Highway Independence

Remembering the day when freedom meant a driver’s license.


photo by Linny Morris

I was all set to write something about Independence Day when I heard the Pearl City driver’s license substation was scheduled to close at the end of June. The driver’s license office was part of the Pearl City Police Station, but renovations there leave no room for the driver’s tests. The city said it was looking for a new Pearl City location for the driver’s license substation.

Talk about Independence Day, the day you passed your driving test was the day you became an adult. Forget about high school graduation or turning 18—freedom was a roughly 2-inch by 3-inch plastic card from the government granting you citizenship on the Open Road. For me, and more than 5,000 other Hawaii drivers every year, that freedom was conferred by the Pearl City station.

I remember it as the Pearl City version of Ellis Island. Huddled masses yearning to drive free would line up for a chance to have agents of the state judge their driving acumen. (Unlike Ellis Island, you got to keep the name you showed up with.) There were plenty of fellow teenagers there, accompanied by whatever friend or parent drove them in for the test, plus grown-ups who had started driving later in life and people new to the Islands who needed Hawaii licenses.

I mean “huddled” literally. The tests were scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis and nervous applicants queued up before sunrise for a spot.

The way I remember it, there was a bench, maybe four feet long, accommodating two or three butts, an open-air walkway and a curb, all lined with—again, this is just my faulty memory—some 10,000 people who wanted to take the test that day.

So, in addition to granting you a license, the experience taught you an important life lesson: The essence of dealing with government is to wait and wait and wait. Liberals may spring into being in political science classes and at college protests, but libertarians are born at the DMV. Of course, no one ever protested. These people held our fates in their hands, so we dutifully waited our turns.

Oddly enough, I have no memory of the test itself. I only remember the waiting. “Really?” one of my staffers asked, when I told this story in one of our editorial huddles. Everyone else had vivid memories of their tests, some of them taken at the same Pearl City station. Not I. “Well, it was a long time ago,” I said. “1984, maybe ’85.”

At which point our summer intern, Joshua Duvauchelle, exclaimed, “That’s before I was even born!”

Thanks, Joshua. My Hawaii driver’s license is now older than fully functioning adults with research skills and writing talent.

Here’s something Joshua’s generation will never enjoy, however. Back in the 1980s, Hawaii driver’s licenses were stamped in plastic, like credit cards. If you were very careful, and skilled with an X-Acto knife, you could shave off and exchange some digits between, say, your address and your birth date, for an instant fake ID.

No good ever came of this, I’m sure. I just report that such things happened and that they may or may not have led to certain persons gaining admittance to The Wave or Masquerades a few months earlier than allowed by law.

But that was a minor thing. What mattered most was the legitimate freedom to do even the most mundane things. Driving yourself to school, or to a summer job. Playing Springsteen’s Nebraska as you drove home alone down the dark spooky stretch of road from a friend’s house in Mililani to Waipahu. Going with friends late at night to the Pali Lookout to scare ourselves silly.

Driving anywhere, just because you could. Freedom starts that way, exploring and testing the limits. But somewhere down the road, you find yourself driving only to the places you need to be. Maybe this long Fourth of July weekend, I’ll put the top down and drive like a kid again, with no particular place to go. Just because I can.

send letters to the editor at letters_honmag@pacificbasin.net.


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Honolulu Magazine May 2019
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