"Hey, what’re ya doin’, there, Dad? I’m ready to start drivin’.” Dad only swung the thin, metal rod down that would keep the hood from crashing on his head, signaling me to come to the front of the car.
“The first thing you need to learn about driving a car is how to keep it working well.” Huh, what? That’s not at all what I had in mind for a first driving lesson. Okay, well, if he wants to give me a few under-the-hood tips, I’ll humor him. I want to drive and it is his car, after all. “If you keep the vehicle running well, you won’t find yourself stranded somewhere. It’s not just enough gas that you need to worry about, you know?” Well, I didn’t know but sounded like I was going to find out before I felt my hands on the wheel today.
For the next forty-five minutes I learned how to check the oil and add a quart, if necessary. I learned how to check the water level in the battery and add some distilled water, if necessary, including just where that water is kept, lest I think it okay to add any kind of water I find the fastest. I learned how to check the tension of the fan belt and how to tighten it, if necessary, including just where those tools were kept in the car’s trunk. And, then, speaking of trunk… I learned how to change a tire. Now, I thought, that is something I will never need to know. Haven’t you seen the movies, Dad. Some guy will always stop to change a tire for a damsel in distress! After a review of air pressure in the tires under normal conditions and when the car is heavily-loaded, my father opened the driver’s door. I was shrieking and clapping on the inside, but, outwardly, just quietly moved to slide behind the wheel.
“Now, here you have your dashboard panel. This one is the oil pressure….” My father was so excited to have a captive audience to share these important points with that I just nodded and restrained my groans as best I could. I was certain that my older sister, who had waited until age 16 to get her Driver’s License through the Driver’s Education class at school, had not learned all of this stuff; or, at least, she never mentioned it. At this rate, I’d be 16 before I left the driveway! Okay, at last, there were no more gauges or levers for controlling or checking anything and it was time to drive. Yes! But, why wasn’t my father walking around to the passenger’s side of the car?
“Go ahead and scoot over there, Punkin. I’ll back her out and then switch with you, once we get to a street that doesn’t have any traffic on it.” It wasn’t a groan, exactly, but it was a pretty loud sigh coming from his 14-year-old daughter, clutching her precious Learner’s Permit in her fist.
Today, all of those gravel streets way out in the boonies, have been paved with homes built on each side; but, when I was 14, there was no one in sight for a long way in each direction. Guess that gave my father comfort on this first day of educating me behind the wheel. I must say, I was really disappointed, though, as I so wanted my friends to see me driving.
At last, he stopped the car, turned off the engine, and we exchanged places. Besides the racing of my heart, I didn’t move when he shut the passenger door and looked at me. I figured there must be something he would need to tell me before I turned on the ignition and I was not mistaken. Boy, there was a lot to remember when driving a car; I had no idea.
Dad explained the way to feel the clutch engage, signaling the driver to depress the accelerator pedal. I said I understood but the lurch, stop, lurch, stop, lurch, and silence of the engine rather gave me away. I felt the heat of embarrassment redden my cheeks, while sweat beaded on my forehead.
“It’s okay. Try again. No one saw you way out here.” I was so glad that Dad had chosen this remote stretch after all. He told me again how to feel the clutch engage and I tried again. It was only minimally better the second time but, at least, I didn’t kill the engine this time. There was so much to think about when driving – the rules and now the pedals and all. I’m not sure I could have gone down that road any slower. “Go ahead and give her more gas.” Guess Dad agreed with me. Slowly, ever-so slowly, I increased the pressure of my foot on the accelerator.
“We’re comin’ to a corner, Dad, what do I do?” Gripping the wheel with all my might, I waited for his instruction.
“Well, you can see that it is clear on all sides so just go on straight through it.” The tension in my shoulders relaxed a little and I eased off my grip. This isn’t so bad, I thought, as I made an attempt to relax into the back of the seat.
When I came to the first corner Dad asked me to turn right, I figured I should slow down to turn. However, when one is already going so slowly, well, I killed the engine shortly into the turn. Again, I was sooo glad that we were way out in the boonies and no one would be watching me but Dad. This driving thing was not as easy as it looked. I made the next right turn without much trouble but I think my father had had enough for one day. He told me to pull over to the side of the road and turn off the engine. Ha, nice to have the engine stop on purpose this time!
Over the next few weeks, Dad rode patiently with me and, except for the feel of the clutch engaging, I did get a lot better. I would not say I was relaxed, by any stretch of the imagination, but I could drive at a reasonable speed, turn both right and left corners, as well as whip out the correct answers to the rulebook each time Dad asked. I was feeling pretty good about driving.
Since I was allowed to drive with any licensed driver, my mother let me drive with her in the passenger seat sometimes, too. My older sister had no such confidence in my abilities and I really don’t blame her. I think the lurching starts might have influenced her reluctance some.
Even though Dad admitted I was improving, he had not actually let me drive the car onto our narrow driveway, its normal parking place in front of the single-car garage. I was permitted to start my lesson by backing out but never allowed to end it there. I had always thought it was because he was worried I would get off the concrete and squish the lawn. My first attempt at the driveway proved that was not it!
“Go ahead and take the right turn here and then turn right into the driveway.” Well, I did exactly what I had been told, except that I kept turning right once I hit the driveway. I neglected to straighten out the wheels. I bounced off the edge of the driveway, chugged along across the grass, headed straight for a side-swipe of my father’s beloved pick-up, parked, as always, at the curb.
“Dad, Dad, help! How do I stop?” Amazing how fear freezes the brain cells, isn’t it? My father, the Company Commander, knew that a level-head was needed and he spoke quickly but calmly.
“Take your foot off the pedal and turn off the key.” I did just that and his pick-up was spared by a few inches, as the car jolted to a stop. I had no idea how to get the car off the sidewalk, back across the lawn, and back onto the driveway. I didn’t have to ask Dad; he was already coming around to take my place behind the wheel. He didn’t say a word but, just might have been thinking, combat with those big armored tanks is a lot easier than teaching a teenager to drive.
I just needed more practice but should never have listened to a classmate who pressured me to deceive my mother in order to get it!
****Adolescent Milestones: First Driver’s License, Scene 3… Coming Tomorrow