Monday, February 11, 2008

Dad's Driving School

Freedom is the single most important word in my personal vocabulary. In my teenage years, I got my initial taste of significant freedom when I purchased my first car. Bright orange would not have been my preference for the ideal color of my ride, but being a sixteen year old restaurant worker, I was operating on a meager budget. In 1980 the colors of the seventies dominated the used car market. Orange had been all the rage in the disco decade. I had to suffer the consequences.

I had saved $1,000 to put towards a car. My father had agreed to loan me the rest of what I would need to solidify the liberation that came with my recently acquired driver’s license. So the shopping began.

Early on a Saturday morning, my dad and I went to look at the 1975, orange, Datsun B210 hatchback. The newspaper ad showed the asking price at $2,300. When we arrived at the seller's home, my father looked over the car, decided that the tires needed to be replaced and asked the owner to knock $50 off the price. He, of course, jumped at the offer and with that, I had purchased my first car.

The only drawback, in my mind, besides the hideous orange color, was the fact that this car had a standard transmission, and I didn’t know how to drive one. My father assured me that this wasn’t a problem and he could teach me quickly how to drive this type of vehicle. I shuddered inside as I thought about the coming ordeal to learn to drive a more complex vehicle than our 1973 Ford Thunderbird with its power steering and automatic transmission.

After completing the transaction with the car’s previous owner, my father drove my car home and I followed him in the T-bird. I parked our family car in the driveway and dad pulled my new car in behind me. I jumped into the passenger seat of my new car. I knew it was time for my first driving lesson in my new car. My dad wasn’t one for wasting time. When something needed to be done, you just did it, no questions asked.

Dad drove the car out to the junior high school parking lot and we traded seats. My father was a no nonsense kind of guy. He wasn’t very patient and he demanded immediate competency when he set out to teach me something new. I felt extremely nervous as he started to explain how to work the clutch and the gas in concert with each other. I did my best to follow his instructions and I fumbled around with the new driving landscape that included the strange extra peddle.

After fifteen minutes of lurching and jerking around the empty parking lot, dad told me I was ready to head out on the open highway and head to my uncle’s farm 30 miles away. Was he joking? I argued with him a little, but to be honest, I knew better than to try that. This was his way of teaching me everything: he provided a few basic instructions and then threw me into the deep end. He expected me to swim immediately, and not whine about it either!

As I maneuvered out of the parking lot and onto a real road I could feel my heart beating wildly in my chest. I really didn’t know what I was doing. The first red light was more than traumatic. I killed the engine, with several cars lined up behind me, of course, and it took several attempts before I finally had us moving again. Thankfully, we lived in a small, friendly town and no one honked to further traumatize me.

I was relieved as I drove out of our little town and headed into the countryside. Thank God there were no more stop lights to contend with until we reached the next hick town along our route. As we approached the next town, I started feeling anxiety about whether I would get stopped at the one traffic light that existed there. The light was green as I approached and I was feeling a little more confident. That is, until my dad told me to turn off onto a side street and pull over. The unexpected stop proved challenging. As I rounded the corner, per my instructions, I found myself heading up a giant hill! I pulled the car to the curb, wondering what my dad was up to, and my watched him jump out of the car. He ran into the corner market leaving me to wonder what the heck was going on. It became obvious when he emerged from the store with a six pack of Bud light beer in his hands!

“I need this if I’m gonna make it through this drive!”

I started wondering what the cops would do to a new driver who was caught with an open container of alcohol in her car. Dad had more pressing concerns and evidently was willing to take the risk on my behalf!

Starting that car on the immense hill proved to be impossible for me. After more than a few attempts, my dad had me put the car in neutral and let it roll backwards down the hill and around the corner, so that I could pull forward on a flat surface.

We took off with me focused on the laborious mechanics of letting out the clutch, giving it the gas, driving a little ways and doing it again when the next gear was needed. With no more towns in our path, we lurched and jerked our way to my uncle’s farm, twenty miles and 3 beers away.

My father was immensely proud of me as we pulled in to my uncle’s driveway. His empty beer cans on the floor and a grin on his face from ear to ear let me know his feelings. Words weren’t needed.

My uncle came running out to congratulate me on my new car and my grand achievement of driving a stick shift for the first time! I felt a special kind of pride in my accomplishment as these two important men in my life oohed and awed over my car… and my successful virgin voyage as the captain of my own ship.

I recall that experience often when I am facing a new challenge in my life. I remind myself that I can do anything if I try hard enough. My dad taught me that it just takes willingness and perseverance to attain any goal. My entry to driving a standard transmission vehicle could have been gentler and more gradual, but that wasn’t my dad’s style. Although there are times in my life when I might have wished for a bit more hand holding and coddling from him, I’m actually quite grateful that my father taught me things the way he did. I’m strong and resilient partly because of the way he approached my education in the school called life. I don’t know who I would be if he’d done it any differently.

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