When my eldest son turned 15 I took him to the DMV, where he promptly received his driver’s permit on his birthday. As I watched the lady behind the counter give my son his new credential my hair instantly turned three shades whiter, and the lines on my face dug in a little deeper. It hadn’t hit me until he actually had his permit in hand that he was now legally allowed to get behind the wheel of a car and potentially cause accidents for which I would be held responsible. Plus, my insurance was about to triple for the privilege. Ah, yes. What a momentous day.
The fun started as soon as we exited the DMV and headed for the car. Apparently, he was a changed man from when we first got there, because now that he had his permit he miraculously knew how to operate a motor vehicle well enough to drive from Heber to Park City, which included a 20-minute trip on a freeway. Forget the fact that when we walked into the DMV just an hour or so before literally he didn’t know how to turn on the windshield wipers.
“Can I drive?” he asked confidently.
I kept a straight face even though in my head hilarity ensued. It took all my strength not to come back with, “Sure you can drive, when donkeys play professional poker and they let pigs join the Olympic Curling Team… When your brother becomes a urinary sharpshooter and they make a toilet seat that cleans itself… When the dogs can vacuum up their own hairballs and do our taxes…” I actually had to take a moment to let the one-liners in my vivid imagination die down before I politely uttered, “Um, well…my car has a manual transmission.”
“I hate to point out the obvious, but you’ve never driven a stick shift before.”
Details, I Hate ‘Em
Even though my son had just turned 15 that day, his actual first time behind the wheel of a car was on his fourteenth birthday. All he wanted that year in the way of a gift was to learn how to drive, so I took him to a huge, deserted parking lot on a Sunday and gave him a crash course (no pun intended) on how to drive my other car, a bulbous 1998 Mazda MPV, which just happened to have an automatic transmission. Twenty minutes into it, however, when he got drive and reverse mixed up and almost hit the lamppost in front of him while trying to back out of a parking spot, I promptly ended the lesson due to my sweaty armpits and jangled nerves.
We made a few more attempts throughout the year, but never got beyond parking lots and my sister’s rural acreage (on which he drove my brother-in-law’s Bobcat tractor). So suffice it to say he knew as much about driving as Mother Teresa knew about being the grand marshal at a Mardi Gras parade.
But that was a moot point, as far as he was concerned. “I’ve watched you drive a stick, so I know how to do it,” he declared.
On the one hand I was proud of his confidence, on the other hand I was terrified of his ignorance.
Driving Toward Liability
“Tell you what, I’ll drive home, but when we get there I’ll let you try out this car in the neighborhood church parking lot. (Thank God for parking lots. I never really knew how handy they were until I had a teenager learning to drive.)
“But that’s so small,” he protested. “Why can’t I go out on the road?”
“Let’s see if you can just get the car to go two feet first,” I countered, “and then we’ll talk about taking it out on the road.”
He rolled his eyes and shook his head as if I were the unreasonable child. That’s okay, I thought. We’ll see how much his head shakes when he chokes the engine to death just trying to go forward in first gear. For good measure I stopped at home and picked up his then 12-year-old brother, who was more than happy to sit in the back seat and offer colorful commentary.
When we got to the parking lot I demonstrated how you had to simultaneously give the car a little gas as you slowly let out the clutch. To his credit, he listened carefully, nodded assuredly, and waited until I was done talking before he asked if we could switch seats so he could try it. He was so fearless about the whole idea of driving a stick he actually had me convinced that he just might know what he was doing.
We quickly did the clown-car shuffle, which ended with him in the driver seat and me riding shotgun. “Okay, let’s go,” I said without a hint of worry in my voice.
He put on his seatbelt, boldly released the parking brake, and then with all the confidence of a rock star gave it some gas and then promptly killed the engine, but not before it bucked twice, like a dying man taking his last gasps of air.
Little brother laughed so hard from the back seat he had tears in his eyes. “That was just like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride…only wilder!” he announced. “I think we actually left the ground! Can we do it again?”
“I think there’s something wrong with this car,” my older son said sincerely, ignoring his bothersome younger brother.
“There’s nothing wrong with the car,” I assured him.
“Well, it doesn’t do that when you drive it,” he reasoned.
“No, and it never will. You just have to learn how to time it right.”
“Can I try?” my 12-year-old asked, poking his head up front in between the bucket seats. “I know I can do way better than him!”
“No, you can’t drive. You’re only 12.”
“So? I can reach the pedals, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“I know you might find this hard to believe, but that is not my biggest concern when it comes to putting you behind the wheel.” I turned my attention back to the son who was behind the wheel. “Okay, this time give it a little more gas while you’re releasing the clutch. You might hear the engine rev at first, but…” I didn’t get to finish my sentence because suddenly we zoomed forward from zero to 50 in a New York second. But then just as quickly the car gasped to a stop when he took his feet off all the pedals.
Little brother was now laughing so hard he was on the verge of wetting his pants.
The Rocky Road to Success
This game of repeated whiplash continued a few more times until my son finally started the car smoothly and got it up to 20 mph, at which time the engine revved so loudly it sounded like a swarm of angry hornets.
“What do I do now?” he asked as he drove in circles, just so he could keep his speed up.
“Put the clutch in and shift into second.” He did, and the car violently pitched forward, but by gosh, he successfully got it into second gear. So now we were going in circles even faster.
After about 45 minutes of jolting from first to second, back down to first, and then back into second, I suggested we go out on the neighborhood roads, not because I thought he was ready, but because I was so carsick from driving in circles I thought I might blow chunks all over my heated leather seats.
He carefully pulled out onto the residential street, which was the first time he’d driven on public property. This is it, I thought. We are now officially liable. Oh dear Lord, I silently prayed, please don’t let us encounter any other moving vehicles while we’re out here. (Funny how I’m never religious except when I need a really big favor. Then I don’t know if it’s so much religious as it is desperate.) Well, apparently God wasn’t listening, either that or He has an incredibly dark sense of humor. Because coming right at us on a narrow street that was barely big enough for two horses to pass each other was a huge construction truck with a load of gravel. And of course, it was going way too fast.
“Oh, shit,” I muttered under my breath.
“Yes, I see it. Just get over as far to the right as you can. NOW.” He did, and that’s when I noticed we were heading straight for a parked car. Damn these neighbors and their visiting friends. Why do they have to be so social right at the moment my kid is learning to drive? Don’t they know we need every inch of road space during these nerve-racking lessons?
“Okay, you need to slow down, or better yet, STOP.”
“Now would be good,” I quickly replied, as I repeatedly pumped the invisible passenger-side brake Subaru had so thoughtlessly forgotten to install.
“Are we going to hit that car?” my 12-year-old asked excitedly.
“Stop it, NOW!”
“Who? Him or me?” my surprisingly calm older son asked.
“Both of you! ESPECIALLY YOU!” I clarified to the kid behind the wheel.
He immediately stomped on a pedal, but we kept gliding forward. “That’s the clutch! Hit the brake! Hit the brake!” I yelled with the intensity of an air-raid siren.
He danced over all the pedals with both feet like he was doing a maniacal Irish jig until the engine mercifully cut out about a foot behind the parked car.
Doling Out Driving Advice, One Yoga Breath at a Time
As the truck sailed by the friendly driver gave us a thank-you wave for letting him pass. I felt like flipping the guy off, but thought better of it since I knew he’d be totally confused by the gesture. (Plus, my kids were in the car and I try to limit my instinctive crazy-lady persona as much as possible when they’re around. By the way, that plan’s not working out so well the older they get.)
We all sat quietly for a second until my older son finally broke the silence with, “I guess I didn’t do so well.” I looked at him; sincere defeat hung on his face. I wanted to gloat, “I told you so,” but I couldn’t bring myself to do it because the situation was all too familiar.
When I was learning to drive a stick at his age, I ran over a lawn gnome. And yes, it was in someone’s yard.
“You’ll get it.” I told him, as the color returned to my face. “It just takes practice…which we will save for another day. An hour of this is about all I’m good for.”
“Okay,” he said sheepishly. He turned the key in the ignition, only to have the car leap forward like a spooked thoroughbred. The gap between our bumper and the car in front of us instantly narrowed by about six inches.
I took a deep, cleansing breath. “You have to put the clutch in when…”
“Yeah, yeah. I know.” He turned on the car, put it in reverse, jerked backward, and we headed home…all still in one piece. Except for my shredded nerves.
This post is an excerpt from my book Confessions of a Band Geek Mom, taken from the chapter entitled “Humbled By a Gnome, Forgiven By a Stranger.”
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Stacy Dymalski is an award winning keynote speaker and stand-up comic who gave up the glamorous life of coach travel, smokey comedy clubs, and heckling drunks for the glamourous life of raising kids (who happen to be bigger hecklers than the drunks). This blog is her new stage. For more of Stacy’s comedy check out her book Confessions of a Band Geek Mom available in bookstores and on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.