We universally accept that 16-year-olds don’t know much about life, so why is it that we allow them to propel two-ton combustion engines over concrete at high speeds? After many months of pumping the phantom break and digging my fingernails into the armrests, our youngest daughter, Lilly, got her driver’s license this week.
And I breathed a sigh of relief.
I never understood my parents’ plight until I had to teach each of our three kids to drive. Now I feel their pain.
It was June 4, 1984, my birthday, and I was twirling the barrel of my curling iron through my bangs. I heard my mom’s voice calling from outside our brick ranch, “Sweet pea! Come here, would ya?”
I tsked loudly, rolled my eyes, and ignored.
“Honeybunch? C’mon, it’ll only take a sec!” she continued, eventually appearing at my bedroom door. In classic teenage style, I sassed at her, annoyed by what I saw as her rude interference with the crucial task of heightening my bangs.
Eventually, I succumbed to her pleas, but not without attitude. I appeared outside, slump-shouldered and eye-rolling, where the cause of the hubbub was revealed. On our lawn sat a pale blue 1974 Volkswagen Beetle tied up with an enormous yellow bow.
I offered no apology for my embarrassing behavior. Instead, I screamed and ran to claim the gift, which I assumed I wholeheartedly deserved.
That day, I had to deliver pizzas with my Dad for a school fundraiser, and he thought it was the perfect opportunity for me to learn to use the Beetle’s manual stick shift.
My hair properly coiffed, I jumped excitedly into the driver’s seat and awaited my father’s instructions.
A gruff, ex-college football player, Dad was not delicate. He operated on pure instinct, street smarts, and gut feelings. I, on the other hand, had no innate abilities. Instead, I relied on conscious analysis. My father didn’t use maps, instructions or cookbooks. I relied heavily on them. He was not articulate, using facial expression and volume to communicate. I spoke in great detail to explain my thoughts.
So, when it came time for me to learn how to drive a stick, we were not exactly compatible.
After several stalls, I eventually got the Beetle onto the road. I made every first-timer mistake — revving the engine, sputtering and stalling, rolling back after stopping on an incline, riding the clutch, and lurching. Each time, Dad bellowed, “Easy, easy! No, not now! There, now! Shift! The clutch, the clutch! Feel it in your rear!”
I couldn’t process the words he was blasting in my ear, and I soon began to cry.
“Can’t you feel it in your rear? That’s how you know when to shift!” he shouted in frustration. I had no idea what he was talking about, and continued to grind, lurch, and stall.
I was able to hide my tears during the first few pizza deliveries, but after more yelling and a near-catastrophic stall downhill from a barreling coal truck, I was soon a blubbering, red-eyed, snotty mess.
“Hello (*sniff*) Ma’am (*snort*) I, I, I, (*rubbing nose with sleeve*) believe you ordered two (*hiccup*) pepperoni pizzas?” I managed to choke out after ringing doorbells.
“Oh, Sweetie, sure! Would you like to come inside and sit a while?” one customer offered upon seeing my pitiful condition.
I somehow managed finish the deliveries without anyone calling child protective services, but was devastated at my failure to understand my father’s instructions. Later, I took the Beetle out alone on the road in front of our house. Even though I still didn’t feel anything in my rear, I was surprised at how quickly I taught myself.
Decades later, I realize that riding in the car when my kids are driving is sometimes a huge pain in the butt. Perhaps that’s what my father was talking about.
Regardless, my experience taught me to hold my tongue when our teenagers are driving. My instinct may be to scream, “Holy Mother of God! Brake! Brake! Brake!” But I’ll sit quietly and let them think for themselves.