Tuesday, November 8, 2011

How I Learned to Drive; A Memory of My Father

Today is my father's birthday. He died in 2002.

When my mother was preparing to move into assisted living earlier this year, she returned to me a present I had given my Dad for Christmas in 2000; an essay I had written explaining why I was giving a contribution to the Boy Scouts of America/Shenandoah Area Council in his name.

In honor of his birthday, I'm reprinting that essay here.

How I Learned to Drive

I learned to drive on a 1951 Buick in the summer of 1967. It was big and it was heavy, and most significant of all, it had a manual transmission with a stick shift fixed to the steering wheel. To make the car go forward after stopping meant moving the gear shift while doing complicated coordinated maneuvers with my feet to let UP on the clutch while pushing DOWN on the gas pedal. If successfully done, the heavy car lurched forward and I could then easily shift into second gear. If unsuccessfully done, the car stalled and died.

The Buick was a monster that I set out to master the summer I turned 16, with my Dad as my teacher. He was a Boy Scouting executive in the Leesburg, Virginia area, and his work required considerable driving through the Shenandoah Valley region. I served as his chauffeur and he was my coach, freely taking on the painstaking task of teaching me to drive a big lumbering brute of a car so that I could get my license as soon as I was of age. In general, I was a fine pupil, eager to learn and willing to pay my dues by practicing over and over again the sequence of steps to get off of “stop” and into “first gear.” The positive result of my practicing, however, frequently vanished when I found myself at big, busy intersections.

There was one intersection in particular where several routes --all seemingly built especially for truck traffic--converged. This was my nemesis. I would sit anxiously at the red light waiting nervously for the green, mentally rehearsing my upcoming actions, trying hard to pay no attention to the many large, dangerous, and impatient trucks around me. “Green”—time to go. I would slowly push in the heavy clutch and slowly let it out while gently but steadily pushing on the gas. But not slowly and gently enough! The car would lurch forward and stall, much to the dismay of the truckers behind me. Occasionally I would manage to lurch and stall right in the intersection and I’d fight my panic as I started the car and tried again. Would I be caught out there in the midst of traffic when the light turned to red? To make matters even worse, the car had no air conditioning and it was hot that Virginia summer. Our windows would be rolled down, placing us within easy shout of irritated truckers and impatient experienced drivers who had to deal with a novice holding up traffic.

It was at these times that my Dad proved his mettle as a teacher and a parent. He did not have a reputation in the family as being a patient man, but sitting next to his sweating and fear-filled teenage daughter in the middle of a muggy and noisy intersection as she valiantly tried to get that car to move forward, he remained calm and unflustered. “Let them wait,” he’d say, and “Don’t worry about them.” And I would focus on the task at hand and I would, indeed, manage to move the big car out of the intersection so we could drive on down the road to my Dad’s next appointment. I took my driving test as soon as I was of age, and passed it on the first try, a rite of passage which resulted in greatly enhance independence as my parents liberally allowed me to use the car for school and church activities.

At the time I was too young and too focused on myself to fully appreciate the love my Dad put into action that summer. Recently, however, as I tend to my little son, the image of that car and the memory of how I learned to drive have come to mind several times. It is in honor of his gifts to me –his skill, his time, and his patience—that this gift is made in his name to the Boy Scouts of America Shenandoah Area Council.

Happy Birthday, Daddy! We remember you and miss you.

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