Saturday, May 16, 2009

May 16, 2009 Issue

Our friend, John Ward, passed away May 13th. He died just one day shy of his 80th birthday. John was an RV driving instructor with the RV Driving School for many years. We first got to know him in the year 2000 when he gave Vicki and me driving instructions. After having the privilege of spending two days with John we became John Ward fans and considered ourselves fortunate to be his friend. John had a quiet, easy-going, everything-is-under-control manner that made you feel good to just be in his presence. Here is the article we wrote about our first encounter with John.

RV Driving Lessons

Dear Joe and Vicki: I want to take lessons to learn how to tow our new trailer. My husband feels confident in his ability to handle an RV and thinks that lessons for him would be a waste of money. Do you know anything about the RV driving lessons we see advertised in the magazines?

Joe: Before you fly a plane, you take flying lessons. When you want to go scuba diving, you take diving lessons. We take lessons for skiing, golf and calligraphy. We think nothing of getting professional instruction on any subject in which we wish to become proficient ... except driving an RV.

Somehow, we think that because we have been driving a car or pickup truck for the last
thirty or forty years we are automatically qualified to aim 30,000 pounds (or more) of steel and plastic down the highway at speeds in excess of 65 miles an hour.

I have driven a couple of hundred thousand miles in a variety of RVs over the last 35 years. Learned everything I know through experience. And, except for a couple of encounters with some sneaky campground attack trees, my driving record is accident-free.

So, last month, when my bride announced she was going to take RV driving lessons, I was surprised when she "suggested" that I join her.

Vicki: Joe and I joke about our traditional "blue" jobs and "pink" jobs. Driving the RV, dumping holding tanks and rig maintenance have always been his blue jobs. Meal preparation, laundry and housekeeping have been my pink jobs.

Occasionally, I have driven our RVs. Usually on open stretches of highways and for brief periods of time. Occasionally, Joe has helped with the inside chores (also for brief periods of time).

Both of us admit to being just a little bit intimidated by the other's jobs. "Joe, are you sure the motorhome will fit between those cars?" "Vicki, why can't I put my red tee shirt in with my white socks?"

But I have observed women, tiny women who could hardly see over the steering wheel, confidently maneuvering their large motorhomes and fifth-wheels through narrow streets after taking RV driving lessons. If they could do it, I reasoned, so could I.

Joe reluctantly agreed to join me on the condition he would not also be expected to take cooking lessons.

Joe: We contacted Dick Reed's RV Driving School (1-530-878-0111 or We have become personally acquainted with Dick and his instructors over the last few years. Vicki and I have observed them teaching others to drive. We have also heard the rave reviews of their students.

Dick said Vicki and I would not be unique. Most of his student couples consist of a husband with lots of RV driving experience, and a wife with relatively little time behind the wheel.

Dick assigned John Ward to be our instructor. John has been teaching over-the-road truckers how to drive ever since the teamsters quit using oxen. He has also been an instructor with the RV Driving School for over four years.

John arranged to meet us at a dirt parking lot on the first day of our two-day program. He began by performing a safety check of our motorhome. John explained how, why and when we should conduct the same inspection.

Next came a non-technical description of how a diesel motorhome's air-brake system works, how to operate it and how to conduct an air-brake safety check. I wish someone had shown me this about 50,000 miles ago.

Driver's seat and steering wheel were adjusted for comfort followed by a discussion about mirror adjustment and how to use them. I picked up a number of valuable tips here.

John told me to drive the motorhome in as tight a circle possible. He pointed to the tracks in the dirt made by the rear tires of the motorhome and then to the tracks made by the rear tires of the towed car. Now we knew for certain where our towed vehicle's tires would go when we made a tight turn. We also measured how far to the left and right the rear corners of the rig would swing during a sharp turn. No more knocking over curbside mailboxes.

The remainder of the two days was spent with Vicki and me taking turns learning and practicing turns, backing and maneuvering our motorhome (both with and without the car in tow). We drove on residential streets, county roads, state highways and federal interstates. We drove up and down steep, winding, mountain grades. We encountered roads narrowed by construction projects.

All of our driving was accompanied by John's constant easy-going dialogue of helpful hints, constructive criticism and enthusiastic encouragement. We were constantly benefiting from his considerable knowledge and expertise.

With 35 years of experience under my belt, I considered myself fairly accomplished behind the wheel of an RV. But under John's tutelage I picked up a number of tips and techniques that added to my confidence and competence. I guess it really is possible to teach an old dog new tricks.

Vicki: By the second day of instruction, I was feeling pretty good about myself. John had shown me how to gauge just the right time to start that tight right turn by picking a reference spot on the inside of the motorhome. A couple of times, he told me to stop right in the middle of the turn to look out the window and see if I was still in the correct lane. I always was. That gave me a lot of confidence and surprised me that the turns didn't have to be wider.

I also learned how to pick a reference spot on the dashboard to use as an "aiming" device to center the RV in the driving lane. Most people have a tendency to drive too far right in the lane; I was no exception.

In addition to making right turns, left turns and backing up, I also made a three-point turn in the middle of a block. Piece of cake! I felt like I was 16 years old again, learning to drive a car.

And then John announced that I would drive through town traffic, travel both directions over a very curvy, two-lane mountain road with a 6% grade, and then get on the freeway. All of this with the car attached!

I went up and down that mountain road with no problem. I learned how to watch the tachometer to determine when to down-shift and how to slow the motorhome with the exhaust brake,

My hands tightened on the steering wheel when I encountered oncoming trucks on the curves of that narrow mountain road. John said their hands probably tightened too. And then there was a stretch of road construction where I had to pull off and drive on the right shoulder. Yes!

Finally, to end our last day, I pulled onto the I-10 freeway during Los Angeles city rush hour. The I-10 is one of our busiest local interstates. I thought I would be really nervous, but I wasn't at all. I found myself calmly making lane changes and not being bothered by aggressive drivers. I had developed the confidence to know that I could do it. And it did not hurt to hear John's calm, low-key voice. I couldn't help thinking, "I must be doing O.K. He doesn't seem worried!"

I can't believe the feeling of exhilaration--the high that I was on -- realizing that I could do this. I can't remember when I've had so much fun. (Sorry, Joe!)

At this point, I have the confidence and basic skills I need to drive our motorhome. Now, it's practice, practice, practice. Driving the RV is no longer going to be exclusively a "blue" job.

Joe: RV driving lessons are not a waste of money. The fee for our two days of instruction was less than the cost of three oil and filter changes on our motorhome. In return, Vicki and I spent two days benefiting from John’s four decades of accumulated professional driving wisdom and experience.

We were also informed by our insurance company that, upon receipt of a copy of the driving school's certificate of completion, they will give us a 5% discount on our motorhome's insurance premium. That discount will eventually repay the cost of our driving lessons.

And, when the government eventually gets around to requiring us to demonstrate our RV driving proficiency in order to get the appropriate drivers license ... we'll be ready.

Vicki: Now, about those cooking lessons ...

We'll miss you, John.

To learn more about John Ward click here

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