I'm sitting at an intersection, waiting for the light to change. A car pulls up beside me, the driver a study in rigid concentration: hands clenched on the wheel precisely at 2 and 10 o'clock'; head fixed on an unwavering forward line; spine on military alert. On top of the car is a sign that reads, ``Caution. Student Driver.''
* * * *
When my father taught me how to drive a standard transmission, he did so in an old Rambler that had a diabolically sensitive and unforgiving clutch.
Once, when making a left-hand turn at a hilly four-way stop, I stalled it in the middle of the intersection. After lurching and stalling three more times without gaining the length of the car toward our destination, I turned to my dad in desperation and said, ``Here, you'd better take over!''
Cars were backing up in all four directions, but he wasn't impressed. ``You got us here, you get us out of here,'' was all he said, laughing.
With a couple more lurches and one final, bone-rattling lunge, I navigated the 50 feet across the intersection, shifted into second gear, and left my audience of hysterical motorists to fend for themselves. I was furious with my father, but I never stalled that Rambler in an intersection again.
For my mother, learning to drive was a simpler proposition. During the 1930s, in Starbuck, Minn., there was no formal driver's education, and no test. To get her license, my mother just went with her mother to the filling station to see Bill Torgerson, the town recorder.
Bill asked my mom, who was then about 15, ``Can you drive?''
``Yeah, I can drive,'' she answered. That was it.
Cars were simpler then, too. One of Mom's older sisters, Margaret, tells how she learned to master the family Model T:
``I had a dream one night. I came downstairs in the morning and I said, `I dreamed that I took that car out of the garage. I know I can do it, because the dream went through everything I've seen Dad do.'
``Mother said, `You can't drive that!' But I said, `Yes, I know I can!' And I went out there and backed that car out of the garage. But of course, I didn't have any driver's license - I was only 13 -
so they said, `Well, you'll have to tell Gen what to do, and she'll drive.' Gen was 15, you see, and had her license, but she hadn't really driven yet.
``We had some friends who lived two blocks from our house, and Gen wanted them to see that she was driving. So I told her what to do, and off we went.
``Well, we came down to where our friends lived, and I don't know what she did, but she didn't get the car stopped until we got about two feet from the porch. You know, she went right up on the lawn. They were sitting on the porch and were wondering if we were going to come into the house!''
My grandmother's motor-vehicle education was equally casual, although it didn't come in a dream. It came on the open prairie of northern Montana. The year was 1916:
``One of our neighbors had a Model T, and he and my brother Ed took me out in the wilderness, - you know, up and down hills - where there were no roads. They were looking for cattle, and they just asked me to go along.
``So I went, and when we got up there on the prairie, they both got out and said, `There. You can drive back yourself.'
``I hadn't driven a car before. And I said, `Well, I don't know how to drive!'
``Well, you can learn,' they said. `You've got lots of room here.' And they left me.
Did I have a time, dodging rocks and washouts, and going up and down those hills! And I hadn't more'n got that car in front of the house and gone inside when the boys came back. I was so happy that I got the car back at all. I didn't want them to know how hard it was. Oh, jeepers, that was a hard one!''
* * * *
The light turns green and the student driver next to me surges forward and then, startled and chastened by the sudden and unfamiliar power to move, slows to a barely ambulatory crawl across the intersection. I smile into the rearview mirror and turn onto the Interstate.
No amount of driver's training can ease all of the anxiety or dull all of the excitement that lies along an open road. Maybe the best we can hope for is a light touch and a smooth release.
That's quite a bit.