Learning to drive with Dad

     (<a href=Car keys image courtes of Shutterstock.) " title="shutterstock_keys_16-9" width="640" height="360"/>

    (Car keys image courtes of Shutterstock.)

    I think of my dad in the car, because that’s where we spent our most memorable moments.

    On Saturdays he took me along on errands. At the car wash, we strolled alongside the soapy tunnel, Dad looking through the big window, me looking through knee-level glass blocks. We stopped for gas, and while the attendant filled the tank and checked the oil, Dad pulled out a little notebook to calculate the mileage. This was an eight-cylinder car in the ’60s, so anything in double digits was good.

    I sat in back and hung onto the front seat, looking over his shoulder. He pointed out the brake “in case the car starts to move and I’m not here.” Those pedals looked confusing. I worried about hitting the wrong one, if I could reach it at all. After consideration, I decided to use my hands.

    Knees in glove box, heart in mouth

    They still didn’t reach by the time I had a learner’s permit. So I sat against a pillow with the bench seat of Dad’s Chevy Impala pushed all the way forward. He was on the passenger side, issuing instructions. The volume depended on how far we were into the lesson. Despite his legs being immobilized by the glove compartment, every so often he would jab the invisible brake and say “Easy!”

    I didn’t drive on a real street for weeks. Instead, Dad and I did laps on parking lots all over Northeast Philadelphia, including Gimbel’s department store. We’d arrive at dawn on a weekend morning, the only moving vehicle for miles.

    Finally he took me on Roosevelt Boulevard, one of the busiest roads in the region, punctuated with dangerous intersections. It was an unexpected choice, but Dad had planned ahead: He devised a route that involved driving just one block on the boulevard, in the extreme right lane. Then we turned right, drove a block, turned right, and so on until we were back on the boulevard. After several revolutions, I asked if we could do something else. “Want to go home?” he responded sharply, probably irritated that I was getting bored just as his nerves were settling.

    The professor of driving

    Long before he taught me, Dad talked to me about driving. On a residential street it was, “With a line of parked cars, watch for feet underneath. And if a ball rolls into the street, stop, because a kid will be right behind it. Keep an eye out for car doors opening in front of you — I don’t know how drivers do that!”

    Turn signals were “the best thing they put on cars since brakes,” and he was astounded when people didn’t use them at every opportunity. “I drove to work at five in the morning,” he often said. “No one else was on the road, and I still used my signals.” Of course he did. Attention to detail made him the best driver I ever knew.It also made him a very intense teacher.

    Apollo astronauts received fewer commands from mission control than I did from my father. And the NASA conversations always sounded calm, no matter how badly things were going in the spaceship. Operations in the Impala were not so serene, with my father barking, “Get by him!” when I was in a vehicle’s blind spot, or “You’re close over here!” if I were a little off-center.

    My father was normally a man of few words, but he never shut up when I was learning to drive, a process he often warned me “would take years.” He could have written a doctoral dissertation on driving: I know because I heard it, several times. From Dad I learned to accelerate into a turn, merge, parallel park, and to expect the unexpected. I could compare and contrast city and highway driving, and allow for different weather and road conditions. I knew about 50 things to look for in any situation.

    Some of the time I was in tears, but eventually that subsided. As stressful as learning to drive was for me, I see now that it was worse for my father, who had lost a sister in a car accident. Though handing me over to a driving school would have been easier, he had to teach me himself. He had to be sure that I learned what he wanted me to learn, that I drove the way he did. I was relieved when I passed the test on the first try, but my father was just getting warmed up.

    He signed me up for professional lessons. “Getting a license is just the beginning,” he said. I was the only kid in the class with a license, and the instructors were certainly not what I was used to. I expected a running commentary from a copilot who clenched his entire body and flinched at every telephone pole. Who were these utterly relaxed instructors, who seemed almost comatose by comparison? Who in my first lesson took me on the Schuylkill Expressway?

    A long apprenticeship

    Although I had a license, I wouldn’t have a car for years and couldn’t bring myself to ask for Dad’s car. Nevertheless, I drove with my father’s encouragement. Errands, family trips, no matter, I was often at the wheel. Dad was in his usual spot, giving signals like a manic third base coach, and when I could no longer stand to see him from the corner of my eye, I begged my mother to switch seats.

    Grudgingly, Dad moved to the back. Expressive as ever, he replaced hand signals with sighs of exasperation, and it was not always clear what his problem was. When he eventually focused on what other drivers were doing wrong, instead of what I was doing wrong, it was a great day. I felt I’d finally graduated. It took about five years.

    With age, Dad’s patience wore even thinner, and a toot of the horn became his preferred means of rebuking other drivers. But he only meant it about half the time. A muscular problem caused him to grip the wheel too tightly in the sensitive spot. After an errant honk he’d ask, genuinely mystified, “Who was that?”

    “You,” I’d reply, and we’d both chuckle.

    Dad had long lamented the anemic sound of the car horn. “I’d like to have one of those air horns like trucks have,” he said. “Give ’em a blast from that!” Thankfully my father did not live to see drivers on cell phones. I don’t think any car horn could have taken the abuse.

    As his health failed, I became the go-to driver. Long after I had a car, a job, and a house of my own, I still often had one or both of my parents riding with me. And didn’t mind a bit. Driving was a gift my father gave me, and I was happy to return the favor.

    Pamela J. Forsythe is a writer and communications consultant in Philadelphia.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.