Friday, August 26, 2011

Behind the Wheel, pt. 7: My First Time

As you both know, this is the semi-regularly series where I share stories about the brief time I spent driving a limousine while living in Panama City Beach on the tropical panhandle of Florida. I need to go back now to the first run I ever did before I forget it all. It's a good tale, and one I've told many times. In a way, it was the perfect job, it was the one that would define all others to come. Though I couldn't know it at the time, it epitomized every run I would ever do and characterized the position of chauffeur.

It was a wedding run, the bread and butter of the limousine trade. Typically those jobs lasted the three hour minimum: pick up bridal party at a house, ferry to the wedding site, quick wedding, drive the happy couple to the reception. Occasionally I'd wait around at the reception to take the newlyweds to their final destination, a hotel, but usually not.

This one was different, though I didn't know it yet. This one lasted all day long. I drove from PCB north, just outside of some small hamlet or other with its Winn-Dixie, post office and feed store, and little else. The panhandle of Florida is affectionately and rightly referred to as Lower Alabama, and I got as close to that physical and descriptive line as possible that day.

The bride and her family lived way out ... somewhere, I don't even know where I was, but they had some land and I pulled onto that land and right up to the double-wide trailer where I was greeted by the father of the bride. This man was just as nice as could be and beaming with pride for the day. I loaded him and his wife up and drove about a hundred yards through a field and over a rolling hill to his daughter's single-wide to take her aboard.

There was a time when I was plagued by panic attacks, and I found out that day that the worst place for one of these to hit was at 60 m.p.h. on a winding, two-lane road. My throat constricted, my heart was beating through my chest and I couldn't get enough cool air from the dashboard vents on that July day. I felt as though I were suffocating in my wool suit. And who would wear a wool suit in July? I would, it was my only one.

I drove that winding road with its tight S-curves while the father leaned through the dividing window giving me turn-by-turn directions, and I was dying. I mean, I thought I was actually dying, that I would have a heart attack at the age of 24 somewhere just south of Alabama, drive off the road and take these nice people to their great reward along with me.

(It was nearly an hour from PCB to the pick-up and then another 20 minutes or so to the wedding site and that was the longest I'd spent behind the wheel of a limousine at that point. The only other drive I'd done was to drive the boss through town to see that I was capable. I sped through the tail-end of a yellow light as it turned red that day. Still got the job.)

And then finally, blessedly, we arrived. Or, rather, we approached. I was pointed from the backseat to an entrance into the pine trees that cover as much of Florida as sand does, and was told to turn just past a balloon tied there - the saddest, loneliest, Mylar balloon I'd ever seen. I pulled into a rutted dirt drive, slowly because the trees crowded in and the passage was just wide enough to allow a 100-inch luxury car through. This drive wound through the trees, bouncing the car and, though the panic had stopped, wonder, and not a little bit of apprehension, settled in.

The darkness of the forest canopy gave way to a clearing with a mobile home just beyond and three young men waiting on the lawn before me. There was no wedding that I could see. There was no structure large enough for a wedding that I could see. Just these three boys, one with a hose and the other two with buckets and scrub brushes on extension handles.

"You're gonna pull up there and these boys are gonna wash the car real quick," the daddy said, and I turned to look at him, my pale, panicky face only inches from his fleshy head. He was serious.

Sitting in the car, all of us - mom, dad, bride-to-be and me - with a garden hose blasting the hood and doors and windows with water, brushes and soap scrubbing the roof, I began to think that this must be a joke. I expected to pull around that trailer and see my boss there laughing at me. I'm being hazed, I thought. This is some sort of virginal chauffeur ritual.

The pit crew finished and I was instructed to drive around the trailer and across a grass pasture for the second time that day. On the other side of the trailer was a wedding scene. There were folding chairs set up in rows with an aisle down the center, and a young man in his finest standing up front with a preacher and a backdrop of white lattice. I pulled the car right up to the center aisle and my faction of the wedding party exited. From the backseat of a Lincoln limousine, the bride marched right down the aisle to get hitched.

I stayed in the car, but a guest near the back of the onlookers didn't stay put. Just after the ceremony began, he got up and walked to the trailer and disappeared inside. When he reappeared and passed in front of the car, he looked at me, winked, and pointed to the pocket of his Levi's and the can of Coors beer he had there. It was for after he finished the one in his hand, I assumed. I gave him a thumbs up.

After the nuptials, and after the speeches given over a karaoke machine, everyone mingled and congratulated and everyone, every last one of them, took turns sitting in the back of the limousine in that grassy pasture.

I drove the bride and groom back down those winding roads to a nearby country club for the reception and stayed while they celebrated. It was a long night and I spent the time sitting in the car, standing outside the car, washing the  windows (there was no cleaning crew at the exit of the pine path), listening to the radio and reading. That is the life of a chauffeur.

At some point someone came over and stood next to the driver's side of the car, just stood and looked in until I lowered the window. "Hungry?" He twitched his head to the left. "Good groceries in there."

We ended the night back at the family compound and I settled up with the father of the bride who pulled an impressive knot of cash from his front pocket to pay the standard fare, and then peeled three $100 bills off for me. I figured this for a lucrative, entertaining way to make a living.

Nice people. Odd job. Weird, wild day.