I have a thing about safety. I made my kids wear bike helmets. I never start the car without making sure everyone is belted. I check the smoke detectors twice a year. I even lightly run my hand along the banister when I descend the stairs. But I was not always this way.
When I was sixteen, I got my driver’s license. This is a rite of passage that most of us make, and I anticipated it with great excitement. Most teenagers learn to drive on the family car, and my mother’s car was a Saab with five speeds on the steering column. My dad, a traveling salesman, had driven it for thousands of miles. When he replaced the motor, he gave it to my mother. The little red Saab was old and creaky, but ran well enough to transport her to nearby Palmer, where she taught school. As soon as I earned my learner’s permit, my mother gave me permission to practice pulling the car forward and back in the drive way. She showed me how to put the car in gear, ease off the clutch and ease on the gas until the car inched forward, braking when I got to the end of the drive. She showed me how to find reverse and do the same thing until I reached the intersection of the drive way and Green Street. After watching me a few times, she assumed I had mastered the process, and went to her room to take a nap.
I drove back and forth several times, feeling cockier with every pass. I turned on the radio, so I could drive to music. I rolled down the windows so the neighbors would be sure to see that I was driving. I pulled up and backed out several times, not realizing that with each pass, I inched closer to the stockade fence that separated our driveway from our next-door neighbor’s. Sure enough, on a backward run, I heard a loud splintering crunch. I slammed on the brake and got out to survey the damage, where I found the front bumper to be firmly snarled around the fence. I ran to my mother’s room, waking her with my sobs, and explained what I had done. She, relieved that I had not run over one of my younger siblings, laughed and after a few attempts, disengaged the car from the fence.
Despite my encounter with the fence, I was undeterred, and a few days later, I suggested to my mother that we try driving through the neighborhood. I was ecstatic, but quickly found that driving a stick while navigating the hilly roads of Monson was much more difficult. I stalled and stuttered around the corner from Green Street to Bridge Street. Mom made it a short trip and soon after, enrolled me in Belmont Driving School where I learned to drive on the flat, quiet side streets of Palmer, in a car with an automatic transmission.
I passed my driver’s test on the first attempt and joyfully returned home to announce my victory. My parents, who surely graduated from the “Figure-it-Out-For-Yourself Academy of Parenting,” handed me the keys to the Saab and told me to teach myself how to drive it.
To understand exactly what this learning curve was like, you must first realize that in a family of eight children, very little was done alone. All six of my younger siblings piled into the car and together we set off to master the belching red beast. The beginning of the trip was fairly easy. After the first few shudder and stalls, I figured out that revving the engine to the auricular equivalent of a jet engine allowed me to get the car in gear and begin moving without stalling. The peanut gallery of the back seat jeered when I stalled and cheered when we moved, finally settling in for a ride about town by the time I hit third gear.
Together we sailed over the country roads of Monson- over Bridge Street, past the funeral home to Lower Hampden Road, past Highland Ave, and over the “thank-you-ma’ams.” Finally, I decided we should return home. Ricky was hungry. Missy had to go to the bathroom. I turned into Ely Road to turn around, which at the time, seemed like a good idea. However, once I turned the car around, I realized that I needed to stop at the end of a rise to turn back onto Lower Hampden Road. This meant I had to stop on a hill- a skill I had not yet mastered. I climbed the hill, stopped the car and looked for oncoming traffic. Seeing that it was safe, I slipped my foot from the brake to the gas, and at the same time let out the clutch. The car stalled. The peanut gallery jeered. I let the car roll back to the bottom of the hill so I could restart and cautiously crept to the crest of the rise. Again when I reached the intersection I stalled the car. I rolled back to the base of the hill and tried again, with the same result.
“I have to pee!” Missy whined.
Ricky leaned into the front seat, “Come on! Let’s go…I’m hungry!”
I could feel a trickle of sweat running down my back. I wished I could leave the car and walk home. I wish I had never gone for this stupid drive. I wished I were an only child.
I wanted to cry, but a long time ago I had learned that one has to take destiny into one’s own hands. Ordering the peanut gallery to watch from each window for oncoming traffic, I revved the engine once more.
“Yell if you see a car coming!” I warned, and gunned the engine. I popped the clutch and roared to the top of the hill, where I made a right hand turn onto Lower Hampden Road without even slowing down. The kids cheered and clapped. I breathed a sigh of relief and slowed to a more cautious pace.
“Don’t tell Mom, or I’m never taking you anywhere ever again.”
They didn’t tell, and I spent the next several years playing indebted chauffeur.
It was, to be sure, a dangerous move. My license should have been taken away. But it was a time when cars didn’t have seatbelts, cyclists didn’t wear helmets, and parents didn’t ask where we were going. They just told us to be back by supper. Besides, I came from the school of “Figure-It-Out-For-Yourself” and I did.
From there, my driving did nothing but improve, and with the exception of small incident involving a State owned care while working as a VISTA in Idaho, I have a totally uneventful driving record. But that’s another story for another post.