Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Jackson Thorn steers his dad's van around the circle where they live in Massachusetts.

My son gets his (driving) wings

Today's driving schools for teenagers are a far cry from an older cousin taking on the teaching duties.

The driving age in Maine is much too low – 15, for crying out loud. In New Jersey, where I grew up, the driving age was – and still is – a more sane 17. Be that as it may, my 15-year-old son, Anton, finally wore me down. I dutifully enrolled him in a local driving school and hoped for the best as I slackened the tether another length on my baby boy.

Well, at least it's a driving school. I recall, on my 17th birthday, leaping out of bed and seemingly straight into the driver's seat of my dad's '68 Chevelle. No driving school for me! The modus operandi in Jersey was to have a family member do the dirty work of teaching a kid to drive. In this case it was my cousin Ritchie, four years my senior and already breathing the rarefied air of a 21-year-old.

There I sat, bewildered behind the wheel, with Cousin Ritchie right next to me, one arm hanging out the window. "Well?" he finally said, checking his watch. "What are you waiting for? Start 'er up!"

I had never started a car before. While Cousin Ritchie drummed his fingers on the door frame I tried one key after another from my dad's key chain. "C'mon, c'mon," said Cousin Ritchie. "I ain't got all day."

Finally locating the right key, I sat back, turned to Cousin Ritchie, and asked, "Now what?"

My cousin ran his hand down his face. "C'mon! C'mon! Start 'er up!"

I think I've made my point that I knew nothing about driving a car. When I finally did get the car started and in gear under Cousin Ritchie's hectoring, I was amazed to find that it inched forward without so much as my touching the gas. "Let's go! Let's go!" ordered Cousin Ritchie. "Step on it!"

I did as I was told – and we lit off like a jet on afterburners, jerking back against the seat as the car raced into my future as yet another denizen of the legendary highways of New Jersey. To make a long story short, I did 10 hours behind the wheel with Cousin Ritchie. I thought I had improved considerably during that time – my cousin's only consistent lament was that I drove too slowly. When Cousin Ritchie alighted from the Chevy after the last lesson, he looked at me, shook his head, and said – and here I must use the vernacular to communicate the mood – "Ya gotta yuze da gas!"

My son was spared the experience – perhaps "trauma" is a better word – of having a Cousin Ritchie for a driving instructor. A couple of weeks back, when I took him to the drop-off point for his first behind-the-wheel lesson, a perfectly respectable young man in a Volkswagen rolled up, introduced himself, and helped Anton accommodate himself in the driver's seat. I watched as my son secured his seat belt and checked his mirrors. And then, slowly, but with clear deliberation, he pulled away.

I couldn't help but look after him. I had the sense of standing on the shore of some great ocean, my son a captain of his own ship. As I watched and pondered, the great vessel began to move away from the familiar land that had nurtured my boy and seen him grow into a fine, independent young man. I was waving to him, but he was too intent upon his duties to notice, because running a ship is an all-encompassing chore. Before long he had disappeared over the horizon.

That's as it should be, of course. The act of driving, of wanting to drive, is not so much a mechanical need to have a powerful machine at one's command as it is an unvoiced statement from the child, who is saying, "Hey, Dad, look at me! I can't look at you because I have to keep my eyes on the road, but please watch me."

I am watching. It's the least I can do, because the art of this type of leave-taking is to do the least, keep my mouth shut, and hope that my son fares well on the open seas.

With all due respect to Cousin Ritchie.

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