by W. Mahlon Purdin
She is a tough minded person. A determined person. And, she is very petite, so, to begin with, we HAD to figure out a system by which she could actually operate the car. If the car seat isn’t hydraulic, forget about it. My classic Volvo 240 DL was out for a number of reasons: manual gear box, for one, and a manual slide-only driver’s seat, (no up and down) for another. My brand spanking new Volvo 960 solved both problems. The hydraulic seat, in its up-highest, farthest-forward position, almost got the job done. With the addition of a firm cushion from the living room sofa and we were there. So, right off the bat, seeing her sitting there behind the wheel of a 3000-pound, $40,000 car, up high, way forward, perched on a cushion was a little comical (she didn’t really see the humor) and me joking around about it didn’t really help either. “Think how lucky person in the backseat behind me is,” she said. ”It’s roomier than a limo.” And then with a carefree thumbs up, she said, “Let’s go, Dad, this is great;” we were off lurching and stopping across the empty after-hours elementary school parking lot. Pretty soon she was doing figure-eights and three-point turns (with a lot of coaching) so I thought she might just be ready for Brook Street, a quiet back road in town. In the excitement and euphoria of the parking lot, I failed to remember that she was doing these maneuvers at four or five miles per hour. Once on the street itself, that, of course, was the exact speed at which she happily continued to drive along. With the strength of her performance in the parking lot, she felt that she was in full control. However, that bubble was soon to burst.
Our home town, in addition to being the Birthplace of the American Navy and one of the yachting capitals of America, is, unfortunately, also the aggressive driver, get-out-of-my-way-you-idiot capital of America. So, my young daughter, just learning to drive for the first time, was not on the street for more than half a minute before one of those sport utility vehicles swooped up behind us, out of nowhere, and with the driver honking and gesticulating angrily, passing her while thrusting a hand and a middle finger out of the driver’s side window on the way by, for good measure. She looked over at me inquiringly. “It’s all part of learning how to drive,” I said. Then, as we sat there looking at each other, another car whizzed by, and another one.
We went to a deeper-back, back road street where things were quieter. We continued our practice session.
Driving along, weaving to and fro gently down the street as she got the feel of the wheel, the car suddenly, lurched violently forward, engine revving, and just as violently it came screeching to a stop, almost standing on its head, tires leaving black rubber skids on the street. I expected all six airbags to deploy. “What are you doing?” I asked her.
“I got the brake and the accelerator mixed up.”
It took about a week of foot training and some of the most terrifying moments of my life, before we got that problem worked out. She continually complained that the brake and accelerator were either too far apart (that’s why she was keeping one foot on each of them) or that they were too close together (which was why she got them mixed up and hit the wrong one all the time). Pulling into the garage was a near-death experience.
But, in the end, she got it. And as we cruised around the back roads, I actually started to enjoy myself, being chauffeured around by one of my favorite people in the world. We were even listening to the radio together sometimes.
As confidence built up, we decided take it up a notch in back streets. It was at this point that I realized that my sense of well-being was unfounded and very premature. As we hit sidewalks and almost sideswiped parked cars, it became abundantly clear that, while she did not yet fully understand the difference between the brake and the accelerator, and, while most of the time she did get it right, she absolutely did not understand the concept of staying strictly on her side of the road, especially while turning. Compounding this situation, with the additional and dangerous variables of other cars and tight squeezes, was the emerging fact that her confidence level, inexplicably to me, had suddenly increased exponentially. During this phase, I did feel she was learning about the car’s maneuverability, its incredibly small turning radius, and the wonder of rack and pinion steering and anti-lock brakes. But, I also saw my life passing before my eyes more often than I did in combat in Vietnam.
Some of this was tangentially amusing despite the imminent dangers: the facial expressions of passing motorists upon seeing this very young-looking girl, way, way up in the front seat, tucked up behind the wheel, driving too fast and over on the wrong side of the road, suddenly yanking the wheel to the right or left as the case may be, laughing all the way, just missing oncoming cars. The frightened passenger in the seat next to her must have added to their surprise: his eyes wide open in terror, arms extended to the dashboard to steady himself and fend off the imminent impact, mouth open in an apparently silent scream.
She always tried to make me feel better, no matter how scary the situation was, by saying over and over, “I’ve got it under control, Dad. I can handle it.” This was always spoken excitedly and usually as she pressed down on the accelerator too hard, careening the accelerating vehicle towards the next curve with ever-increasing confidence.
To be fair, she always improved with each new excursion. Sometimes just a little bit, sometimes quite a bit. She consistently and very conscientiously advanced her skill and knowledge on the road. I found that encouraging. I came to realize just how complicated this whole process of learning to drive was going to be for both of us. There were so many things involved: driving in the rain, on highways, using the mirrors effectively, night driving, parking (parallel and straight-in), backing up, u-turns, three-point turns, and then, ultimately, the driving test itself. I knew it was not going to happen overnight. I knew now that I also had a lot to learn.
Even with these reasonable and fatherly thoughts to temper my expectations, it turned out to be a far more complex process and far, far more important for both of us, than either of us had ever anticipated.
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Confidence is really important in driving.This segment of the story is for all of those parents who are so demanding and who must always be in complete control at all times of all things. This is for all of you who are empowered with your own astounding brilliance. This is for those of you who just can’t bring yourselves to trust; to have a little faith in others.
After eight weeks of just the two of us driving around town, with a few tentative trips to neighboring towns, and even out onto the very narrow, narrow streets of one island town nearby, I was planning to take the day off to play golf, but my daughter still wanted to go driving. She was really learning to like it. It was still scary for her and she still was talking to the cars going by, “Jeeesus! Hey, Buddy! Whoa, not so close!” These are just few of the many, many comments (including actual expletives and declaratives here deleted) that she used pretty much constantly as we drove along. She was talking herself through the tough spots, encouraging herself and warding off the evil spirits of the pavement. But, today, I had to disappoint her. “Honey, today is golf. Tomorrow we will go driving again.” And off I went.
However, not content with a no-driving day, she implored her mother to take her out. Looking back now, I know it was all my fault. But the first tee was calling me, and I was weak. True, I did take some time to explain to Mom all the details that I thought would help her in the passenger seat. I told my wife that I usually spoke softly and gently instructing our daughter every step of the way, almost driving the car by remote control. I failed to mention that as her skill improved as a driver, the frequency of these instructions had decreased. As it turned out, this omission was a serious oversight. In the beginning, this was our typical sequence: “OK, check the mirrors, side and rear. Now, check your seat. Put on your seat belt. Start the car. Get into gear. Keep your foot off the brake. Look every way possible. Look again. Once more. OK, let’s start rolling … slowly.” But now it had become just, “OK, honey, let’s get rolling.” I told my wife that I always encouraged our daughter with “You can handle it. That’s great!” … and, so on. My wife looked at me with trepidation. She had once or twice tried to help with this training, but it was too much for her and she had insisted that I take over. Today, however, I was playing golf and our daughter still wanted to go out driving. So it was her turn again: that chicken had come home to roost.
Coming down the narrow Atlantic Avenue with cars parked on both sides – as the story was related to me –my daughter was driving as she always did: avoiding everything, not by precise judgements of the clearances and distances from other cars, but more like groping along using the steering wheel as a defense mechanism, weaving and jostling her way through every situation. In my daughter’s defense, she had never struck a moving target, but to the inexperienced passenger/instructor, this particular situation — dense traffic and tight quarters — could be quite disconcerting and frightening. Apparently, the attitude of the other drivers, their speed and impatience, along with our daughter’s steering style and use of the brake/accelerator was too much for her mom.
“Stop the car!” she shouted. “Stop the car!” “Pull over RIGHT NOW.”
All the months of practice and confidence building collapsed in a heap of mortification and embarrassment. On this day, our daughter had even brought a friend in the backseat: that’s how confident she was of her new skills. But, now, at the side of road, dethroned, and shocked by her Mother’s mistrusting outburst, followed by the passenger door opening and Mom now standing at the driver’s side saying, “Move over, I’ll drive,” the house of cards had caved in. Suddenly sitting in the passenger seat, I can only imagine how she felt. From proudly showing Mom how good she was, to the unbelievable situation of being ordered out from behind the wheel, in front of her friend. Something shattered that day. Perhaps she learned to temper her expectations. Perhaps some element of reality was introduced forever tinting her rose-colored lenses. Perhaps the shock of realizing the galactic distance between her own feelings of confidence and someone else’s perception will always keep her feet firmly on the ground in the future. Perhaps. I have thought of that stupid round of golf over and over again and I can’t remember a single swing or shot. I can’t remember the score or even who I played with. But the incident on Atlantic Avenue will haunt me forever whenever I mentally revisit that sea of emotion and despair that she must have felt that day. People who look back on their lives and say, “No regrets,” are lying.
* * * * *
When you teach your daughter to drive, prepare her for the worst. I could have done better. Teach her that people react differently to stressful situations. Teach her to always keep her ability and her confidence somewhere within reach and in sight of each other. Tell her that only she can do that and has to, no one else can do it for her. All of the lessons of driving are so vital, so arresting in their implications, and so important in the areas of experience they cover: intimidation, fear, triumph, failure, risk, trust, doubt, coordination, building good habits, overcoming bad habits, perseverance, persistence, forgiveness … it’s a potent slice of life.
It was almost a month before we were driving around again, happy, confident, and even with Mom in the car. So, in the end, she emerged stronger, and, if a little scarred, still victorious.
She is now in “driving school” and confident, just like all the other girls. But she came to that school with a lot of experience. The instructor told her on her first day that she was a “very good turner. A good driver.” He will never know the good those encouraging words did. My daughter told me that her driving instructor’s car was a bashed up old Dodge or something like that. It smelled bad. The steering wheel was loose and when you hit the brakes it screamed as though it was in pain. But, on that day, with those few words, the instructor and his old rattle trap won their place in our family history.
Kind words can make history, you know. I know this is true because she always tells everyone, “My Dad taught me to drive.”