Some Thoughts, #4a

Topic #4 – The Car (Part One)

So Bill was supposed to make a blog entry during our trip about the car we drove. And he didn’t. But he did leave behind some notes. I stole those and without his permission I’m going to make The Car entry instead. It’s a little windy so I’m posting it in two installments. Sorry this took so long.

As a father, I have worried myself into knots over, you-name-it but what probably freaked me out more than almost anything in parenthood was the prospect of my kids driving. The thought of my progeny loosed on the road, navigating a gauntlet of inexperience, hormone poisoning, incompetent fellow drivers and plain bad choices kept me awake at night before our first baby was even conceived. Because life expectancy behind the wheel? Newly hatched sea turtles probably have a better chance of surviving their first year. I wish that were funny.

I know this particular child raising obstacle causes concern for every parent but it provoked me to unusual anxiety and still does. And I think I know why.

One of the many oddities in my life was learning to drive. I’m pretty sure my Dad had some early instinct that I might be a little bit slow. At least compared to my older and ridiculously accomplished siblings. And he might have had reason for concern. I remember, for example, getting pulled out of school in the third grade and being sent for a couple of days of “testing”. Uh oh. That didn’t go unnoticed.

So imagine my old man’s situation. He’s in his mid fifties. He suddenly, or gradually realizes he’s been dealt a weak hand in an accidental fourth-born who spends all day fanning through the Sears catalogue. A weird little dude whom the school system is having serious concerns about stewarding. He’s worried. He should be.

But my dad was an engineer – a problem solver. His parenting approach with me from the point where he identified a defect was basic. Old school remediation. Compensate for lack of natural ability with repetitive practice. I think he had in mind something like mastering activities of daily living. Tie your shoes, button your shirt, do your laundry, cook an egg. And, for God’s sake, learn to drive a car. So what does he do? The moment I am tall enough to see out the windshield and engage the clutch all the way at the same time? He teaches me to drive. I am nine.

As it turned out, my Dad was an amazing driving instructor. Patient, deliberate, and very ahead of his time. We practiced almost every day. And we’d do weird stuff. Like doughnuts in a local parking lot every single time it snowed. For an hour. Or we’d take two cars – I’d follow him alone in one – and he’d make me chase him around that same empty parking lot. In Reverse. Then he’d signal for me to follow him home. Again, backwards. In the right, driving lane. My car pointing first out of the driveway in the morning. On nights after those outings it would often take me hours to fall asleep after bedtime. WTF did we do? Crazy. Stupid. Perfect.

But that was just the preamble. After I had the hang of it, he let me solo. Regularly. On weekends, for example, my job was to drive, alone, to the top of our street, make a left on to the main drag, then another left into a convenience store parking lot. There I’d pop in for a gallon of milk and the Sunday paper, then return home. Round trip was maybe a mile. I don’t think I ever got into third gear. It is hard to describe how thrilling an adventure that was because it was so stunningly irresponsible, not to mention illegal. But it was something I looked forward to like a jail break every week and it never got old. And it made me feel uniquely special. Because I was pretty sure no other kid my age anywhere on the planet was allowed to do that. Much less knew how. I was the little Mozart of driving.

So – I love to drive. And I’m a decent driver. Not a great driver. Not Mozart, as it turns out. But imagine what I’d be like if not for my old man. If you’ve shared the I-95 corridor from Baltimore to Maine with me any time in the last thirty years, my dad may have saved your life. You’re welcome.

And – shockingly – I taught our kids to drive more or less from the same playbook. Are you nine? Can you plunge the clutch to the floor mat and still see through the windshield? Yes? Time to drive stick. That’s the short version. This is a public blog so my kids can fill in the details. But that’s pretty much how it went.

There was a time a couple of years back when we had seven cars. One each for Audrey and me, one each for our three kids, then a 1993 F-150 pickup truck that I run to the dump and back on weekends and a 1973 Karmann Ghia mouldering in storage. Emma moved to California and registered her car out there. And the Ghia found a much better foster home. So now we’re down to five.

Of those five there were only two we could possibly have taken on our xc roadtrip. Both are Subarus. One is mine, a 1998 Legacy wagon with 308K miles on it. Bill’s is the other, a 1999 four door hatchback with 210K miles. Both have the same amazing 2.2 liter engines and same 5 speed manual transmissions. Mine is on it’s third timing belt, suffers from some minor compression issues (like its owner), leaks oil like state secrets and has a pretty sloppy shift linkage. And the clutch slips. Bill’s is in slightly tighter shape except for a nagging ignition issue at slower speeds. His machine’s main defect is structural – it’s not waterproof any more. Driver gets wet when it rains kind of thing.

When Bill and I first latched on to the idea of driving across country the early plans were considerably more romantic, impractical and dangerous than the more conservative version we ultimately adopted. Which is to say we thought about driving one of our cars. Saddling up either of these antiques would have put our trip in another category altogether. Like covered wagon territory. We considered a couple of options. One was trying to nurse my car out and back. Maybe eight or nine thousand total miles. But that seemed harsh somehow. A llittle like making the favorite old family lab lead dog in the Iditerod. So then we considered taking Bill’s car as far as it would go before unscrewing the plates, prying off the VIN tags and leaving it somewhere discreet. That second idea actually had some legs until we realized that our trip would then be defined by warning lights, makeshift roadside repairs and unplanned overnights waiting for parts. Not to mention Greyhound rides to fill in the uncompleted miles.

So in the end, we traded exotic and exciting for practical and predictable. We decided on a one way trip so we could see as much as possible in the three weeks we had. And we decided to rent a car to improve the chances we’d actually get to some of the places on our list in relative comfort. And with a lot less anxiety.

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3 thoughts on “Some Thoughts, #4a

  1. Glenn, you are sure right about Dad. Dad did save a lot of lives: his kids’ and the thousands we missed hitting. Dad was as Glenn so aptly put it above – he was a great driving instructor who started his kids early: I was probably seven when I was allowed to run the car into a corn field, and I can still remember how embarrassed I was, at about the same age, at the awful noise that metal garbage can made when I knocked it over. Couldn’t reach the pedals but I was steering!
    I also had Grampa Carl (Dad’s Dad) as a driving teacher. He was a retired RR man, a tower man no less (RR traffic director for you non-RR types). Dad, though bending the rules on age, was pretty careful about general traffic laws (let’s not talk about speeding). Grampa, on the other hand, was meticulous on all of The Rules. He was the guy going the exact speed limit on the highway (to the fury of all the other motorists). And if you even slightly rolled through a stop sign you were in for a kind, but thorough, five mile lecture on what had happened to various RR guys he had known who “rolled through a signal”. I still think of Grampa if my car is so much as quivering forward at a stop sign.

    So our accident (free) record – all of us – is pretty good. Now the lead foot problem … well …

    PS: Don’t knock the old cars too hard: my friendly old Odyssey is also a ’98 – it and I surely have a few more CA-CT round trips in our future …

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