Timid mom to truck-driving mama

As a city dweller, I've spent my life traveling by subway, taxi, or sitting beside my road-savvy husband, Fred, in our nine-year-old Toyota Camry. For him, seizing the wheel to play chicken with careening cars and speeding tractor-trailers is a year-round sport.

Not me. Although I'm a solid driver, I'm a timid one, especially on highways. As the more confident drivers weave in and out on Interstates, I hug the right lane at a modest 50 miles per hour. Our city-worthy car often feels as if it's the tiniest one on the road.

Recently, my dislike of highway driving took center stage when I learned that ferrying our 12-year-old son, Daniel, to surf camp would require 45 minutes of highway driving between our rented vacation house and the beach. We would also need a way to transport a seven-foot surfboard. When I suggested to Fred that we buy a rack for his beloved Toyota, he looked as though I'd asked to play catch with a ball signed by Babe Ruth.

"You'll scratch it," he said. Besides, if I was away for half a day with his car, how would he sample the fare at local farm stands and fish markets or browse hardware stores and bookshops?

It didn't take long to decide that renting a second car would make our month out of the city run more smoothly. I immediately thought of an SUV, the vehicle I'd secretly coveted as I'd watched friends pile kids and gear into Jeep Cherokees outfitted with drop-down movie screens and tailgates.

But Fred pointed out the flaw in my thinking. "How are you going to transport the surfboard?" he asked. "If you put a rack on a rental, you'll scratch it and have to pay for damages." Unfortunately, the car rental dealership manager agreed.

"How about a pickup truck?" asked Fred. He might as well have suggested that I spend the month at a nudist colony. I am the kind of woman who wears a straw hat with a grosgrain ribbon to the beach and makes sure I have a pedicure before I remove my shoes. A pickup truck? They were for farmers and carpenters, not mothers with beach totes and flip-flops.

I called the dealer again and learned that renting a two-door pickup truck would cost much less than an SUV.

In the car-rental parking lot, a white Chevrolet Silverado 4 x 4 towered over the other vehicles. I noticed its gleaming white finish and shiny chrome trim. No scratches anywhere.

The manager smiled as he handed me the keys. "Have a good vacation," he said.

I opened the door to a driver's seat that was at chin level. I grabbed the door handle to haul myself up, then settled into the soft seat and looked down - way down. The truck dwarfed the vehicles - especially Fred's Toyota.

A four-wheel-drive lever sat on the floor. I hoped I'd never need it because I had no idea what it did. I peered into the rearview mirror to a truck bedthe size of a small studio apartment. How would I ever park this thing?

I turned the key; the engine roared. I grabbed the giant steering wheel and pulled out on the road. I'm sure the rush I felt was similar to the one soldiers have their first time driving a tank. "Maybe this will be fun after all," I said to Daniel, who sat beside me.

"Let's call it Big Bertha," he said, "after the big World War I German artillery gun." The name stuck for the next four weeks.

I sat so high off the road that I could see out like a captain from a ship's bridge. As a timid driver of a small car in the world of giant Ford Explorers and Lincoln Navigators, I was skilled at driving defensively - getting out of the way. With Big Bertha, other drivers waited to see what I would do next rather than gunning their accelerators and pulling out ahead of me. I began to relax on the road and dropped my elbow out of the open window, truck-driver style.

In the pickup, I became part of a truck-driver fraternity. Workers in pick-ups with lawn mowers and plumbing supplies looked twice when they saw my straw beach hat, but always allowed me the right of way, even in the worst traffic. I proudly swung into the beach parking lot next to the only other pickup there, which I learned later belonged to the surf-camp director.

Once, we found the beach road flooded. In the Toyota, we would have turned back. "Watch this," I said, and pressed the accelerator. We sped through two feet of water, sending spray everywhere.

I'll admit that parking was a challenge. I began driving to the far ends of lots to find a space with extra room on both sides. Since I had a limited view backing up, driving in reverse became an exercise in faith. Daniel helped by hopping out of the truck and directing me, which he loved.

The surfboards - not to mention beach chairs, cooler, boogie boards, beach bags, wet suits, and towels - all fit into the back, which had a scratch-proof finish. On the days my husband decided to come to the beach with us, he always offered to drive.

"That's OK," I said. "I love driving Big Bertha. Hop in."

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