My son, Alyosha, recently turned 15, and, as if on cue, he asked about getting his driver's permit.
Gulp. I knew there was something ominous about that 15th birthday. Fifteen seemed so young to slip behind the wheel of something as powerful as an automobile. I suppose it's a throwback to the time when Maine was even more rural than it is now, and the roadways were less crowded and far less dangerous.
Times have certainly changed. As my Aunt Irene in New Jersey - a veteran of 50 years of driving - once put it, "Driving used to be a pleasure; now it's a frustrating necessity."
How true, especially in a place like Maine, where public transportation is as rare as date palms.
And so, whenever Alyosha asks me about his permit, I tend to look passively into the distance and change the subject. If he persists, I become as vague as fog and murmur, "We'll see."
All of this makes me think back to my own driver education in rough-and-tumble New Jersey, where obtaining a license was a rite of passage.
Precisely on my 17th birthday, on a warm spring day, I went down to the motor-vehicle bureau and took my written exam. A few minutes later I walked out with my newly acquired vehicular manhood in my hot little hand.
My father's work kept him on the road most of the time, so the job of actually teaching me how to drive fell to my cousin Richie, four years my senior.
Richie was serene, unexcitable, and measured. I remember thinking to myself that if he walked any slower he'd wind up in yesterday. What better person to patiently mentor me in the culture of the open road?
The day after obtaining my permit, I slipped into the driver's seat of my family's 1968 Chevy Chevelle. Richie eased in next to me. In a clear, considered manner he gave me some initial pointers. Then I started the car ("Good, good"), and we eased off down a residential street.
"You're doing fine," said Richie with a few nods.
But he must have had some reservations about his sinecure, because now and then I caught him mimicking my motions as he repeatedly applied his right foot to an imaginary brake.
After an hour or so of cruising around at 25 miles per hour, Richie made a grand announcement:
"Now for the acid test."
"Acid test?" I echoed as we idled in place.
Richie nodded. "The turnpike."
Sweat immediately pooled in my hands. In New Jersey, nobody lives very far from an exit of the turnpike (mine was 14A). Nobody, in short, was unfamiliar with its swarming phalanxes of charging automobile and truck traffic, sometimes 10 lanes across.
I drove us to the entrance to the turnpike ramp and stopped at a red light. I gazed ahead and watched as traffic funneled into the wall of toll booths. I observed.
A riot of horns sounded behind me.
"Go! Go!" shouted Richie as he pounded the dashboard.
I lurched toward the toll booths. "Wh-where do I go?" I panicked.
"Anywhere!" cried Richie as he craned his neck all about. "Just go!"
I slipped into a booth, took my ticket, and inched through. What sounded like a fog horn began to blare mercilessly behind me. An 18-wheeler with an attitude.
"Gotta go! Gotta go!" commanded Richie. "This is the turnpike! The TURNPIKE!"
We were off. I hit the gas and felt as if I were escaping the gravitational pull of some small planet. I was immediately awash in traffic, my hands fused with the steering wheel as I sought to command my lane.
Eyes wide, I stared straight ahead as vehicles roared past me, sneaked up on my tail, honked, and cut in front of me, the drivers making less-than-courteous gestures. I was doing the speed limit, and still they were flying by.
In the meantime, Richie Jekyll had become Richie Hyde. He was gripping the dashboard, his eyes flashing fire as he barked out commands and cautions. "Watch it!" "Slow down!" "Speed up!" "Don't let him cut you off!" "Let him pass, for Pete's sake!"
Four miles later, I exited the turnpike and headed home on more civilized streets. Richie once again was the picture of tranquility.
Despite my less-than-excellent adventure, I did manage to get my license, and I am still here to pass on my experience to my son.
And so it came to pass that a few days ago, Alyosha returned home from school in some sort of funk. Quiet and brooding, even the promise of pizza for supper wouldn't bring him around.
As he sat at the kitchen table staring out the window at the somber day, I regarded this boy, this strapping teenager of mine, and I reminded myself that, despite his bleached hair and outsized jeans trodden underfoot, he was a good kid. A responsible kid.
"Alyosha," I beckoned. "Let's go for a ride."
He wasn't up to it. But I insisted. And so I drove him to a lonely place and stopped the car. The engine hummed steadily for both of us.
I got out, walked around to his side, and told him to slide over. He looked at me, searching my face for meaning. And then he complied. I got in and looked at him, sitting there in my place, caressing the wheel like a true love.
I gave him a few pointers, made sure we were strapped in, and then watched as he put the car in gear and tried to ease us forward. We lurched and shimmied and then smoothed out.
"You're doing fine," I assured him. "Just fine."
For the better part of an hour we drove about. We talked, and I taught, and he smiled, this boy of mine, whose time - at long last - had come.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society