If you can remember your childhood when you become a parent, numerous parenthood moments become replays of childhood moments from a different perspective.
That different perspective these days is the front passenger seat. That’s because our oldest can be seen driving around the Tri-States, parent sitting shotgun, driving learner’s permit in back pocket.
I’m not surprised he wants to drive everywhere, even five-minute trips. I wanted to do the same thing, starting from when I was about 5 years old. I always sat behind my father, almost always the driver, instead of my mother in order to get the driver’s seat perspective.
I learned to drive in the spring and summer of 1981, no doubt terrorizing other drivers on the far East Side and still-rural areas around Madison with, first, a 1973 AMC Javelin not equipped with power brakes, then my mother’s (and eventually my) 1975 Chevrolet Caprice, and my father’s 1981 Chevy Malibu. One weekend I drove my grandparents all over Grant County and other parts of Southwest Wisconsin in their own Malibu, and we all survived.
My first behind-the-wheel instructional experience was probably not what the instructor, the brother of a neighbor of ours, would have planned. While I was driving a Chevrolet Citation with no air conditioning and therefore no worthwhile defroster, Madison got hit with 2½ inches of rain. It was interesting, to say the least, to drive when it was raining so hard that the new driver couldn’t see to the end of the front end. We drove past the house of another new driver in our car, where sat a car he had purchased, which the monsoon had turned into a swimming pool with water up to the open windows. He was too stunned at the sight to use appropriate teenage profanity.
My driver’s license came after my second driver’s test in the fall of 1981. My first driving examiner, a grouchy old guy, was reputed to fail all males at least the first time out. Mother’s Day weekend having just past, my mother would require me to point out that she taught me how to parallel park in the aforementioned Caprice, all 18 feet 1 inch of it.
My second examiner wasn’t a guy, wasn’t old, and wasn’t grouchy, so, while the Milwaukee Brewers were playing in their first playoff series, I was able to drive my girlfriend home after dates and drive to and from work — in two words, transportation freedom. (In fact, I insisted on driving to the high school for a football game the day I got my license, despite grumbling from the passengers.) It was also errand freedom for my parents who now could tell me to pick up my younger brother from his swim team practice at the ridiculous hour of 9 a.m. (I have told new driver’s siblings that once he gets his license they might want to be nicer to him lest they have to keep walking or bicycling to wherever they are going.)
While clearly examiner Scrooge wasn’t my favorite, maybe he did his job in a way because no one from our high school class died in a car crash until a few years after graduation. (One of the remarkable things about my class, in an era where high school yearbooks usually had a memorial page for someone who died far too soon, is that our senior yearbook had no need — everyone who was around for the first day of freshman year in August 1979 was there for graduation in June 1983.) This was, remember, in an era where cars had neither air bags nor door beams nor antilock brakes, and seat belt use wasn’t mandatory. Cars of the era had, however, size and weight.
I now find myself watching my own driving closer, because parents are our children’s first teachers and teach mostly by example. Object lessons can be found in, sadly, stories in this newspaper of fatal crashes. And in the same way the car you just bought shows up everywhere you go, other drivers’ bad driving are also lessons in what not to do.
The aforementioned Caprice, seven years later, was the car that delivered a new college graduate to Grant County for his first full-time job. It was the kind of car you cannot find today. It had just two doors, but it had a trunk enormous enough to carry several 40-pound bags of peat moss and black dirt for my grandmother, and it was built as sturdy as a pickup truck (as I found out when driving on some area Roads In Name Only), while it got gas mileage about as good as a truck of that day — 16 highway mpg and 11 city mpg. Because of that and the ridiculous $30 to fill its 26-gallon gas tank, I passed on the Caprice a year later for a smaller and newer car, which was bedeviled by different, yet equally vexing, mechanical (particularly electrical) gremlins of the aforementioned Malibu. The only things that car had going for it that the Caprice did not was a manual transmission, along with tilt steering wheel and bucket seats.
Perhaps I can assign the new driver to drive me to car shows this summer to view the car that, to prove that life is still unfair, I don’t own — a Corvette. (Of course, if I buy one, he will want to drive it too.)