30 November, 2009

Driving Lessons

I didn't get my driver's license until well after turning seventeen. In Europe, as in most of the rest of the world, this fact would have seemed far less freakish than it did in suburban Kansas, in the latter half of the 1990s. On balance, it wasn't so bad relying on rides and public transportation to get around. I had no problem calling friends for rides, or, from time to time, taking a cab or bus. I also felt no implacable need to flee my father's house; the stereotypical teenage yen to speed off, in a car, at 12:01 AM on the morning of their sixteenth birthday wasn't one with which I related.

When the time came, however, for me to stop being such a transportation cadger, it was my father who broke the news. We were at the breakfast table, eating silently, the aroma of fried eggs and Gruyère thick in the air. He set down his issue of Men's Health and, apropos of nothing I could discern, told me, "It's time for you to learn how to drive."

My reliance on him to get to work, though just a ten-minute drive, had worn his legendary patience somewhat thin, evidently. And of course, I'd been as oblivious as always. The sudden broaching of the topic went deeper, though. My father had seen a powder-blue 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood hearse for sale at the little service station down our street.

"I could help you put a really big stereo system in there," he offered, once the debate began. Noting my absent enthusiasm, he added, "You could fit a couch in there too!"

With this, I started suspecting a third motive: his wanting me out of the house on some kind of long-term basis. (Else, why mention the couch?)

"I'd never be able to go out to eat. The restaurant staff would always be asking me to park it somewhere out of sight, where the other customers wouldn't see it," I said.

"Small price to pay for the bragging rights. Just imagine how jealous your friends would be: Oh, I only drive a hearse! That'd be cool."

"You obviously have no idea how my friends think. Your concept of 'cool' is also something you ought to examine more closely, I think."

"Well, girls would at least dig it."

"Sure, the spooky ones with fangs — the ones who think their lives are, like, tragic. No thank you."

With that, my father returned to his magazine. The debate over the hearse seemed complete, the one over my learning to drive forgotten. Alas, I was only half right. Within the week, I found myself behind the wheel of his cherished little Honda CRX, lurching to stop after stop, abusing its transmission with my violently inexpert shifting of gears, palms slick with terror-induced sweat. He told me at one point that he could appreciate that I was nervous. For one, it meant I would be more cautious about what I was doing, thus minimizing the odds of our getting into an accident. Also, he got a kick out of watching me squirm.

His lessons were long and relentlessly thorough. Learning to drive a vehicle with a manual transmission was just the first of his draconian conditions. I also had to learn to drive a larger vehicle — in this case, one of his work vans. Then I had to practice while pulling a boat trailer. Then I had to back up a long distance with the same trailer. Then there were lessons in heavy rain. Then there were lessons in merging, in driver etiquette, in high-speed handling. More than once, he actually had me run a light-pole slalom course in a supermarket parking lot.

One morning after a nasty snowstorm, we were both still in our robes when he herded me out to the car. He wanted to teach me how to handle on ice. He drove us to a nearby shopping mall, then traded me seats and made me brake over and over on the slick asphalt, just so I would know how to properly regain control in a slide. My father didn't even try to hold onto anything when we slid, just sat with his arms resting calmly on his thighs, laughing his sadistic ass off.

I still can't believe how lucky I was to have such a great instructor. Who else would've made me learn to change gears with a steaming cup of coffee between my thighs? You might be surprised how often that skill has come in handy.