When I let the kid behind the wheel, I don’t know whether to be frightened or proud. Driving is as much a rite of passage for the kid as for me. He’s reassuring. He has a confidence I don’t think I had when I was seventeen. He commands the wheel and knows almost intuitively how this driving thing is supposed to go.
At the same time, he balances his confidence with a humbleness that’s really a sight. In this way, he steers the car knowing that he has to get along with other people on the road. He has a notion that this isn’t fun. You do not play games with machines that weigh on the order of 3,000 pounds.
He didn’t come to driving easily. When he was 15, we offered to go with him to get a permit. He demurred and continued until he slowly came to a point where he realized he would be quite a bit freer if he could get himself around.
When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to get behind the wheel. The first car I ever drove was a 1951 International pick-up on rural roads outside of Storm Lake, Iowa. We were visiting my dad’s sister. Her husband was a Ph.D. psychology major who aspired to be a farmer. My dad talked him into letting me take the International out on the section roads in front of the house.
With dad at my side, we toured those dirt roads. At first, I ground gears and wobbled here and there. But after a short while, I got the hang of driving a manual transmission. I felt a kind of power and pride. I was growing up and joining the elite class of human being called “adult.” I was 13 years old.
After that taste of force, I ached to be behind the wheel. I bugged my parents at every opportunity to take me driving in parking lots and quiet side streets. By the time I earned a learner’s permit, I had been driving pretty steadily for two years. I took driver’s ed in high school and found that my mates were meek behind the wheel. For many of them, it was their first time in the driver’s seat.
At sixteen, I procured a license about a day after my birthday. I bought my own car from money I’d made working at a famous Kansas City barbeque restaurant.
I wasn’t ready for the road. Despite my high school classes and all the talk of defensive driving, I was a headstrong teen who thought he knew better than anyone how to drive.
I wrecked seven cars over the course of the next five years.
For that reason, when Sydney came of age, we waited until she was eighteen to let her get a license. She wanted to be set free earlier, but there was something about her maturity at the time that dissuaded us from giving her free rein when it came to the automobile. I recognized something in her I had seen in myself—an unwillingness to be told what to do.
When she finally got her license, she wrecked four cars before she turned 21.
She, like me, had to be beaten into submission. In my case, several trips to the ER convinced me I didn’t know everything about driving. (I also had a terrible habit of drinking and driving, though, through no fault of my own, I never got caught.) In her case, traffic tickets, humiliation, and steep insurance rates humbled her.
I should have mixed feelings about letting Nick captain our automobile. But he’s so much more mature at seventeen than I was when I quit wrecking cars and began to drive like I had to share the road with others. He’s beyond where Syd was when she was his age, at least when it comes to the humility needed to be a safe and considerate driver.
Covid has him stuck at home. The big boss called me at the last minute to tell me I had the day off. After a good, socially distant walk with a good friend, I asked Nick if he wanted to take to the road.
“Where do you want to go?” he asked.
“Wherever the car takes us,” I said.
“Good enough,” he said as he put his phone aside and put on his shoes.
We had no destination, so anywhere we went was a good place to wind up. The day was lovely, perfect. We drove the Boulevard from Summit to Neiman. I didn’t do a bit of instructing, watching, instead, how he kept looking in mirrors and keeping both hands on the wheel. He drove with a kind of equanimity that I have only achieved in the last few years.
Confident I was in good hands, I stared at the window at the redbuds, apples, and crabapples in bloom. I thought there must be a poem in this, but driving, as an endeavor, lends itself only reluctantly to poetry—unless there’s a long journey involved.
We traveled streets in Merriam and Roeland Park I had not been on for two decades. I pointed out the Shawnee Mission Postal Station, the headquarters for all the post offices in suburban Kansas City on the Kansas side. He kept his eyes forward, his mind on the work at hand. Any thought of being frightened about having my kid behind the wheel disappeared.
I’m watching him taking wings. Soon, he’ll have a license. He will be able to go out with his friends and get to his own school events. He’ll be out from under our care before we know it.
This is when I cease to be the teacher and become the student. He will achieve things he can’t imagine at this moment. Taking control of the car, in a sense, is taking charge of his own life.
I can wait. I’ll savor these last minutes of his kidhood and be a father while I can.
But I can see the end and it makes me feel old.