Driving lessons

I had been labeled at an early age as a bad driver.

I was seven years old the first time I drove anything. My older brother wanted me to drive the lawn-mower tractor so that he could ride along on the wagon in back along with the rest of the cousins. He ordered me to get into the driver’s seat and grab the handles. At that time I still felt that I could do anything that my older brother could do, so I was excited to drive for the first time. I climbed up to the seat and took hold the handles the best that I could. The tractor had the type of handles that came out like a large V. I grabbed the ends of that V with purpose, but it took the entire length of my arms stretched straight out to reach each handle. I had to lean my body entirely forward, standing off the seat to just get the grip. Then my brother started the engine and those handles started to rumble in my hands vibrating and jumping as the motor spurted. I had a full load of my cousins on a trailer hitched to the back of the tractor. Then my brother put the gear into forward, yelling that I needed to steer as he ran to join the cousins on the wagon.

I just hung on to those handles not knowing what to do next. I did not have a clue how I might steer that tractor. The rumbling handles made my hands numb and turning in any direction, stretched out the way I was, seemed impossible so I just I hung on as I watched the tractor move across the stretch of green lawn. When I saw the metal poles of the swing-set come rearing into view, I heard my brother yelling at me from behind, “Your need to STEER!”. I pulled at the handles with my numb little hands but there was no budging. Just before contact with the metal pole of the swing-set, I jumped off the tractor and ran. Hearing the screams of my cousins on the trailer, I turned around and watched as the tractor crawled in jerks up the pole of the swing set, the back wheels grinding into the ground as the front wheels inched up the pole until the pole bent and collapsed, the tractor falling to the ground finding new purchase on the pole, chomping away at it like a hungry animal. My cousins all flew off the trailer, scrambling in different directions, screaming. All I could do was watch as the swing-set was turned into a mangled mess of twisted poles.

There was also the time that my cousin Debbie came over on her moped. I must have been about twelve years old at the time and I was having some friends over for a sleepover. We found the alcohol stash my parents had and decided to give it a try. I was a little tipsy by the time Debbie decided it would be fun for us to take turns driving her moped. I was the first to give it a try. This time I was ready for the vibrating handles and I knew enough to steer. Debbie explained to me how to rev it up and give it some gas to make it go and how to lay off the gas to slow it down. I took a couple spins around the yard and realized that I had forgotten to ask her how to stop the thing. In my inebriated state the only thing that I could think to do, under these circumstances, was to run the bike into the house. I broke a bone in my foot and caused enough damage to the bike that it would not start after that.

By the time I was sixteen and wanted to get my license, the stories of my inability to drive were legend.  I took the Driver’s Ed course in high school, sliding behind the wheel in a car meant for students, a car that had an extra brake on the passenger side so that the instructor could stop the car if the student went careening off course. I fully expected that the teacher would need that brake when it came my turn to drive.

Mom tried going out driving with me on a few occasions before I went to take the driving test to get my license. She sat in the passenger side placing her feet up against the dash to brace herself for the inevitable crash, hanging on to the cushioned door handle so tightly her knuckles turned white. Each time I turned a corner or took off from a stop-sign a little squeal would erupt from her mouth. Mom was not the best driver herself and was probably not the best choice for a teacher but it was all that I had. The words I remember her saying while I drove: Watch out! Where are you going! How fast are you going! Slow down! Are you watching the road! Oh Crap! I think we are done! I hate doing this!

My Dad’s answer to driving lessons was to let me drive the car by myself in our driveway. He insisted that I needed to spend eight hours driving in the driveway before I could go take the driving test. We did have a long driveway with a loop at the end but there is only so many manuevers a person can do in a driveway. To this day I can drive backwards better than anyone I know.

By the time I took my first driving test I was a nervous wreck. I was happy to put my hands on the steering wheel to keep them from shaking. It was hard to hear the instructions of the man giving me the test over the beating of my heart.  I made several errors including driving on the wrong side of the road after botching up a Y turn. I had to wait six months to try again, that being how often the instructor came to our neck of the woods. I passed on the second try, but just barely.

After finally getting my license, I could drive by myself but the extra car that my parents had for the kids to drive was an old Rambler that was a stick shift. I had never learned to drive a stick. After complaining long enough about wanting to drive that car, Dad finally gave in and decided to teach me. We were sitting at the kitchen table, looking out the window at the Rambler sitting in the driveway. He waved his hand in the direction of the car. “There’s nothing to it. It’s like a letter H” he said explaining which gear is in which position and how to ease on and off the gas when going from one gear to the next. “Go give it a try it if you want.”

I was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth and went out to the Rambler, sliding into the driver’s seat, checking out and memorizing the position of first second and third gears. I managed to move the car in fits and false starts to the end of the drive way and then I got it to cough and sputter down Highway 13 to the gravel road that turned past my Grandparents’ house. Getting it out of the driveway was the hardest but once I had it on the dirt road and  going things went well. But I got stuck again at the first stop-sign with someone coming up behind me. I was blocking traffic. My panic at causing someone to wait for me to figure this out caused me to make things even worse. I just kept killing the car each time I went into first. Eventually, the man behind me got out of his car,  got in the passenger seat beside me and proceeded to teach me how to drive a stick shift. It was easy once I was shown how to do it.

I came home gloating about how I learned to drive a stick. I never told Dad or any of my family about the man who had to stop and show me how. It was better that I figured it out on my own without help. It was one victory that I had, proving that I was not a bad driver. The problem was that I knew I needed help so in my heart I knew I had not really made the victory.

It was Mohan, my best friend that last two years of high school who finally taught me how to drive a car. We were skipping school and I was driving the Rambler with Mohan in the passenger seat. Mohan came from a family with five kids, all of them girls. Her Dad always wanted a boy and Mohan decided to be that boy for him. Her Dad sold cars and Mohan knew cars and how to fix them. Her name was Cindy Mohan but she gave up the use of her first name because it was too girly. She had shoulder length blond hair that she parted just off the center, always wearing it in a ponytail low on her head, always wearing the same uniform, a jean jacket with a tee-shirt and jeans.

As we were driving the twenty miles from school to the nearest Shopko, she noticed that I was driving all over the road. “I know,” I acknowledged. “I am a lousy driver.” I will never forget what she said in response: “No you’re not. You just need some confidence. You need a little practice. We need to take a road-trip this weekend and you will drive.” For her that was all that was to it.

It was the most amazing thing I had ever heard but I knew that she was right. I could learn to drive. Just because I did not know how to drive did not mean that I “always”  had to be a bad driver. All I needed was practice. We did take that road-trip, driving to her Aunt’s house in Milwaukee, a five-hour drive each way and I drove most of the time, arriving home at the end of the weekend a competent driver.

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