Taking the wheel

I was not one of those kids who race to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get their driver's licenses on their 16th birthdays. I was close to 17 before I agreed to take my first driving lesson. Some of my friends already had their own cars. I knew that almost anybody could learn to drive, but I was pretty sure that I would be one of the exceptions. From years of observation, I could tell that driving required a lot of concentration and coordination, probably more than I possessed. Steering, signaling, braking, and checking the mirrors seemed to be an overwhelming number of things to do all at once. To me, drivers were mature, responsible individuals with clear goals, not kids like me who mixed up right and left a lot of the time and who had no place really important to go.

The first thing my driving instructor, Mr. Martinez, asked me was whether I'd ever driven my parents' car. He expected me to answer yes. I had to disappoint him. The only time I'd ever sat in the driver's seat was on the Autopia ride at Disneyland. And to tell the truth, I always preferred the rides that consisted of a little vehicle pulled on a track, where nothing I did could possibly influence the outcome.

So Mr. Martinez took a deep breath and told me which was the gas pedal and which was the brake (that much I knew), how to hold my hands at ''2 o'clock'' and ''10 o'clock'' positions on the steering wheel, and he told me never to start driving without first looking behind me. I looked over my shoulder about six times before pulling forward in our driveway. There was nothing back there but the house.

The professionally equipped driver-training car had two brake pedals - one for the student and one for the teacher - and Mr. Martinez didn't hesitate to use his. Once, he thought I was about to run a red light. When we suddenly came to a full stop before I stepped on the brake, I was convinced the car was completely out of control.

In the six state-required hours of driver training by a certified instructor, Mr. Martinez showed me how to parallel-park, how to make a wide turn, how to use all the hand signals I'd need if the turn indicator ever broke, how to get on and off the freeway, and how to make a left-hand turn at a traffic light (''Pull forward, now, and establish your position,'' he'd say, encouraging me to be more definite, less timid). He even used two of the hours to show me how to drive our standard-transmission Volkswagen.

But after six hours spread over two weeks, I still wasn't ready. I thought maybe after all his long years of teaching, Mr. Martinez had found all the most deserted intersections and the straightest roads in town. Sure, I could handle the easy stuff, I thought, but what about the twists and turns of real-life driving?

When I'd finished with him, my mother took me out for one lesson, during which she kept her right foot pressed into the floor in front of her, probably wishing she had a brake like Mr. Martinez's. Every once in a while she'd gasp and cry, ''Watch out!'' Then she'd add, quickly, ''I'm sorry, sweetie, you're doing fine.'' The experience was rough on both of us.

I waited a long while before I tried again. Months later, my older sister, Maggie, agreed to go out for a ride with me every day until I was ready to take the test. During that summer, a local radio station was playing the ''Elvis Presley Story,'' hours of taped interviews and music, in daily installments. We scheduled our driving practice so that we wouldn't miss a moment of Elvis's life.

Maggie never tried to stop the car. She just listened to Elvis and his friends and family reminisce, looked out the window, and sang along with the songs when she knew the words. Once when I got on the freeway and was unable to get the car out of second gear, Maggie said, ''Put your foot on the clutch,'' and she shifted for me. Sometimes I'd have trouble starting on a hill. If there was someone behind us and I'd already stalled the car four or five times, Maggie would reach over with her foot to hold down the gas pedal while I released the clutch. When we were on our way again, she'd say something like ''Imagine, Elvis met his wife when she was only 14.'' When I'd hesitate to cross an intersection, seeing another car coming from two miles down the road, Maggie would say, ''You can make it.'' Even after the Elvis segment was over for the day, we'd keep going.

By the time we'd progressed from Elvis's birth in Tupelo to his superstardom in Las Vegas, I was ready. I took the driving test just once at age 171/2 and passed with a high score. I could drive.

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