Essays

Road Work Ahead

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Drivers beware. It’s spring and I have noticed an unusual amount of cars on the road bearing the sign “Student Driver.” When I’m near one of those cars I’m always torn between getting out of their way and messing with them. Then I remember my own experience in driver’s education class and I immediately get out of their way. As far as the classroom part of driver’s ed went, I was great at remembering all of the signs and rules. It’s just that I didn’t remember any of them when I got behind the wheel.

I was 15 when I took my driver’s education course. The class was held at my high school in the middle of a very hot and humid summer. My driving instructor was Mr. Horton. During the regular school year Mr. Horton was a math and science teacher, but during the summer months he either volunteered or was sentenced to teach driver’s ed. He was a very nice and calm man and I immediately figured he would be a better teacher than my father. Not that my father ever tried to teach me to drive. His Buicks were sacred to him and the most I was ever able to operate in his car was rolling down the window. I knew I would be much happier with Mr. Horton. Unfortunately for Mr. Horton, I don’t think he was very happy with me.

The first two weeks of class were held in a sweltering classroom where we had to memorize diagrams, rules of the road and something I’ve yet to put into practice, “driver’s etiquette.” The other kids in my class were the usual mix of jocks, burnouts, nerds and over-achievers. Welcome to the middle 70s. I didn’t really fit into any of those categories, as I was always too busy going to concerts and blackening out my eyes so I could look like Alice Cooper. There was no hole in which to place my peg. Day after day, I sat in that classroom in my cutoff jeans, sandals and halter-tops just waiting for the day I could get out on the road. On the last day of classroom instruction, Mr. Horton rolled in the squeaky movie projector cart and we were treated to the most gruesome film I have ever seen – Signal 30. It was made by the Highway Safety Patrol and was nothing but 30 minutes of some of the most horrific car crashes and the carnage they left behind. We saw dismembered bodies, bloody pavements and cars turned into heaping piles of twisted metal. If Mr. Horton thought this movie was going to scare us, he was wrong. When the film ended we all stood up and cheered, “Play it again!” I’m only sorry I never got to see the sequels, Mechanized Death and Wheels of Tragedy.

Now that classroom instruction was over, I was ready to drive! What I wasn’t ready for was driving around the high school parking lot trying to avoid plastic orange cones. What a disappointment. The first thing I learned was that it was impossible for me to avoid hitting the orange cones. The second thing I learned was how to dislodge orange cones from beneath a four door Ford. Having never been entrusted to drive a car, I was shocked when I first felt the power of punching the gas pedal. Even though I only weighed about 85 pounds and had size six feet, I was able to propel that car over those cones with the power of someone three times my size. It was exciting. I couldn’t wait to tell my dad. That night at dinner I told him how I did on my first day behind the wheel. He listened intently as I explained about checking the mirrors, putting on the seatbelt and feeling the rumble of the engine beneath my feet. I thought it prudent to leave out the part about the shredded cones that were now littering the lawn outside the gym. Without ever looking up from his dinner my dad pointed his fork at me and said, “You will never drive my car.” I looked at my mom but she just shrugged her shoulders. She never drove his car either.

My poor mother. She was the only woman on the block that had never learned how to drive. She wanted to drive. She was smart enough to drive. But sometime during her wedding vows after she said, “I do,” my father must have said, “I do” and then added, “And you will never drive my car.” And she never did. All through my childhood my mother depended on my father for grocery shopping and weekend errands. When she finally got tired of trudging through the snow and depending on neighbors for rides, she decided to do something about it. When I was 11 years old my mother and I had a little secret between us. She took driving classes behind my father’s back. I was home the fist day of her lessons. She was nervous waiting for the instructor to come and pick her up. When a man in a driver’s ed car finally pulled into our driveway she handed me a piece of paper and pencil. She told me to write down the license plate number and the make and model of the car in case she didn’t return. This was years before I became obsessed with true crime shows so I had no idea what she was talking about. As soon as she left I made the decision that if she didn’t return I was going to play dumb. There was no way I was going to get in trouble with my dad by telling him about her secret driving lessons. If she didn’t return he would have to figure that problem out all on his own. By the end of that summer my mom completed her training (she returned after all) and got my sister to take her for her driver’s license. I remember her proudly showing her license to my dad and saying, “See Joe. Now you don’t have to drive me around all weekend when you’re home. I have my license.” To which my father calmly replied, “You will never drive my car.” From that day on my mother only used her driver’s license for cashing checks at the grocery store – after she walked there. It now makes sense to me why my father was so happy when he bought me that beautiful English racing bike for my 12th birthday. He knew that as long as I lived at home that would be my sole form of transportation.

When the time finally came for Mr. Horton to take us out on the road I started to get nervous. Visions of those crushed cones kept appearing in my head and I worried about what else I could run over out in the street. My nerves didn’t get any better when Mr. Horton divided us up into groups of three. Besides me in the car I would be driving with Bob (an over-achiever) and Ray (a burnout). Lucky me. The first day on the road Mr. Horton had Bob drive first. Bob was a natural and Mr. Horton was very pleased with him. While Bob was driving and Ray and I were in the backseat, Ray leaned over and whispered to me, “I dropped some acid this morning.” Now, there comes this time in every teen’s life when you have to decide between being a snitch or ending up sprawled out on the road in a horrific acid-induced Signal 30 car crash. I was not a snitch, so Ray took the wheel. Now I sat in the backseat with Bob and in my head I imagined Ray suddenly swerving the wheel and screaming, “There’s a three-headed dragon in the road!” Or, “Far out – the steering wheel is melting in my hands and my hands are turning into frogs legs.” Thankfully, none of that happened which made me think that either Ray was lying or his dealer ripped him off. Either way, I was safe. And then it was my turn.

Since I was the last to drive that day, it was my job to drive the car back to the school. I knew I wouldn’t do as well as over-achieving Bob, but I also knew, unlike burnout Ray, I wasn’t tripping on acid. It is a strange sensation the first time you pull out into traffic and actually drive. I looked around at the other cars and had this sudden feeling of being an adult. I was driving. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw Bob staring at me with a smirk, and Ray staring at his hand. Even though I was nervous I felt better knowing that Mr. Horton had a brake pedal on his side of the car. On that long ride back to the high school I realized I wasn’t quite as skilled as I thought I would be. I had a difficult time keeping the car in my lane. I took corners so sharply that Bob and Ray slammed into each other. Mr. Horton’s arms became longer and longer each time he reached for the steering wheel and I don’t think he ever once took his foot off the safety brake.

In order to qualify for my license I had to have eight hours of actual driving. Since it wasn’t going to be possible to do all eight hours in class, my father had to take me out in his Buick Electra 225 – or as he liked to call it – his “deuce and a quarter.” My father was not happy about this. I wasn’t too thrilled either. First of all, this Buick was about as long as a city block. I had to sit on a pillow to see over the steering wheel and I panicked when I realized there was no safety brake on the passenger side. “Just drive around the neighborhood until you feel comfortable,” he said. Comfortable? Driving this cruise ship on wheels? I didn’t think I would ever feel comfortable again. We never spoke the entire time. My father’s comments consisted of, “Watch out,” “Slow down,” “Brake. Brake. BRAKE!” “Don’t hit the: a) curb b) garbage cans c) cat.” When we were done I slowly pulled the beast into the driveway and turned off the ignition. “Put on the emergency brake,” my dad said. “Where is it?” “It’s on your left. Just pick up your foot and press it down until it clicks.” I picked up my leg and blindly felt something beneath my foot and pressed down. Nothing clicked. “It didn’t click,” I said. “Press down harder,” my dad said. I pressed harder. Nothing. I pressed harder again and finally I heard not a click, but a snap. “What the hell was that?” my dad asked? Terrified, I jumped out of the car and my dad slid over. He didn’t say anything at first, and then he just looked at me as he held the broken handle of the air vent in his hand.” “Just how high did you lift your foot?” he asked. And then he said, “You will never drive my car again.” Once again, it was left up to Mr. Horton.

The following week in driver’s ed was expressway driving. Bob aced it. Ray appeared to be drug-free and also did well. I was not as fortunate. Neither was the car. Apparently, when exiting the expressway it is advisable to slow down and I didn’t. I lost control of the car, Mr. Horton wasn’t quick enough on the brake and we ended up headfirst in a ditch. Mr. Horton checked to make sure everyone was all right and then slowly walked us up the road to the nearest pay phone. He didn’t yell at me in front of the others, but he did pull me aside and say, “I think we need to get back to the basics.” We found a pay phone in a nearby McDonalds and we all got a free lunch while we waited for the tow truck. I’d like to say that that was the only bad driving experience I had, but I’d be lying. On another outing an old man crossing the street barely escaped with his life. “Didn’t you see that man crossing the street?” Mr. Horton asked. “Yes,” I answered. “He was really slow!” When we made a side stop at Mr. Horton’s house I drove over his wife’s flowerbed. I still have the image of her standing in the front window with her hand over her mouth. Poor Mr. Horton. He had to slam on his brake so many times I think by the end of that summer he had to have a knee replacement. When the course ended and everyone else had gotten their requisite eight hours of driving in, Mr. Horton suggested I spend an extra hour with him before he released me into the world. We drove once again on the expressway. He had me parallel park. I made left turns and was finally able to keep the car in one lane. At the end of the hour he gave me my signed permit slip and shook my hand. “Good luck, Terry,” he said. And then he muttered something under his breath that I think was a prayer.

Two months later, on my 16th birthday, I passed my driver’s test on the first try. I walked out of the DMV with a huge smile on my face. I handed the car keys back to my dad and showed him my new license. He grabbed the keys, opened the car door for me and then said, “Get in. Oh, and you will never drive my car.” And I never did. The following year when I graduated high school my dad bought me a new car. I drove it for nearly six months before I hit a telephone pole in a parking lot. I tried to hide the smashed car from my dad by parking it across the street, but he wasn’t that dumb. I came out of the house one day and he was standing next to the smashed side. “What happened?” he asked. I immediately told him the truth about how I just found it that way in the parking lot when I came out of work. He just stared at me. I then broke down and confessed that a deer ran into the passenger side. I don’t think he believed that excuse either, but he didn’t press me. “You will pay for this out of your own money,” he said. And then added, “And while it’s getting fixed you will not drive my car.”

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This is not a photo from my class but I wish we had this cool classroom in the 70s