Driving With Dad, and Other Journeys

Dad got me by default. The day I brought home my learner's permit, Mom spent a good (or maybe not-so-good) five minutes with me behind the wheel. Then she leaped from the Fairlane, barely managing to refrain from kissing the driveway in her relief to be standing on it again. When she could talk, she gasped that my roller-coaster-riding, hand-walking-off-the-high-dive dad might be better suited to oversee my stick-shift maneuvers.

"We didn't even leave the driveway," I muttered. "Yes," she said, rubbing her neck, "but what a ride!"

For some unknown reason, Dad decided I should learn to drive in his precious antique Model A. "You'll learn to double-clutch!" he exclaimed. For rather more obvious reasons, he designated the deserted roads way, way out in the country as my practice grounds.

I woke up that first Saturday dreading the coming excursion. For one thing, I knew I was mechanically challenged. For another, I feared Dad would expect too much of me. But the big reason was that, unlike my friends, I wasn't sure I even wanted to learn to drive.

"You can walk all over town," I told my best friend. "So what's the big deal?"

Her jaw dropped. "You just might want to actually leave town someday. Has that ever occurred to you?"

Sure it had. I'd been in a white-hot tear to grow up for forever. But now that it was actually happening, adulthood was zooming at me way too fast.

After the first jerky lurches ("You have an egg between your foot and the clutch," Dad intoned repeatedly), my driving lessons proved to be OK. More than OK, really.

It may have just been an effort to distract me or himself, but as my passenger, Dad went into storyteller mode. I heard new tales about his childhood, his relatives, his courtship of Mom. He tried out his never-ending supply of cornball jokes on me, real groaners. He described his practical-joke marathon with his buddy Red at work: "One-upmanship honed to the finest art!"

And I imagine I told him a few things about myself in those long afternoons of just him and me and the country lanes.

I soon found that a simple driving question to Dad was not necessarily answered simply.

"Dad," I'd say. "Do I need to down-shift at this corner?"

"Well, you know that when you put the car in gear, the blah-blah engages the whozit, which sets the thingamajig in motion, and then...." (Only he used the proper terms, which were lost on me.)

"Dad, quick!" I'd interrupt. "Here's the turn! Do I downshift or not?"

He nursed a sweetly steadfast but completely misbegotten faith that I would one day hear his car-engine spiel and actually comprehend it. It never happened, but he never quit hoping.

DAD'S nerves proved to be forged from steel. One day as we were tooling along, he said casually, "Terry, gosh. You're doing really great."

"Really?"

"Absolutely. You're shifting perfectly, signaling properly, accelerating appropriately. There's just one little thing."

"What's that?"

His voice rose slightly. "You're on the wrong side of the road! And you always tend to drive on this side! Why is that?"

I thought a moment, then shrugged. "It just feels natural, somehow."

"Well, do it in England, not in California, for crying out loud! And soon."

By then, we were laughing so hard I had to pull over.

As my 16th birthday approached, my stomach macramaed into a giant knot. One day, Dad said the words I'd been dreading. "I'll take you down to the DMV for your test next week."

Gulp. "Uh," I said. "Well. That is, I'm not quite up for it."

Dad looked deep into my eyes. And deeper still, into my heart. Finally, he said, "Whenever you're ready." He added softly, "There's no hurry."

And that was when it occurred to me that we weren't discussing my driver's license. Not really. We were talking about my voyage into adulthood.

With his words, the knot inside my belly loosened. And I couldn't help noticing that Dad looked as relieved as I felt.

"So," he said. "Saturday? You and me and the old jalopy?"

"I'll be there," I told him.

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