Thursday, July 18, 2013

Driving Me Crazy

Steve McQueen in Bullitt

I can remember first learning to drive, slipping behind the wheel of my dad's sleek, new, charcoal gray Camaro Z28 with its T-tops and fat tires. It was a fast car and I'm pretty sure my little sisters were both in the backseat for that inaugural drive. I can't remember where I drove or for how long that first time. I only remember one thing: it was fast.

I remember being taught to ride a two-wheel bike. It was on the grounds of the Skinner Center at the corner of Central and Tanglewood in Midtown Memphis. We lived in the house across the street, on the opposite corner of that intersection. I don't remember the make of the bike, but there was plenty of high, chopper-style handlebar. And I'm pretty sure the tires were solid rubber.

My oldest son learning to ride a bike set a precedent - he taught himself. Neither of us had the patience for the lessons, we quickly learned. From that point forward, both JP and S have been self-taught on two wheels. GK is still a question mark on that rite of passage.

So far, C has been an eager learner and patient pupil behind the wheel of a car. And I've been uncharacteristically patient myself. We're older, I guess, and there's a lot more at stake. It's still not finished, still five months from his 16th birthday, and he's yet to take a vehicle out on city streets. But in an empty parking lot, he's as smooth a driver as Steve McQueen or Morgan Freeman.

Here's to many more calm lessons, and to many years of safe driving by all of my kids. And here's to the memories such milestones make.

Today's "Because I Said So" column in The Commercial Appeal:

If son's still driving in 30 years, he passed test 
I recently drove my 15-year-old son to a wide open parking lot, parked the car and handed him the keys. It was his first time behind the wheel of a car and my first time in the passenger seat with a teenager behind the wheel of a car since I was a teenager myself. I dialed 911 and let my thumb hover over the send button. 
He did pretty well, though, narrowly avoiding the few obstacles, and I only barked “Brake!” once or twice. 
I learned how to drive through a combined effort of my father and his midlife Camaro Z28 and Memphis City Schools. Despite your experiences on the streets of Memphis, many of us drivers had lessons. And how many Memphians my age were taught to drive by Mr. Rafael? 
After a three-week course of textbook and on-the-road tutelage, Mr. Rafael administered our final exam, a grueling, hourslong written and multiple choice test as I recall, only to tell us when we were finished to hold on to that test and if we were alive to read it in 30 years, then we passed. 
I’ve passed. And here I am trying to pass that knowledge on to my own son. Imploring him to check his mirrors, mind the blind spots and pump the brake pedal. 
When he was 6, I drove him to a wide open field at Tobey Park to teach him to ride a bicycle. It took only about 15 minutes before we were out of patience with each other and I loaded up the bike in the back of my truck and we drove home in silence. It wasn’t long after that when I was down the block talking to a neighbor, and here came Calvin, riding his bike as though he’d been doing so for years — self-taught. 
How much simpler would it be if they were able to teach themselves to drive a car? How much better would it be for our nerves if we could just send our teenagers away and have them return as safe and responsible drivers? 
I told him that day a couple of weeks ago, as we made circle after circle in the vacant lot, that it amazes me that just anyone can drive. That we allow anybody who is of age and able to pass a fairly simple test the opportunity to wrap himself in metal and hurl himself down the interstate at 65 mph. And then I told him to “Brake!” 
He’s a good kid, and I have faith that he’ll be a good, conscientious driver. I’m not sure how I’ll be as the parent of a driver, though. I don’t think there are any lessons for that, none that Mr. Rafael imparted anyway. 
I can’t imagine that first time I’ll stand on the porch and wave my son away as he backs out on his own and heads into traffic. I’ll wish him well. And I’ll wish I could give him just one last word of advice: “Brake!”