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.



“There’s a much shorter route to Wisconsin,” Kelly said looking at my accusingly. She rarely spoke to me since leaving Chandler, Arizona and we were now in Harmony on the California coast. I was wondering how long it would take for me to be busted.

Kelly was not happy about being dragged away from her high school graduation and from yet another place she called home to go God knows where with her mother. To make matters worse, we were not headed to another town for another job and another life away from the old one. Now, the destination was unknown.  I knew that we would end up at my parent’s home in Tomahawk, Wisconsin but after that, there was no plan. In the mean time I wanted to go as far as I could for as long as I could on the approximately $100.00 left in my pocket. “But you haven’t seen San Francisco yet; we’ll see the Golden Gate Bridge and then head to Wisconsin.” I pleaded my case with the biggest look of hope I could put on my face.

When we dropped Kelly’s younger sister, Daryl off at the airport in LA to get on a plane to Japan to visit her Dad for the summer, I promised we would take the most direct route to Wisconsin that there was. Kelly had no interest in one of my crazy road trips. She was only talking to me on a need to know basis and had stopped showering. It was her way of showing me how pissed off she was.  “I talked to this guy over in the bar and he showed me a map. We can get on a freeway right now and go straight across the country. San Francisco is way out of the way.” Kelly looked at me hesitantly fearing the worst. I could be very persuasive at times. By the time we got to San Francisco she was talking to me again, not yet showering but at least talking. It was progress. In Denver, we were back to our old selves. By then she could see that we really were going to make it to Wisconsin.

Unfortunately, the $100.00 I had in my purse did not go quite as far as I imagined, even with sleeping at campgrounds; usually, we arrived late and left early before the ranger came by to collect and we ate cheap, mostly at greasy spoon restaurants. We only slept once in a wayside next to big diesel semis leaving their motors running all night long. Dad was a trucker and I felt safe with several semis around. Even if there was one bad seed in the bunch, one of them would be a good old guy like my dad and would save a couple of damsels in distress. It became clear on the long drive through Nebraska that we were not going to have enough gas money. At the next gas station, I sent Kelly in with my last twenty to pay for a coffee and the gas. I told her to pick up a lot of creamer; I thought it could sustain me until the next day. I sent out a prayer to the universe to get us to Wisconsin.

“This is the change they gave me. It seems like too much.” She handed me some bills and coins and nearly the whole twenty was there. “Show me the receipt,” I said. Sure enough, they had only charged Kelly for the coffee. Nearly the whole twenty was still there. We were about a quarter mile from the station by the time I figured out what happened. Kelly insisted that she told them she was paying for the gas too. At that point I looked to heaven and thought that was a rather un-kosher way to get me to Wisconsin but I took it as a sign and pressed on the gas pedal. We looked in the rear-view mirror for the next hour expecting to see a cop pull up. We rehearsed our story about how we had no idea that they didn’t charge us for the gas. We would put on our most inocent blue eyed, blond look.

We pulled out all the change from the seat cushions and put all the money we had into that gas tank. We commented on how the winds had changed in our favor and they really seemed to push the car along. The car rolled to a stop, finally out of gas, just as we passed the sign for Tomahawk, Wisconsin. We still had to make it to my parent’s house out in the woods on the other side of town. As the car stopped at the side of someone’s nicely manicured lawn, the Wisconsin friendly inhabitant came up to the side of the car (I swear this is true) with a gas can in her hand. “What’s the problem, out of gas?”  Kelly just looked at me with that look of; “I know this shit happens all the time on your damn road trips, but really?!” We got a gallon of gas, just enough to make it to my parents house.