still had retained my license, just kept renewing it as it came due. In those days there was only random testing. I already knew I was a smart ass, so what was going to hold me back?
“Money”. I thought to myself, and then,
“How do I get the customers, and where do I get a car”? I wondered.
Getting the car was easy; I found a car rental place out by the airport that rented cars for 25 bucks a day. Then I talked Jenny, Bob’s wife, out of an old brake control which I fixed up, and bought some necessary connections to the hydraulic brake system. The best driver training brake controls were mounted on the right side of the car for the instructor to use to stop the student if necessary. They were actually hooked to the hydraulic system and worked independently. Talking Jenny out of the brake control was easy, because every time Bob got on a drunken rampage she called me or Audrey, and even Anita to let her stay at the house overnight.
Now all I had to do was figure out how to get some customers. I put a phone in the hall to see if I could book some customers. Well, Anita was not happy with the phone and tossed it out into the street, but I brought it back in and set it up in the spare bedroom upstairs and told her to leave it alone. She did.
Getting the students took a weekly ad in the Southside Journal, which cost about $2.50. The first week I booked 4 customers at the going rate of $7.00 an hour. Three of them I booked for 2 hour sessions. Well, it wasn’t much, but it would cost me 25 bucks plus gas, the ad, and a little work to install a brake control in the car early in the morning and then take it out in the evening and get the rental back.
Great, I thought, now I have to rebook these students in such a way that I’ll get at least a days work again next week, plus the new inquiries that might call in from the next ad. As it turned out I had about two days work the next week. Things were looking up. After a few weeks I could lease the car by the week, but that got expensive. In any event, I was looking good in my eyes again. Even Charley was surprised at what I had accomplished in a few short weeks.
"Hey, Leo, how the hell did you pull that off, after I saw that phone go flying out in the street I figured she got ya’ again”.
“Not quite, I faked her out”.
“Hell, let’s go up to the corner bar, have a few beers, and talk about it”.
“Sounds good to me, let’s go”.
In a few months, I pleased Anita by moving the phone she despised out of the house and into an office on Kingshighway Blvd. right down the street from the License Office. A great location and only $90 a month. After leasing a car by the week, renting an office, paying phone and utility bills, and incorporating the operation with a trade name and logo, I had gained some credit background, so now I could lease a car on long term deals. The first one came from Enterprise which had its office in Clayton at the time. And even in 1967 it was still a local company. I was doing most of all this by myself, for almost 6 months, but now I needed to expand if I was going to make this work.
“Expansion, a big word”, I thought to myself.
At the time Bob’s driving school was the biggest in Saint Louis and there were a couple of others, including mine of lesser importance. I knew the business structure as I had been with it for a few years working for Bob and all, I had learned a few things. All the driving schools relied on phone calls from customers and a gift of gab to get across the fact that how they taught driving was the best way to do it. I needed a new gimmick to get customers other than phone calls and a gift of gab; it was not too long before I found one and that is another story.
Thank the good Lord I had a lot of intestinal fortitude. I was teaching driving and I was half blind, I also had become blind to certain colors too, red and green, pretty important things to discern as a driver. But of course I knew the local signals and which color was on top or on the bottom, the yellow was no problem. I also knew the city of Saint Louis like the back of my hand, and there was never a question of where I was. And, I also devised a teaching method that was unique to all other methods.
The first lesson made sure the student could control the car, so we headed to big parking lots where there was plenty of room.
When the student got behind the wheel, my first question was, “What are you going to do first”?
“Buckle the seat belt”. This was 1967 and seat belts were now in cars and the ads for them were making an impression.
“Nope, not that, just reach down on the side of the seat and adjust it so you are comfortable and can see properly”, was the first instruction.
“Now, you can put on the seat belt, without cramping your guts if you slide the seat forward”.
Next we went to the procedure of starting the car, locating the gauges and knowing what they were for (most cars still had gauges in those days, idiot lights came later) then putting the car in gear and understanding what all the initials meant, P, D, R, N, etc. Stick shifts were beginning to go out of style by then and it was much easier to teach with an automatic. I still taught stick shift, but only on demand. My usual response was, “Let’s get your license first in about 6 easy lessons then I can teach you stick on your car in about an hour or two’.
The next instruction was to point out the points on the car that were an aid to guidance. The left front fender was the guide to staying in your lane. ‘Look over your front fender and keep it beside the lane line’. The front of the hood was your guide to where you stopped at corners and cross walks. ‘Just let the front of the hood cover the line and you won’t be over it’. The center of the hood was your aid to pulling along side a curb to park. ‘Keep the center of the hood off, but at the curb line and you won’t scrape your tires’. So it went until that was understood.
Now the lines in the parking lot were used or even the light standards. ‘Let’s move forward and see if you can stop at that line’.
The corner of the rear window was the final guide. ‘Back up and stop at that line. Using the corner of the rear window will stop you without passing that line.’
Once I was sure they had control of simple starts and stops, we were ready for the street. Staying in a lane, watching ahead, moving your eyes so as not to get fixed on one point, all that was next.
And, by the time a student got to that point, my problem took over. As we went down the street and began to get into traffic, stop lights and such, I had to get the student into the idea of looking at least a block ahead. I myself had no problem knowing exactly where I was at in the city of Saint Louis, but I did have the ‘seeing’ problem.
“Look ahead, what color is the stop light”?
“Red” might be the answer.
“Well if you just slow down a bit, by the time you get there, it may change to green and you can proceed, if not your foot is already on the brake and you will come to a smooth stop.”
“Green”, may have been the alternative answer.
The same instruction applied. “Slow down, and it will probably change by the time you get there, and you won’t have to slam on the brakes to stop”.
Thus my student was relating the traffic situation to me. And, at the same time they were learning. So who needed 20/20 vision? Not me, just my student.
Thus the lessons went, until the student was really aware of all the traffic situations around him/her. And, as far as I was concerned all my students became damned near as good a driver as I was because they had to learn and understand traffic situations.
Watch for Helmer's next chapter on Great Jobs in the October issue.
Click on author's byline for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.