My son has a way with the highway

I'm rediscovering village streets I'd forgotten existed, narrow private drives and cul-de-sacs one would normally have no occasion to visit if not calling upon someone in the immediate neighborhood - unless, of course, you are seated beside your 16-year-old son. The ink is still wet on his learner's permit as he explores every nook and cranny in a manic effort to scent-mark all the known world with his tires and declare it his own.

Born in December, he has watched all his friends and classmates earn not only junior but, in some cases, senior licenses while he has waited none-too-patiently on the sidelines, ruing the month of his birth. But now, finally, it's his turn and he is determined to log as many miles in the next few weeks as his friends accumulated during the past year.

Three years ago his older sister was just as eager to drive - so eager in fact, that against my better judgment she took (and passed) her road test three weeks after receiving her permit. His twin sister, however, is quite another species. She's still prone to ask, after a year of occasional practice in the driveway, "Remind me again: Which is the gas and which is the brake?"

You'll understand, therefore, why I feel somewhat less secure in the passenger seat with her at the wheel, and why I've encouraged her, no matter what the cost, to seek professional instruction in a car with an auxiliary brake. The first time she drove me around the block, she made a left turn and asked, "Which side of the street am I supposed to be on now?" A huge UPS truck was bearing down upon us at the time. Blessedly, it stopped; we stopped. I drove the rest of the way home.

Her brother, on the other hand, seems born to drive. For a year he practiced in his grandmother's driveway, accelerating down the straightaway, whipping around the tight circle by the front door, then racing back toward the street, stopping within inches of the pavement, heart pounding, eyes and heart fixed on the great asphalt beyond.

The temptation to pierce the invisible barrier imposed by law must have been formidable, but he never let it overwhelm his judgment: He had been chastened by stories of his uncle, who careened around that same circle almost 40 years before and one day decided to see what lay beyond self-restraint. He returned home between two police officers and didn't see the inside of a car for months.

So as we left the Department of Motor Vehicles with learner's permit in hand, David asked for the keys and drove the 10 miles home, negotiating the congestion of downtown streets as though he'd been doing so for months. Only once did I find myself inching toward the center console as a passing truck forced him almost against the curb, but the rest of the trip proved blessedly uneventful. Since then we've spent hours side by side, running errands, driving to school, parallel parking on local streets.

Less than a week into this new routine David asks if we can drive on the parkway. I hesitate. The faster we go, the less time there is to correct a potentially fatal mistake. "I've got to learn sometime," he insists. I try to divert him with a little more parallel parking, but he slips in and out of spaces effortlessly and soon grows bored. "Come on, Dad, the parkway," he urges.

"You haven't even been driving a week," I remind him.

"But I've got good instincts," he insists.

"There is no such thing as an instinct for driving," I tell him. If there were, none of us would ever get behind the wheel. Peer over the edge of a 10-story building or a 100-foot cliff and we instinctively back away, sensing danger. Height we have an instinct for, not speed. We feel nothing at 60 miles per hour, nothing even at 600. We sense only acceleration and, unfortunately, it exhilarates rather than frightens us.

What keeps us alive out there on the road is not instinct, I tell him, but experience, judgment, and practiced reflexes - none of which is innate. If they were, car rental agencies would not categorically reject all drivers under 25, and insurance companies would not double or triple premiums for teen drivers. Statistics show that half of all 16-year-olds will be in an accident during their first year behind the wheel. If that is true after six or 10 months of driving, how much more so just six days out?

But cowardice in a teacher is inexcusable. I taught him to cross the street safely, to swim, to ride a bike. It behooves me to usher him into this new arena as well. So I remind him again of the first thing I said when I handed him the keys outside the DMV: "You now have the power to do serious damage. One small error of judgment, one moment of inattention, one ill-advised race down a local street could end in tragedy."

"I understand," he says with adult forbearance, resisting the impulse to remind me how often I've told him the same thing.

"All right, to the parkway," I finally reply. Better to experience it with me beside him now then on his own later, I reason. Cautiously but confidently he merges with traffic and gets us up to speed. My feet press a little more firmly against the floor mat, my hands clasp my knees. The guardrail seems dangerously close. I suppress the impulse to flinch, to cry out. My eyes dart to the mirrors, to the road ahead. Surely he is going too fast. But he's not, and gradually I relax, reassured by his confident control as he settles back into the seat, checks mirrors and speedometer, signals to change lanes, looks over his shoulder, and smiles at the thought that he's driving on the highway. "Doesn't really feel any different than 30," he remarks. "But it's a rush getting up to speed."

Yes it is, I have to admit. And that's what worries me. Testosterone and gasoline are a potentially fatal mix. But just as I'm about to make the point, a silver Porsche streaks by at half the speed of light, piloted by a balding man in bifocals who should know better. David's eyes follow longingly. It's not just testosterone, it's the culture.

Half an hour later, we pull into the driveway. "Well done," I tell him as he maneuvers into the garage.

"Same time tomorrow?" he asks, already aching to be back behind the wheel.

"We'll see," I hedge.

He takes one last adoring look at the dashboard, pats the steering wheel, and declares, "Nice ride!" Reluctantly, he opens the door and stands a moment beside the car, not quite believing that this is his life, that all the years of waiting are finally behind him, that he's only a few short weeks away from complete independence.

And then, as though ambivalent about that very freedom, he throws his arms around me and lays his head on my shoulder. "Thank you, Daddy," he murmurs.

"You done good, kiddo," I tell him. And then I take him by the shoulders and make one final plea for caution. "Just remember, you're the guardian of my grandchildren. Be safe."

"I promise," he replies, then bounds up the steps to the house shouting, "I love driving!" May God protect him and all our young behind the wheel.

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