Sunday, August 13, 2006

MEME: Weekend Assignment #124 - Drive Time

John Scalzi's Weekend Assignment #124: Learning to Drive

Fasten your seatbelts because this week's Weekend Assignment (suggested by BeYankee) puts you behind the wheel:

Your Weekend Assignment #124: How did you learn how to drive? How many tries did it take? What was the first car that you bought?

Extra credit: Got a picture of that first car?

Dear John,

Hope that summer, with all it's myriad demands, hasn't truly left your environs just because school is starting for the wee bairn. If it has, well, fheh on the school system!

It was 1963, spring vacation. My mother's arthritis was kicking her hard, but we had committed to meeting my father at a resort in Hampton Roads, Virginia. She managed to make the first 150 miles, but the prospect of having to sit in basically one position while pounding across the joints in the concrete segments of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel system was too daunting for contemplation (Turns out she had the flu coming on, on top of the other health issues plaguing her). So I was designated as “the driver” and put behind the wheel at the age of 12. Aside from developing an acute awareness of the “suckage” of concrete walls, the 23.1 miles passed without incident. That was my first over-the-road driving experience.

Two years passed before I would have another. September, 1965 saw us move to Guadalajara, Mexico. We flew down, a story in and of itself. My father drove the car down during a break in commitments to his work in early October. Shortly after he left, my mother once again suffered ill health compounded with the need to visit my brother Richard in hospital on a daily basis. Once again, I was designated driver. Only this time, it was on city streets, with city traffic. And I had to stop every block or so. Long story short, I eventually ended up driving my poor mother all over the State of Jalisco that spring on break while she pursued her research. It was during that period that I also discovered I needed glasses. I could see road signs better with her sunglasses on. Who knew the world could be so sharp?

Fast forward two years later, back in the States. My mother had died September, 1965. I'd been shipped off to a boarding school with my brothers. I was over the minimum age to get a license. I finally persuaded my father to let me get a Learner's Permit. He enrolled me in a private Driving School taught by a tough divorceé, Chris Ruby. She thought I was too big for my britches and promptly showed me the error of my ways, putting me into slide after slide during driving practice until I understood you brake before the turn. She terrified me. She taught me a lot.

But really, truly, my father taught me most of what I know about driving over the next year. He insisted I drive for thousands of miles that year while looking at colleges, going on vacation, and through it all, he managed to keep his cool (no mean feat, that. I suspect I'd have been dead twenty times over if he'd released any of the rage and frustration he bottled up on my account). He had me drive in all conditions: rain, torrential downpours in Florida; ice in Maine and Michigan; snow, all over New England. I even did a dust storm in Texas and a twister in Kansas. That cost him a paint job, but I suspect he was secretly pleased (and relieved) I didn't panic and run us off the road into a wash.

I passed the State exam first try. I didn't pass my father's muster until the following spring. He had me drive a car down to Florida for him – by myself. Not any old car, his “Black Beauty” - a Ford LTD convertible with the big block V-8 and 4 barrel Holley. By myself, nearly two thousand miles. I knew I'd “graduated” then.

Your turn is coming – it won't be that many years before Athena is clamoring to drive. I hope you will consider preparing her by having her chauffeur you around to book signings and conventions for a year, just “because.”

Give my best to both of your gals. I'll be thinking of you.


P.S. The first car I ever bought was a 1960 SAAB 95 Wagon. It had a 3 cylinder, two-cycle engine that you mixed the oil and gas in the tank for during a fill up. It sounded like a popcorn popper when idling and screamed louder than you can imagine, able to rev into the 15,000 RPM range without breaking. It was front-wheel drive when the only other car with FWD was a Studebaker, and had over 100,000 miles on it. I drove it for nearly 50,000 miles. I loved it. It had a wide, blue racing stripe that ran up the hood (hinged on the front and tipped forward to access the motor – something one did rather frequently in those days), over the top and down the back door. It was way cool but sadly, no pictures survived the fire. I replaced it in 1970 with the new, improved model with a 4 cylinder, 73 HP, four cycle, Ford industrial engine taken from the Tucker Sno-Cats line. It could only rev to 5600 RPM safely. But it did 90 MPH without threatening to fall apart in the middle of the Interstate. My little workhorse hero!

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