Memoirs of the frightening and funny experience of learning to drive.
| My mom handed me the keys. She stepped out of the car and walked around to the passenger side, and I slid into the driver’s seat. We were in the middle of the KSU football parking lot, and it was my first driving lesson.
The driver’s seat was the same kind I’d played in as a kid, in our old, long-since sold and probably resold van. My sister and I would buckle in, me in the driver’s seat, and would imagine going to the store, to grandma’s, church, all the while parked in our driveway, but seeing buildings whiz by in our minds. We got in trouble, I remember, breaking the steering in that van, or leaving the light on and draining the battery. I think it was both.
This was no time to make mistakes. I turned the key. The car started with a nervous grunt. There was a hint from my mom to adjust the mirrors. Then, in that so-called climax of teenage life, I took the car out of park, released the break, and for the first time felt the car shift under my control.
No trumpets sounded. There was only the sound of mom in the seat beside me—her unusually loud breathing.
Being the first born, the cautious guinea pig of the family who takes all the first steps of growing, I didn’t even touch the gas pedal that day. I just let the car roll very slow and tried to stay between the lines. In fifteen minutes, my mom had had enough, and we left.
I went back to the parking lot day after day, sometimes with my mom, sometimes with dad, and eventually got the guts to use the gas pedal. We practiced parking, turning, driving between the bright yellow barriers that lined the lot’s paths. I’ll never forget the day I met a car going the opposite direction on a two-way street, a small one, like a mail truck or custodian sweeper, on the road at the edge of the lot. My car seemed suddenly harder to steer. The other car’s bumper seemed ever closer, to hang over the dotted line to my side of the street. I tightened my grip and aimed for the spot between it and a post on the other side and the car passed easily.
We left the parking lots for the roads. First, a practically deserted military station, with streets all around. My younger sister, the next in line for driving, sometimes went with us. What went through her head I’ll never know, especially the time when, on a driveway turn-around, I lurched forward and hit a metal gate with a clang.
Every once in a while my dad would ask if I wanted to try the highway. I only wanted to as be far from it as possible for a boy who was too young to join NASA.
Anderson Avenue was our next move. I would drive from Blueville Nursery through Keats, and then turn around on highway 24. I started at 40 miles per hour, 15 below the speed limit, and cars passed me enough to frustrate my ego. But I was soon at 45, 50 and then finally 55. With barriers of doubt crumbling, we went beyond: downtown, Fort Riley Boulevard and to Topeka on I-70.
I learned how cars feel different, how you notice speed change in the driver’s seat more than you do as a passenger. I learned to be calm in heavy traffic, how to watch for those hidden speed limit signs, that you can turn right on red and left on the green arrow.
When I began driver’s-ed class, I already knew everything. I had driven 50 hours or more. I wasn’t going to be like other kids that so nervous with a teacher in front. My instructor was a man who wore sunglasses and listened to country music as we drove. On the third day he said I was “a little too confident for his liking” and I settled down a little.
I started noticing things he didn’t, like obscure, yellow warning signs. And I learned even more. I’ll never be one of those car freaks who takes cars apart and snaps them back in one piece within the week. But I may need to know what driver’s-ed taught me, like how to change a tire.
I passed the class with flying colors and received for my efforts a pink slip of paper that was redeemable for a driver’s license.
However, through the classes, and the highway driving and driving with teachers and parents, I learned not only to drive safely in many different situations and emergencies, but also to almost hate driving.
It’s gonna be a long eighty years, my life.
My sister just started learning to drive. I asked her if she had been afraid to push the gas that day. No, she said, as if it were ridiculous. What is it with me anyway?