When I was in high school, I could not wait to be able to drive. I also remember when I found out that a cousin who was younger was driving before I did. I couldn’t believe it! Now, this cousin grew up on a farm and my mother said that country people drive sooner than city kids because driving is a necessity on the farm. This fit my perception that farm kids had to work from sunrise ’til sunset so my mother’s explanation made sense and calmed my jealousy.
It was during the summer when we high schoolers learned to drive. It was called informally ‘Drivers Ed’ and was administered by the high schools. Many of the high school teachers became driving instructors during the summer to keep the paycheck coming. I don’t recall who my driving teacher was, but speaking of teachers working summer jobs, I remember being shocked to see my math teacher working at a Taco Bell shop one summer day.
I remember all the environments for driving. We had to drive downtown, through neighborhoods, through congested areas and on highways to get the feel of the road. We had to park diagonally and in the parallel fasion. I did pretty well until I was assigned to drive a Volkswagen with a manual shift on a particularly hilly part of town. Try as I did I was never able to keep my foot on the brake and, at the same time, let out the clutch without the engine dying. The other kids in the car were successful…maybe they were from a farm and learned to drive before I did!
Back in the 70s and earlier, a lot of mothers did not drive a car. My mother was in the vanguard because she drove a car all her life. For her, driving was a practical skill…she got from one place to the other, that’s it. I don’t ever remember my mother driving for leisure. My father’s mother drove a car, but my maternal grandmother never did. My dad loved to drive and how he was able to drive his family long distances for summer vacations, I’ll never know. I guess we were kept busy in the back seats playing ‘bug slug’ (it might be ‘slug bug), license plate identification, etc.
I know people who love to drive long distances. I think the longest road trip I ever ‘endured’ was from Saint Paul to Phoenix. When I arrived at my destination, I told myself, ‘Never again!’ Flying long distances was more suitable to my taste even if I had to miss ‘seeing America.’ Why not spend three or four hours in a plane rather three days and two nights in a car? It’s all a matter of personal taste.
An interesting phenomenon of driving is that most of the time you will see the male in the car driving while the female is in the passenger seat. Years ago, that was normative and strangely enough it is still normative today. The old cigarette add for Virginia Slims back in 1969 proclaimed, ‘You’ve come a long baby to get where you are today.’ Women became the the subject of a cigarette campaign, but I don’t recall that the advertisers ever targeted women to buy cars. It was a proud moment for women to have finally arrived to a time when they had their own cigarette (there were many, Silva Thins, Eve, and Satin), but never encouraged to get behind the wheel.
Driving for me can be fun, but maybe only for thirty minutes! It’s not as if it is a hardship, but as much as I liked cars (the aesthetics thereof), I was never cut out to feel a strong urge to get out on the road. Maybe I took after my mother in this regard, utilitarian driving. This might also explain my failure at my first driving test. I turned the wrong way into a one-way street! Living in Phoenix while it was growing by leaps and bounds, freeways became the main arteries for efficient travel from one place to the other. As the same freeways were doubled or tripled in the number of lanes, traffic moved faster and faster. It got to the point that one starts to think that it’s only a matter of time before you’re in an accident.
I did not drive while I was in the monastery, when I lived in France and now living in Panama. Overall I don’t miss it. I say this however while I admit that I like to watch drivers. From my high-rise view, I can watch traffic all day. I see the aggressive drivers, the drivers who take up two lanes and the ones who seem to not know where they are going. I see police cars driving around with their flashing lights and I have often wondered why the flashers are on. I see this a lot in Israel also. Maybe it makes the drive more fun if you let people know the police are on the road too?
At any rate, driving fills us with a huge variety of emotions. We are frustrated to the pint of anger when someone cuts us off on the freeway or won’t let you merge (A confrere from the abbey was killed in this sort of unfriendly maneuvering.) Driving in rural areas can be relaxing where the splendor of nature surrounds you along the gentle slopes and curves and if you do encounter someone coming from the opposite direction, there is the customary hand wave. Driving on surface streets can be entertaining as, for example, when you are waiting at a red light and a clown walks by in the crosswalk.
In the end, giving up the keys can be the most traumatic experience a person can go through. “You’re too old to drive,” is often told to the elderly. Some seniors are slow to give up the keys while others welcome it. This reminds me of my days in Mesa, Arizona. Every September a very old priest would come to our area to escape the cold winter up in Fargo, North Dakota. I just assumed that he flew to Phoenix and when I found out differently, I commented to him that driving alone from Fargo to Phoenix must be kind of scary. He quickly responded, “Not at all. I dont get scared until I arrive in Phoenix.” He added, “Here in Phoenix, I never, ever make a left-hand turn!” Good advice from one driver to another.