When my twin daughters neared sixteen years old, I forced driving on them. I love to drive. I was baffled to discover how many of their friends were seventeen or eighteen before bothering to get around to the driver’s test. To me, driving was up there with the Statue of Liberty and the right to vote. If you’re an American, you just do it.
Driving lessons had literal fits and starts. I insisted they learn to drive a manual transmission because all the best cars are stick-shift. After some screaming, cursing and whiplash, they learned. They have yet to thank me, but I know they think it in their hearts.
I attempted to teach them how to drive on ice, mostly because I wanted an excuse to throw my truck into a skid. Sliding sideways as I chatted, we hit a dry patch and rolled the truck onto two wheels, where it balanced for a long moment before landing mercifully on four wheels. I suppose they learned how to drive in the snow.
I first drove at the age of five, when I kicked the family station wagon into neutral and rolled down a hill into cross traffic. But I was thirteen before I actually swiped a set of car keys and drove.
I was so eager to drive that I didn’t see the dark intentions of Mr. Mendenhall when he offered to let me drive his long, floppy Impala. The lanky man who lived around the corner encouraged me to sit on his lap and take the wheel. Soon I had the Chevy bouncing like a motorboat over country gravel at sixty miles per hour, a spiral of dust in my wake.
He had other lessons he wanted to teach me out there in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t feel in danger. He accepted no. I didn’t even condemn his advances. I just wanted to drive his car.
I remember vividly the thrill and smell of driving fast, but it was many years before the rest of my memories of Mr. Mendenhall slithered out of the dark.
At fourteen, I got a job clearing tables at a restaurant, and a sweet waitress named Nancy gave me rides home. It wasn’t hard to convince her to let me drive. A mid-size car back then is an aircraft carrier today. Her car was long, silver and clean, with a chrome shifter on the steering column. We stopped in the parking lot once and I slid across the squeaky vinyl bench seat. We tried to kiss. No talk, no schmoozing — we just started kissing. Her tongue poked through her tiny round pucker like a worm out of an apple. I nearly jumped out the window. I expected her to laugh at me, but her eyes were as nervous and disoriented as mine, and I figured she did it because she thought she was supposed to. That’s pretty much how I felt too. I dared to touch her breast through the deep, scratchy weave of her polyester waitress uniform. It was never spoken of again.
I got my driver’s license about ten seconds after I turned sixteen. Prom was coming up and my dad’s frumpy Datsun sedan (pictured above, right) wouldn’t do, so my friend Odee loaned me his gleaming, forest green Dodge Scamp. We buffed it to a spotless gloss, a boy’s way of primping for a date. Odee sprayed the front seat with Armor-All to make it slick so that every time I turned right my date would slide into me. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with that. I couldn’t drive in circles all the way to the prom, and she wouldn’t appreciate getting all dressed up just to go on an arcade ride.
Odee had as much experience at romance as I. My date managed to stay in her seat just fine, and although we did park a while and talk after the dance. After about twenty minutes, Odee’s 500-watt stereo drained the battery dead, and we had to hike down the highway for help, she in her frilly white prom dress, I in my mint green tuxedo.
My dad made me drive off a highway at 60 miles-per-hour onto the gravel shoulder so I would know how it feels if it happened in real life. I’m grateful he didn’t think I needed practice driving off a cliff. I passed that lesson on, in my own way. My girls know how it feels to skid sideways on the ice in a top-heavy SUV. And when I bought them their first car, I put jumper cables in the trunk.