I was only about twelve when my Dad taught me to drive. We kept it from my mother for a few years, an easy thing to do since most of those early miles were on dirt roads in Georgia, travelled so Dad and I could troll the woods for firewood in later summer and fall. Going woodin’, we called it. Of his children, four of them girls, I was the oldest. For a long time I think he figured there would be no son; I was interested in learning to do what I saw boys doing, and Dad wanted to teach someone. So I learned to play baseball, chop wood, work on cars, and drive our enormous Chevy truck.
Dad was probably often nervous, though there was never any real evidence of panic. That first year, I wasn’t tall enough to see over the steering wheel. I sometimes sat on a phone book if the road was narrow, and I recall always gripping the wheel so hard my hands would remember that clutched position for an hour afterward. “Just feel the road,” he’d say, and I had no idea what that meant. “Keep that strip along the center of the hood lined up with the right shoulder.” I’d nod and try and focus on everything at once, which was hard. Dad sat in the passenger seat, gesturing out the window with the beer he opened as soon as I took the wheel, wondering aloud how much wood we’d need to get through winter.
If the truck got too close to the edge of the road, he’d point me away from that spot with his beer –“You don’t want to pulse the gas pedal. Steady and mellow. That’s the way.” –then go on talking. Writing this makes me smile and shake my head all at once. Those were some of the best times I had with my father. Inside the truck’s cab we shared a sense of joint purpose and camaraderie; our mission was to get firewood, but we were working at other things, too, namely how in the hell to speak each other’s language. I wasn’t a handful of a kid, but I was their first teenager, and that was foreign territory for my parents. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for the passenger to drink in the car, nor for kids to drive early. Looking back, what was uncommon was for this to be a father-daughter ritual.
I didn’t think too much about it when I was a teen, but now that I’m a parent, living in an age full of entitled kids, hyper-vigilant parents, and too many friends who’ve died in car accidents where drinking and driving was the cause, I can’t help but see the past through a new lens. To be sure, I won’t duplicate this driving school method with my own kids. Still, as a teenager, I was aware of the gift I’d been given, and how being able to operate a vehicle would unfold more freedoms if I did a good job and proved I could keep calm and carry on.
Of course, I didn’t always make good choices. Who does? The blessing and the curse of those years is an inability to see the world very clearly. Early on in my driving career I scratched the whole left flank of a friend’s parents’ car against their garden hose reel handle. I wasn’t supposed to be driving that car, which is another story I’m not prepared to tell – I’m not sure I even had a license yet. My parents made me write a formal apology, deliver it in person, and pay for a new paint job. Another time I let the car my sisters and I shared run out of oil and it threw a rod, ruining the engine. My punishment that time was to spend weekends with Dad rebuilding the engine.
Now I’m the parent of a teenager, and the question of driving is beginning to occupy more space in our family conversations. For many years, I imagined I’d be the parent who taught her kids to drive early, like Dad taught me, minus the beer drinking and the chainsaw. But I’m thinking I’m not that cool after all. Like a lot of boys, my son Owen’s a fidgeter, a disrupter, and full of restless energy that gets him into trouble too much of the time. He’s book smart but not that street smart, despite our (mostly) patient efforts to help him build this toolbox.
Me: Why did you shoot your sister in the eye with a rubber band at point-blank range?
Owen: I don’t know.
Me: Please help me understand why you opened the car door while I was driving on the freeway.
Owen: I’m not sure. I didn’t fall out, though.
Me: Help me see why you were hitting golf balls down the alley toward the neighbors’ houses.
Owen: I don’t know. But I didn’t hit any windows.
Me: You understand, right, when you respond in a nasty way to a group text that more than one
person can see it?
Owen: Wait. That was a group text?
I don’t want to air all of our dirty family laundry (what would I write about?), but these sorts of episodes make me really wonder about letting Owen get behind the wheel of a car, even if I’m also there, not drinking beer while gently guiding him toward good driving and decision-making skills.
To wit. This past Thanksgiving, when part of my extended family gathered at my aunt and uncle’s farm. On this farm they have a golf cart, which they use as a utility vehicle to get my grandmother out of the house so she can see the property and breathe fresh air. The kids believe this to be a false use for the cart – they spend hours driving it. Picture a golf cart packed with kids. Owen at the wheel because he’s usually the oldest cousin there. There’s much careening down the slope of the west pasture too fast. Dogs chase behind because kids are fun and will feed them treats they’re not supposed to have. Kids hang off the sides of the cart singing, screaming and frequently falling off. Often there’s crying and fighting. They get back on and don’t tell their parents, because then the golf cart would be put into the barn on time-out.
My dog Zora loves the golf cart almost as much as she loves cats and squirrels. She especially loves the wheels of the golf cart, which she attacks while making ferocious attack-dog noises. I’ve trained her not to do this, so when I drive the cart she either gets in with me or runs alongside. But Owen thinks Zora’s frantic, yipping game is fun, and so he encourages her.
Dogs, in the end, no matter how smart they are, are not that smart when they’re on the chase. Boys I’ve given birth to, in the end, no matter how smart they are, are not that smart when they’re in a chasing game. You can see where this is going.
Just before Thanksgiving dinner the kids came running back to the house to report that Owen had run the dog over with the golf cart. We all went outside, my Dad included, who turned to me to say, “You don’t let him drive the car yet, do you?” Owen was walking up the hill carrying the dog. He put her down and she stood up, though she kept licking at her backside.
Me: Please help me understand why you let her chase the wheel. We’ve talked about that a lot.
Owen: Well. She wanted to. Do you think she’ll be okay? I think she got stuck under the axle.
The next day, Zora couldn’t walk. So we spent Black Friday at the vet shopping for x-rays that told us there were no broken bones or internal bleeding. She’s hopped up on pain meds, and she’s going to be fine, though we’re only just taking short walks.
John and I decided a reasonable consequence for Owen was no more golf cart privileges at the farm. At least for now. It’ll sting as an outcome, because the next cousin in line is only ten. She’ll be delighted to be the new chief driver, though. Owen’s also had to write me a check out of his savings account to pay the vet bill, which is doubly painful because that money is meant for his future driving self.
Owen: But how will I have enough money to pay for car insurance when I need it?
Me: (Response not fit to print)
As for Owen’s official driver’s training, I’m thinking I’ll import my Dad to do the job. As long as he saves the beer for after.