I have been blessed to travel hundreds of thousands of miles. My favorite form of transportation is the most deadly of common modes, the automobile. I have loved to drive for almost as long as I can remember. Dad would sit me in his lap and let me steer the car when we were on the back roads of southern Georgia, something he did with Shirley and Darlene as well and I would assume Jimmy before us. He would also let us shift the gears of the “three in the floor” English Ford. As soon as my feet could reach the pedals he let me actually drive. I had to sit on the edge of the seat and look through the steering wheel.
“How fast can I go, Dad?”
“As fast as you can and keep it on the road.”
Dad was a patient teacher. He would let me drive even when he was late getting back for work. “You’ve got to drive faster son, I’m late for work.”
“As fast as you can. Just keep two wheels on the road and you’ll be alright.” I was ten or eleven years old.
Driving was not just a privilege for him. It was a responsibility and a metaphor for life. Driving developed hand-eye coordination, reasoning skills, and a sense of responsibility. He never put these concepts into words. He never said anything about driving, other than “Do you want to drive?” If he had to articulate his thoughts I suspect it would simply be “It’s good for him; It’ll make a man out of him.”
Dad loved to teach through these driving experiences. In spite of the surface appearance of irresponsibility in his encouragement to drive fast, he was actually concerned about safety. Driving fast was a means of learning how to control the large piece of machinery.
He would frequently ask questions about the process. Once we were on a dirt road when he asked, “What would you do son if a deer was to run out in front of you from the right side?”
“I would hit the brakes and turn the wheels hard to the left. That way I would slide so that the front moved with and away from him.”
“That sounds good, son, but the truth is you don’t know what you would do until it happens. Think while you drive and hope you do the right thing when the time comes.” I am not sure what he was trying to teach me, but I’ve never forgotten the lesson. I took it to mean ‘be cautious, be prepared.”
Once I got my learner’s permit I was the designated driver. Typically, Dad would hand me the keys and ask, “here, do you want to drive?”
“Unless you do.”
“No, I drive enough. I’d just as soon you did.”
His teaching continued. For me it became a game. Slow to offer suggestions, he seldom gave criticism or directives. He preferred to ask questions or state “If it was me I would have ….” He rode in the front passenger’s seat with his left arm up on the back of the seat. When I did something below his expectations I could see the index finger of his left hand begin to twitch up and down. He was formulating a question. I kicked my brain into high gear trying to Alex Trebek him before he got his question out of his mouth, “I should have…”
When he did offer suggestions they came out of his experience as a truck driver. “If you watch the red lights closely you can pace your speed so you don’t have to stop or even slow down. That saves gas.”
I have on occasion not followed my own rules of driving: citizenship, concentration, courtesy, caution, and common sense. [Common Sense: Never drive faster than the conditions warrant.] When I was 18 I was driving on a wet, slippery back road outside of Birmingham. A pack of dogs ran out in front of me. I hit my brakes and slid all over the road. By the time I straightened my pinto out on the road I had made an existential discovery; no dog is worth a human life, especially not mine.
A few months later I was driving up I-59 from Birmingham toward Cleveland to pick Shirley up and drive her home to Jacksonville for spring break. I was cruising along at 90 mph in my luxury Ford Pinto when a thunderstorm broke loose. I slowed down to 75 but a Lincoln Town Car followed by a Caddy zoomed past me. I caught up and we strolled to Chattanooga at 90 mph. As I drove I kept saying to myself, “Jake, you’re and idiot.” I promised myself I would never drive that fast in the rain again. I have kept that promise. [Citizenship: obey the laws.]
When Cheryl and I got married I felt a sense of responsibility. I slowed down an average of 5 mph, 90 to 85 on Interstate highways. When Alethea was born I slowed down another 5 mph. And then there was that fateful February day in 1978 in North Dakota. There had been an ice storm the previous November. In North Dakota whatever falls from heaven in November will probably still be on the ground in May. We were driving north from Butte to Minot. The roads were clear except when I went over a hill the northern side was shaded and the November ice was still there. As I topped the hill I hit a big chunk of ice that had fallen off an earlier vehicle, tapped my breaks and began a wild fishtail all over the road. Alethea was in Cheryl’s arms nursing (remember this was BCS time – Before Child Seats) and Cheryl skillfully held on to her. Alethea never stopped nursing. To that date I had never been so scared. When we got home 45 minutes later I stepped out of the car and my knees buckled. That’s how shaken I was. I slowed down another 5 mph.
I have done a few other unwise things traveling. When we moved from Minot to Cleveland in 1979 I drove the U-haul by myself. Cheryl and Alethea flew down. I drove non-stop from 10 AM Sunday morning until 2:30 Tuesday afternoon except for one thirty minute nap in a weigh station outside of Cincinnati. Okay, I admit it, this was just plain stupid, but I stopped at three or four motels along the way and they were all filled. For the thirty years since I have been pretty conscientious.
By the grace of God I have never been in a serious accident. A teenager made an illegal lane change and clipped my rear fender in Louisville (the $600 in insurance money kept us afloat for a couple of months), and I was rear-ended making a left turn in Cleveland. In spite of my youthful flirtation with speed (physics not metaphysics), I am very serious about driving. I have not gotten a ticket for a moving violation in over thirty five years. I enjoy driving but I understand the risks, both to me and others. When I am behind the wheel I am always looking out of the corner of my eye for Dad’s twitching finger.
New York, New York
June 10, 2010