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 think about 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.

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I have finally reached the last day of classroom instruction. For two weeks now I have been sitting in this sweltering room memorizing diagrams, rules of the road and something called “driver’s etiquette.” My What Every Driver Must Know booklet is now crumpled and soggy from my sweaty hands. My butt is stuck to this plastic desk chair and even in my cutoff jeans, sandals and halter-top I can’t cool off. The chalkboard covered with arrows and symbols swims before my eyes and then blurs as I slump lower in my seat. I survey the room, which consists of the usual mix of jocks, burnouts, nerds and over-achievers. Welcome to the middle 70s. I don’t really fit into any of these categories. I’m much too busy going to rock concerts and blackening out my eyes in homage to Alice Cooper. There is no hole in which to place my peg. Right now, I just want to get out of this sauna and drive! Unfortunately, I don’t think today will be the day.

The door opens and Mr. Horton comes in pushing the squeaky movie projector cart to the middle of the room. “Today, we are going to watch a film about the dangers of reckless driving,” he announces. “The movie is called Signal 30 and it is not for the feint of heart. Someone get the lights.” The movie starts with a warning from the Highway Safety Patrol that this film depicts graphic and disturbing scenes. From somewhere in the back of the room someone claps. It doesn’t take long before we are treated to dismembered limbs, bodies hurled into trees, bloody pavements, and some of the most horrific car crashes I have ever seen. I suddenly regret bringing a baloney and ketchup sandwich for lunch. During the movie, Mr. Horton stands in the back of the room with his arms folded and a knowing look on his face. I think he believes that this film will frighten us so much we will all be too terrified to drive. He is wrong. When the movie ends some kids stand up and cheer and one guy yells, “Play it again!” Mr. Horton flips on the lights and says, “Tomorrow we drive.”

Now that classroom instruction is finally over, I can’t wait to get behind the wheel. It’s early morning and not yet blazing hot when I walk behind the gym to the student parking lot. Wearing plaid shorts and cleaning his horned rimmed glasses, Mr. Horton is standing in between three indistinguishable cars. Each car has a billboard-sized sign on top that says STUDENT DRIVER. How embarrassing. Scattered around the parking lot are plastic orange cones divided into straight lanes and curves. “Today, we will practice in the parking lot,” says Mr. Horton. “It is important to keep the car inside the cones at all times.” I climb into the nearest car and Mr. Horton hands me the keys. Having never been entrusted to drive a car before, I am shocked when I turn on the ignition and feel the engine rumbling under my feet. Even though I only weigh about 85 pounds with small size six feet, I soon discover that I am able to propel that car over those orange cones with the power of someone three times my size. I had no idea how loud a simple orange cone wedged beneath a car could be. It started with a pop, and then a thwack and by the time I had gathered three or four cones, the skidding noise was deafening. I am too afraid to look at Mr. Horton so I just stare straight ahead. “Let’s work some more on this another time, okay?” is all he says.

At dinner I tell my father all about my first day. “We had to drive in between cones and keep the car straight,” I say. “What kind of car were you driving?” My dad asks. “A red one,” I answer. “I learned how to check the mirrors, and put the car in reverse and that you have to “ease” your foot down on the gas pedal.” I am conveniently leaving out how I had to spend 15 minutes trying to dislodge crushed orange cones from underneath the car. My dad listens intently as I tell him that tomorrow we get to go out on the road. And, without ever looking up from his dinner my dad points his fork at me and says, “You will never drive my car.” I look over at my mom for encouragement, but she just shrugs her shoulders. She never drives his car either.

My poor mother. She is the only woman on the block that has never learned how to drive. She wants to drive. She is 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 first 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 into 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.

The day has finally arrived where we get to drive out on the road. I’m nervous. Visions of those crushed cones keep appearing in my head and I worry about what else I could run over out in the street. Mr. Horton has now divided us up into groups of three. Besides me in the car I will be driving with Bob (an over-achiever) and Ray (a burnout). Lucky me. Bob gets to be the first driver and since he did well keeping the car in betweens the cones, I’m pretty confident he’ll do well on the road. The car doesn’t have any air conditioning and as I begin to roll down the back window Ray leans over and whispers to me, “I dropped some acid this morning.” I don’t answer him and he leans back giggling to himself. 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. Since I am not a snitch I keep my mouth shut and tighten my seatbelt. Overachieving Bob has now passed the remedial driving ability test and is speeding headfirst into show off. He’s palming his turns and changing lanes with ease. “Pull over, Bob, and let’s give Ray a turn,” Mr. Horton says. With a conspiratorial side-glance, Ray looks at me and then scrambles out of the backseat. I now realize I have another chance to speak up about the possibility of Ray taking us on a psychedelic trip none of us signed up for, but I stay silent. In the backseat with Bob, I keep my hand on the door handle in case I need a quick escape when the car rolls over. I am imagining 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, Ray is doing surprising well and hasn’t uttered a word since we pulled out into traffic. I am now thinking that either Ray was lying about his acid or his dealer ripped him off. Either way, I am safe. And now it’s my turn.

Since I’m the last to drive today, it is my job to drive us back to the school. I know I won’t do as well as over-achieving Bob, but I also know that unlike burnout Ray, I am not tripping on acid. It is a strange sensation as I pull out into traffic for the first time and actually drive. I look around at the other cars and have this sudden feeling of being an adult. I am driving! In the rearview mirror I see Bob staring at me with a smirk, and Ray staring at his hand. Even though I am nervous I feel better knowing that Mr. Horton has a brake pedal on his side of the car. On the long ride back to the high school I realize that I’m not quite as skilled as I thought I would be. I have a difficult time keeping the car in my lane. I take corners so sharply that Bob and Ray slam into each other. Mr. Horton’s arms become longer and longer each time he reaches for the steering wheel and I don’t think he ever once takes his foot off the safety brake. Nevertheless, I pull the car safely into the school parking lot and ignore Bob when he points out the number of shredded orange cones piled outside the building.

In order to qualify for my license I have to have eight hours of actual driving. Since it isn’t going to be possible to do all eight hours in class, my father has to take me out in his Buick Electra 225 – or as he likes to call it – his “deuce and a quarter.” My father is not happy about this. I am not too thrilled either. First of all, this Buick is about as long as a city block. I have to sit on a pillow to see over the steering wheel and I panic when I realize there is no safety brake on the passenger side. “Just drive around the neighborhood until you feel comfortable,” my dad says. Comfortable? Driving this cruise ship on wheels? I don’t think I will ever feel comfortable again. As I’m driving around the neighborhood we never speak. My father’s only conversation consists of, “Watch out,” “Slow down,” “Brake. Brake. BRAKE!” “Don’t hit the: a) curb b) garbage cans c) cat.” When we are done I slowly pull the beast into the driveway and turn off the ignition. “Put on the emergency brake,” my dad says. “Where is it?” “It’s on your left. Just pick up your foot and press it down until it clicks.” I pick up my leg and blindly feel something beneath my foot and press down. Nothing clicks. “It didn’t click,” I say. “Press down harder,” my dad says. I press harder. Nothing. I press harder again and finally I hear not a click, but a snap. “What the hell was that?” my dad asks? Terrified, I jump out of the car as my dad slides over. He doesn’t say anything at first, and then he just looks at me as he holds up the broken air vent handle. “Just how high did you lift your foot?” he asks. And then he points the broken handle directly at me and says, “You will never drive my car again.” Once again, it’s left up to Mr. Horton.

In my final week of driver’s training we are heading to the freeway. As usual I’m the last to take the wheel. Bob aced it. Ray appears to be drug-free and he also did well. I’m not very confident in my ability. I’ve watched my father drive the freeway and he always seems to frequently change lanes and swear at truck drivers. Something tells me I will need different skills. I like the faster speed on the freeway and lack of stop signs and traffic lights. Heading north on I-75, Mr. Horton tells me to take the next exit. I put on my blinker and look in the rearview mirror. The one thing I didn’t do was slow down. As I lose control of the car, Mr. Horton isn’t quick enough on the brake or the steering wheel and we end up headfirst in a ditch. The car is tilting forward and luckily we are all buckled in. Mr. Horton looks around to make sure everyone is all right and then he quickly gets us out of the car to search for a pay phone. We slowly walk up the ramp. Bob is shaking his head. Ray is laughing and Mr. Horton pulls me aside. He doesn’t yell at me in front of the others, but he does say, “I think we need to get back to the basics. Like learning how to slow down.” We find a pay phone in a nearby McDonalds and we all get a free lunch while waiting for the tow truck.

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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 as I showed my dad my new license. He opened the car door for me and then said, “Get in. Oh, and you will never drive my car.” And, just like my mother, 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