SOME men are born race-car drivers. With insolent ease, they drive sleek machines at incredible speeds, avoid obstacles with swift slipstream maneuvers, and maintain control against the laws of physics through the sheer intensity of their concentration.
Opposing these natural mechanical athletes are those who, under any conditions, tend to crunch cars and property with equal abandon. My son James seems to be one of these.
''I need to get the lawn mower out, Dad. Can I back the car out of the garage?''
I looked closely at James. He was 15, due to begin Driver's Ed in four weeks, and skinny and antsy on his feet. His mouth was slightly open in anticipation, hoping against all hope that I would agree.
I considered. He was, after all, at that age where driving is the ultimate goal of human experience. Perhaps if he began driving by backing out, the experience would benefit him in other areas as well. ''OK,'' I said. ''But be really careful.''
He stuck a scrawny arm out for the keys. ''Thanks, Dad. I'll be careful, I promise.''
I followed him to the car. As we entered the garage from the kitchen, I lost my nerve. ''James, wait.''
''What, Dad?'' White knuckles gripped the keys in his right hand.
I realized in that moment that I had no more chance of retrieving those keys than if I had dropped them off a cliff. I looked at the keys in his hand once more. ''Nothing. I was just wondering if there was enough gas to back out of the garage. That's all.''
He started tossing the keys from hand to hand, clearly waiting for me to leave, to let him do this on his own. I watched the keys as they arced through the air and wondered if I could snatch them in mid-flight. Just as I tensed to lunge, he shoved the keys in his jeans pocket and gently turned me toward the kitchen. ''It's OK, Dad. I said I'd be careful.''
And he was. I know, because I watched him through the slit of the bathroom window overlooking the garage.
The car crept out, rolling at a snail's pace, completely in control. I started breathing when the car halted two feet outside the garage.
I worry too much. He handled that just fine.
When he asked to put the car back in, I didn't even pause. Without looking, I tossed the keys to him. ''No problem.'' I stayed in my study, working on the computer. If he could handle backing out, driving forward would be a cinch.
I heard the car suddenly rev up, followed by a crash that shook the house. I ran from the study and opened the kitchen-garage door to see my sturdy, dependable car thrashing into the middle support column of the garage. Bricks were scattered on the floor, littered on the car's hood; mortar dust hung in the air, and the car was still gamely squealing to smash through the column.
''Take your foot off the accelerator! Turn the car off,'' I yelled through the cacophony of grinding mortar and spinning wheels. ''Off, off, off, off, off!'' I screamed at James through the side window, my voice higher and squeakier with each burst.
With a shellshocked stare, James slowly became aware of his surroundings. He took his foot off the pedal, turned the key off, and looked at me over the steering wheel. He looked at the smashed brick column and the mangled hood of the car. He looked back at me. ''I can fix it, Dad. I know I can.''
IN times of stress such as these, I turn to math. The nice thing about math is that it is predictable. Math always turns out right in the end.
''Come here, James,'' I said, and draped an arm around his shoulder as he climbed out of the car. We began our circumnavigation of the wreck. ''Do you remember where the car was before the accident occurred?'' I kept my voice low, determined to maintain my calm.
''Sure. It was parked right there.'' He pointed at the driveway where the machine had been just moments before -- where it had been intact just moments before.
''How far would you say the car was from the garage at that point?''
He thought for a moment and rubbed his chin. ''About two feet, I guess.''
''Two feet, you guess.'' My eyes closed as I squinched my face and thought for a moment. ''Two feet. You had an accident in your first two feet of forward movement.''
My eyebrows came down, and I looked at him for three deep breathes. ''Two feet,'' I said again. ''That translates to an accident rate of 2,640 accidents per mile. At this moment, you almost certainly hold the worst driving record in this city, this county, this state, and this country, if not the entire world.''
This statement took him by surprise. His eyes widened as he realized the enormity of his achievement.
''Wow,'' he said. Not the reaction I was hoping for.
I squeezed his shoulder as a compassionate father speaking to an erring son. ''You understand what I'm saying, James?''
He looked at me as it became clear. ''Oh yeah. Next time you'll drive the car in.''