Driving Lessons

Long before driving schools existed it was necessary to beg a family member to act as instructor. Mom, a traditional housewife, didn’t drive. That left me only one choice and it was a triple whammy of complications.

First, just learning to drive. Second, I was learning to drive on a stick shift. And third, I was learning to drive from my dad – a policeman. I recall during my childhood that Dad was this phantom who was often absent but always intimidating. When present he was this tall man in a blue uniform and a funny, wide-brimmed hat. Then there was the badge and the gun, holstered at his side.

During grade school, my sisters and I would come home for lunch to hear Mom’s admonitions to be quiet. Dad was sleeping due to a night-shift. But when he was around, lunch involved Dad’s orders to be completely quiet.

He loved Paul Harvey whose radio program aired each day at noon. The only sounds allowed were Dad’s chuckles or ah-hah’s in agreement with Paul Harvey’s analysis of some world event. I went through my childhood obeying without question and just staying out of the way of this mysterious interloper.  Until it was time to learn to drive.

After long, arduous kitchen table discussions and much spirited advice, we set out. Dad was a stern teacher, not known for calmness. I recollect our practice driving on city streets.  Perhaps large shopping center parking lots didn’t even exist back then.

I recall the first time we approached an intersection and I noticed the red light had changed to green.  I commented that that meant I didn’t have to brake though there were two cars ahead of us. I thought Dad would go through the windshield.

He smoked a pipe and always propped it, unlit but ready to go, in the open ashtray on the dashboard. I always knew when I wasn’t doing well. The pipe was lit. Couple that with his jerky motions and clearing his throat. The longer the session, the worse I felt.

Mom, in our much later reminiscences, laughed at how she knew right away how things had gone when we returned from a driving session. She’d peek out the window as we both walked toward the house; most often, I looked defiant and Dad looked angry. She knew not to ask how things had gone. By the way, I got my license on the first try.

Our father/daughter love/hate relationship was quite usual but with a little twist. I commented, as an adult, that I went through high school with a cop car in my driveway. And it did wonders for my social life. Guys often asked if they could pick me up on the corner. No way! I learned the hard way to toe the line at home. But it didn’t impair the adolescent sneakiness of my social life.

Just once, my friend Ruth Ann and I got the bright idea to skip school. We thought we were so smart, calling in for each other. Then we hit the road in Ruth Ann’s boyfriend’s car. We had a great time.

When I got home Mom coyly asked how my day had gone; then informed me I was busted. In fact, I’d been busted in the first half hour. As Ruth Ann and I blithely “cruised the gut,” I was spotted by a city cop. Who then called my Dad.  Who then called Mom.  She, of course, called the school. So, that was the end of my career on the lam. And it further curtailed my already limited use of the family car.

When as a senior in high school and just turned eighteen, some younger friends asked me to buy beer for them. In the desperate need to be liked, I said okay and went to a small grocery store and smugly showed my newly minted driver’s license.

Somehow Dad got wind of it (as he always did); all he said was what I was doing wasn’t wise and if I got caught I shouldn’t except any help from him. Needless to say, that put an end to my career as an underground supplier.

Life with a dad who’s a cop was hard. I got away with nothing. But I look back and appreciate a few lessons. I always signal my turns, keep a safe distance when following another car, don’t break any laws drinking or otherwise.

As soon as I graduated, I escaped the prison of my childhood.  Visits home from college were punctuated by Dad’s hunched shoulders and judging silence as I regaled him and Mom with my latest adventures. My only regret was once, to get his goat, I called policemen “pigs.” But then, that was the 60’s, don’t you know.



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