Title: Driver's Licenses Without a Photograph

Date Occurred: Circa 1977-1982

Date Written: February 16, 2019

Written by: Joel T. Kant

Copyright (c) 2019 by Joel T. Kant


I do not know about here in Ohio where I now live, but from about the time I was sixteen through maybe nineteen, the driver's licenses issued in the state of Wisconsin had no photograph. I am not talking about some temporary license. I mean the actual, issued, regular, unrestricted license. It had a vague physical description of height, hair color, eye color, and weight. This had implications when I was in high school for those old enough to have a driver's license, but not yet of the age of eighteen, which was the drinking age in Wisconsin at that time. It is quite different now with all modern U.S. driver's licenses having not only have a photograph and lamination, but also a hologram or two.

From what my high school classmates claimed, nobody seemed to read the description of hair and eye color, weight and height all that closely. So, if they had an older brother or older cousin and could talk them into "borrowing" their license, they claimed they could get away with drinking in the bars. Bars tend to be dark places, for one thing. How well can you see eye color in the lighting conditions of a typical bar? Probably not well. From what was claimed, it did not really seem to matter if the description was three inches taller and fifty pounds heavier.

If one lacked a sympathetic older brother or older cousin, I was told it was absurdly easy to alter one's own license if you wanted to if the purpose was to use it to simply show old enough to buy or drink alcohol. However, my high school buddies warned me it had to be done the correct way, otherwise one could get in real trouble. The problem came if one drove an altered driver's license. If a police officer noticed the date does not match the age of the driver, that could be very bad. Even without laptop computers in cop cars like now, the cops even then might radio in and catch some of those using the altered licenses. Cop cars certainly did have radios in 1977!

Whatever the law said on the matter, there seemed a tacit understanding that it wasn't nearly as serious an offense to alter the license if it was used to buy alcohol instead of being used for driving. Clerks at liquor stores and bouncers and bartenders at bars had a reputation of not returning licenses if they believed it did not belong to the correct person. Back then, a long driver's license number was given on the driver's license. It was not a social security number. It looked like a long string of random numbers. However, if one knew where to look, two digits in a certain position were the last two digits of the year one was born in. This was distinct from a place that listed the birthdate in a clearly labeled place. The licenses were often confiscated when the young person did the obvious trick of changing even with great care the birthdate where it was clearly labeled as such, but not change the "secret code" two numbers buried in the much longer driver's license number.

Many high school kids did not know this trick of having to also alter the two numbers buried in the longer driver's license number rather than just the marked birthdate on the card! That led to many getting caught or at least the license taken away. It seemed most of the boys I knew in high school knew about both locations of birth year numbers already, though.

So, a common attempt for those underage to get booze, meaning under the age of eighteen, was to have a driver's license at age sixteen. Then, since the license was just an unlaminated piece of very thick paper, to alter with a black pen certain numbers. With enough care, a steady hand, and a magnifying glass, the results were often convincing.

If one did not also alter the two digits revealing the birth year buried in the number code at the top, this trick would not work at most bars or liquor stores. If one did alter the numbers in both places, then this trick seems it worked pretty well for the young men I knew.

If one got stopped when driving and the cops discovered the alteration, that would be bad.

Even though I did not personally drink alcohol until age twenty-two even though the legal age was eighteen back then, it so happens my high school buddies told me the trick for altering a license to get booze. It seemed to work well for them, as they loved their booze in high school, and as far as I know, never got caught for drinking under the age of eighteen even at bars!

This was knowledge that was of no use to me since I had no interest in doing that. I got teased a lot for not doing what they did. Most high school boys I knew were very eager to have alcohol well before the legal age of eighteen.

This is totally obsolete knowledge now, so I do not mind passing this on.

The first thing to do back then was to get a valid, duplicate copy of the driver's license. It was not hard to get a duplicate license. One just had to show up and pay a small fee, like five or ten dollars. A convincing story helped.

A bad story was to say that the wallet was stolen! For that story, the person at the desk might demand to see a police report or fill one out right there. Some clerks could get strict about that. The clerks seemed to know the game, and to file a false police report if that could be shown was a crime. It was well known this was an attempt by somebody sixteen or seventeen to get a duplicate just for the reason I am stating, of course.

I was told a much better story to use as an excuse is that one went out fishing. When reaching over with the net to scoop out the fish, one's wallet fell in the lake and sunk. Try discrediting that story! A normal person won't file a police report for a lost wallet that simply sunk in a lake through one's own carelessness. It was not about whether the story was believed, but whether it could be refuted! That was an essential distinction!

The instructions were to leave one of the licenses alone. It is for driving! It is to give the cops if one gets caught speeding, running a red light, or some other traffic violation. As long as one did not get the two mixed up, always giving the cops the unaltered license and the bouncers, bartenders and liquor store clerks the altered one, all was golden.

After I started college, the licenses changed to both include a photograph as well as being laminated. Borrowing a driver's license did not work as well then. The lamination made it harder to change the numbers on one’s own license. While I assume there were ways around that, I was well out of high school by the time licenses in Wisconsin had photographs and lamination, so nobody was telling me the tricks being used anymore!


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