Driving Lessons in the Chevy Titanic

Take one 16-year-old. Tuck her behind the wheel of a car roughly the size of the Titanic, and about as nimble. Toss in a middle-aged lady with perfectionist tendencies and a nervous condition. Now put them all on the jam-packed streets of North-Central New Jersey, and send the kid off on her first driving lesson.

I was that sixteen-year-old. And the middle-aged perfectionist, jumpy as a chilled Chihuahua?

My mother.

Yep. Welcome to Disaster, population-- two.

The car had been my grandpa's-- an early 80s steel Chevy Caprice Classic luxury car in two-tone blue. Its front seat was the relative size of a La-z-Boy sectional sofa. The back seat was so far away, you needed to dial a long distance area code, just to chat with anybody back there.

The hood? Planes would mistakenly try to fly in and land if the hazard lights were on.

Mom insisted this car would be better for lessons than Dad's zippy little Honda Civic because here, she could reach the gas pedal and the brake "if there were problems." Mom was anticipating problems. And that got me nervous.

Then she had me drive to the only somewhat open area our city had to offer. The parking lot of Two Guys Department Store.

Two Guys went out of business not long after this-- nothing to do with my driving, I assure you. But Mom felt the fact that practically no one went there anymore, would assure the safety of the locals, as well as ourselves.

In other words, this was the place I could do the least damage. Her confidence in me was inspiring.

So, in an effort to get my driving mojo going, I popped some tunes into the cassette player-- Chicago's Greatest Hits, as I recall (it just didn't get cooler than "29 or 6 to 4"!... )

(I know, just go with me on this, okay?)

And I took turn after turn around the ol' parking lot.

This went well for a while. I didn't run up over any concrete medians...

I didn't hit any pedestrians exiting Two Guys...

I didn't even wipe out any of the confused seagulls in the parking lot. I mean, we were hours from the shore-- those birds clearly had enough problems of their own without getting flattened by a giant living room on wheels.

And that's when Mom felt it was time for me to take to the Real Streets.

What Real Streets have that parking lots do not, I learned, were stop signs.

And while I did well-grasp the concept of the stop sign and how to approach them, with every stop, my mother aged just a little bit more.

It was that question of confidence again, and what with the Not Having Any. So about 300 yards away from any stop sign, and me going a whopping 15 miles an hour, my dear mother would turn pale and white-knuckled...

And start with the screaming.

"Stop, stop, stop, stop stop stop STOOOPPPPPPP!"

"I see it, I see it, I'm stopping-- fer Pete's sake, Mom!" I'd turn a scowling, blanched face on her.

"Well, I didn't know you saw it! How would I know you saw it?"

This would go on for about an hour or so, until she'd tell me to drive home and-- heart racing, weak-kneed and hands now trembling-- I'd park safely in the driveway and practically fall out of the car in my effort to get away from it.

Grateful to be free of gear shifts and steering wheels and multi-ton death traps.

And stop signs.

Especially stop signs. Even the sight of red made me twitch a little.

Well, needless to say, my desire to drive at all was lessened considerably after just a few lessons. It was probably some kind of Pavlovian response.

See, while Pavlov's dog heard a bell, thought "food," and would drool-- I'd take one look at that blue luxury liner out front, picture icebergs piercing it through, leaving my dad a childless widower... and I'd feel my hands start to sweat.

My last lesson with Mom, thus, became my last lesson for a good reason. This was where that iceberg hit.

We decided to go a more residential route-- one with winding turns to give me some practice. And by this time, I was fully terrified of making any mistakes. I mean, this road had stop signs, yield signs, curves, curbs, bridges...

And my mother--- sitting wide-eyed, stiff-as-a-board and clutching the armrest in case of doom, from the very moment we pulled away the house.

Well, things started out all right. I was, however, afraid to accelerate beyond 15 miles per hour because I felt that at a crazy 20 or 25, I was bound to screw up somehow... And Mom would be shrieking, putting on her flotation device and readying the life boats.

Then I glanced in my rearview and noticed the giant stream of cars behind us.

I was holding everyone up.

"I'm holding everyone up," I said. And, remember, this was New Jersey. Not exactly The Land of Patience and Harmony. So folks were starting to lay on the horn to express a certain amount of displeasure at my keeping them from hot, fresh bagels and bowling and White Castle hamburgers.

So my mother got the bright idea that they'd be a lot more understanding if they just had a better bead on the situation.

In other words, Mom started turning around and mouthing dramatically at them, "She's a student driver, she's a student driver."

Now, I don't exactly know how many of the folks could lip-read, but Mom didn't need to lip-read herself to see just how they felt about student drivers doing 15 miles per hour and keeping them from their Nathan's Franks.

"He just gave me the finger!" she exclaimed with a shocked gasp.

So she went searching in the glovebox for a piece of paper and a pen to write "She's a Student Driver" on it and put it in the window.

She never got the chance.

By this point, I was such a nervous wreck and so flustered from the horns honking, that at a curve where I mean to brake--

I hit the gas.

Up, up, up an embankment we went, right into the middle of someone's lovely green yard.

Finally, my mother had something truly legit to scream about. "Stop, stop, STOP, ohmigod, ohmigod STOP!!" And with that, she wrenched the wheel from me and tamped down hard on my foot as it was going for the brake.

Let's just say we made a serious impression in that person's lawn.

Mom made me drive home that day, but it was very silent in the car. No "25 or 6 to 4"... No "Make Me Smile..." And definitely, definitely not "Feeling Stronger Every Day."

I got out of that driver's seat and I didn't get back in it again until well after college, when I took lessons from AAA. My teacher was surprisingly a very calm woman, who had a sweet disposition and nerves of steel.

It took me three lessons to work out my Pavlovian reaction to stop signs. But I almost never break out in a sweat while driving these days...

Yup-- King of the world, Ma!

Rock the vote at:


JD at I Do Things said...

Oh, man, does this take me back. To yesterday. My mom STILL does this AND she's somehow managed to equip an imaginary brake pedal on the passenger's side of my car so she can slam on it every so often.

And 25 or 6 to 4 is AWESOME!

JD at I Do Things

Unknown said...

JD- It's amazing, isn't it? The gray hairs I gave my mom. (I need to go find my Chicago album!)

Miss Shirl said...

My gram used to sit in the pasenger side, hold on to the hand rail, knuckeles turning white she would hold on for dear life. I would start driving and the nerves would begin. We were always fine when I drove, parking was another issue. I've crushed the passenger side of the door trying to park, ran in to a mailbox, and had a bad habit of putting the car in nutral and not park. I'm lucky my gram's new Cavalier didn't end up in the creek. I did drive like a maniac but still I was better driving than parking.

Anne Coleman said...

Why is it always a parking lot? My first parking lot involved me and a white Rabbit. My license didn't come for another 6 or so years... Need I say more?

Unknown said...

Shirley- Wow, for the first time, I'm sorta glad we're an hour or so away from each other. :)

I didn't do well parallel parking in that big car, either. But that was sort of a whole other story. :)

Anne- Heh, um, no I think I can understand your pain there.

Me-Me King said...

My dad put me in the farm truck in the middle of a field when I was 12. The truck wasn't automatic - it was three on the tree. Anyway, there was nothing for me to run into but a stock pond which I somehow managed to avoid. By the end of the day I was ready for the hi-way. It's was scary, fun and exciting!

Unknown said...

Now THAT's a good way to do it. Nice and safe, and nothing to hurt but the crops. :)

Anonymous said...

I was 16 and so anxious to get my driving licence and impress the girls with my dad's car. Too anxious that I failed the first test and had to take another test 2 months later. Ironically, the day I got my licence, my dad traded his car for a van, so he can use it for his business and of course to accomodate our big family. Phew..!

Meg said...

Pardon me if I'm not laughing--my Teen just got his license the day after Christmas!!!!

btw, love the new pic. ;)

Unknown said...

Ismail- I guess it wouldn't have been as easy impressing the girls with the minivan, huh? :) Glad you were able to get the license before the van arrived!

Prefers- Oh, I'm sure you're on eggshells all the time, now. But I'm certain he'll be fine-- here's hoping all will be well.

Da Old Man said...

Great story. It just took me back to Driver's Ed in HS. Pete was driving. Teacher (mellow guy) told him to turn right. Pete turned right, yet didn't understand the concept of straightening out the wheel as we drove up and over the curb and onto the lawn of some poor innocent homeowner.
That car was the equally spacious LTD.

Unknown said...

DaOldMan- Pete was just a very literal guy is all. :) And sometimes it's nice to park in the grass and, um, contemplate a while. Get a chance of scenery and whatnot.

Marvel Goose said...

I'm sitting in that right hand hot spot these days. After the first few weeks, things calm down. Still, Son #2 is prone to wide turns that cross lanes and if he's trying to get into a busy street from a side street he will lay some rubber down out of fear that he won't make it.

We're now playing "find that destination" I tell him a place to go and then shut up unless we get to far afield.

Unknown said...

Marvel- Well, I credit you your patience and attempt at calm during all this. I'll be rooting on Son #2 as well. :)

Anonymous said...

MotherDear could never have mustered up the courage through her panic attacks to teach me to drive. My boyfriend taught me to drive in a 1965 Plymouth Valiant, standard shift, in the local Marshall's parking lot. Yeah, that really helped me learn how to drive on a snowy day on big hills and a clutch.

I just had the 38th anniversary of my 16th birthday. MotherDear still hangs onto the arm rests for dear life.

Unknown said...

WillThink4Wine- I'm noticing a trend among the commetors here today-- we often ended up learning to drive in parking lots. But as you rightly pointed out-- the parking lot doesn't exactly give you the wide variety of um, terrains, you'll encounter.

No, the parking lot is not preparation for the Great Big World...

ReformingGeek said...

Wow! Sounds like my mom. I think she made my dad go with me a few times to "practice". It was definitely a parking lot for my first few times.

Maybe that's why I didn't have any kids. No payback.

Adullamite said...

What was wrong with "25 or 6 to 4?"
At Least Chicago were making music then instead of stuff aimed at girlies to make money!

I'm sure your driving is fab!

Unknown said...

ReformingGeek- Hopefully your dad was the calm sort. It makes a big difference!

Adullamite- Nothing, really-- but I know it's not everyone's cup of tea. Yes, they did get pretty sappy later in the 80s, after they took the focus off the horns and real music.

Anonymous said...

This brings back "good" memories: I remember the first time I drove stick (a Ford Fiesta) and almost backed into the tree beside our garage (yeah, we had a garage, which we didn't put the Fiesta in, though). I didn't hit the tree and went into a neighbor's field. So I guess it is a good memory. Anyway, thanks for the memories, Jenn.

Olga, the Traveling Bra said...

Great story! And having also been in your mothers place....I KNOW how she feels...it's a scary place to be!

Karen said...

My Dad took me out to teach me to drive and reduced me to tears and tremors inside 2 minutes. My Mom whacked him upside the head and told him never to speak to me again when we were in a car together. Then she took me out and actually taught me how to drive. Now, my brother taught me how to do doughnuts in a snowy Mormon Church parking lot one night, in his 1982 white super cool Camaro. A very necessary skill in the Great White North I might add.

Chaotically Calm said...

What's so funny about this is that I am trying to teach my sister to drive before she goes back to school. I put emphasis on trying because she is horrible. I won't tell her that. When I taught my brother he needed like 3-4 lessons and he was good to take the test.

Major hazard should be painted in big neon letters on the car when she's behind the wheel. It's a good thing I have nerves of steel if not my hair would be white right now.

Anonymous said...

this hit all too close to home as i am now suffering through my daughters learning to drive (me crazy)

Unknown said...

UnfinishedDude- Just glad to know you're alive and not melded with part of a Ford Fiesta. That's the important part. :)

Olga- I am now getting pictures of this bra behind the wheel... Heh...

Karen- Certain people just really don't have the special knack of teaching. Glad your mom was able to get things straightened out. And yes-- donuts are necessary in any driving career. :)

Faith- Here's hoping your sister finally "gets it" and you don't end up gray or dead because we would miss you. The calmer everyone is (even if Chaotically) the better things go.

JD- You'll get through it. No really...


Melanie said...

Laughing myself silly here!

Having four kids, three of whom are licensed drivers (the last one will be this spring) I can totally relate to your mom. And I made my kids learn to drive a stick shift before they got to get in anything with an automatic.

Like Me-me king, I learned to drive on the farm. Dad put me on the tractor and showed my where second gear was. He figured I'd learn the rest on my own. Guess I did.

Chat Blanc said...

oh my! my mother demonstrated similar clenched teaching techniques. had I driven off the road I'm certain she would still be preventing me from driving even today. :)

Unknown said...

OMG, you poor thing! I can't imagine how must have felt at 16. I am relieved to hear no one was hurt.
However, you have to admit, years later, how funny this is. At least I think it's funny

This might be the reason my 18 year old never learns to drive. She's too nervous, which makes me nervous.

Unknown said...

BTW where did you get your humor blogs inspectors gadget?

Wow that sounds like a cartoon

Unknown said...

Melanie- My mom didn't know how to drive stick, so that would have just added another layer of disaster onto the events. :)

Chat Blanc- Yes, I think confidence has everything to do with how well you do straight off. I don't think I ever did drive my mom anywhere, even after I got my car many years later.

DizzBlnd- Well, if she decides to go for driving, encourage her to learn from an actual driving instruction agency-- it's better, I think, to have that third party teacher. Someone who you don't have to then see across the dinner table later! :)

That Humor Blogs widget came from over on Humor Blogs-- there's a section there with widgets-- or at least there was. I've had this one for a while.

Shieldmaiden96 said...

My father taught my mother to drive (she'd grown up in Philadelphia and never needed a license), which is why she told me two things: I didn't have to drive until I wanted to and under NO CIRCUMSTANCES was I learning to drive from him. I had a driver's ed teacher, who was kind, patient, and excellent. I never ran into anything until years later. :o)

Shieldmaiden96 said...

Oh, but my mother employs both the imaginary brake on her side AND the 'Oh Jesus' handle just above the window. She's not a very calm passenger and I drive for a living.

Unknown said...

Shieldmaiden- Good that your mom's lessons-learned were able to help you, too-- now if we could only pry her fingers off the doorhandle. :)

Anonymous said...

1972 Oldsmobile Toronado. Enough said. At least I wasn't driving it when I was learning to drive or we'd all be in jeopardy.

Anonymous said...

My story is just the opposite. My Mother didn't know how to drive and she was approaching 65 years of age. She wanted any of her 5 adult children to teach her, and none of us had the nerve. An 80 year old woman finally took her out in the backwoods and taught her how to coast, I mean drive. Mom is now approaching 80 and she is like the proverbial little old lady we all here about; she only drives her car out of town once a week to go to church with me!!

Unknown said...

Chyna- They just don't make 'em like that anymore. I know my grandpa's Chevy Caprice survived a headon collision with a drunk driver. The Caprice was fine. The Rabbit that hit it was demolished!

Andrea- Heh, I can picture that "coasting". In fact, I believe I commute behind some potential friends of your mom out here. :)

Anonymous said...

That was my dad's point of getting that car. In a head-on collision I'd have loads of metal between me and the wreck. Which brings up the point how exactly would they get me out of the mass of metal I would be cocooned by? He never did have an answer to that one. LOL

Walt said...

My mother was cool as ice, as soon as I was big enough to see over the dash, she would let me steer the car. However my father was much like you mother, and was not a very pleasant teacher.

Bobby said...

What a way to start my day! I've laughed (in empathy) until my eyes are watering.

My Dad taught me how to drive by chucking me into his new 1963 Chevy 3/4 ton pickup with standard transmission and granny gear.

As a new employee of his company I would be expected to haul equipment, so he thoughtfully (read: with glee) simulated a trailer by attaching a huge steel I-beam with fifteen feet of chain. All I had to do was circle a makeshift track on the two acre property and NOT hit any of the equipment or people.

Towing a trailer is easy; towing a drag bar is not. You cannot see the darn thing. It is just a half-ton chunk of steel dragging along the ground on rusty umbilical cords, churning up and smashing everything within a six foot radius.

So, visualize one determined teenager behind the wheel of a heavy duty truck, mentally weighing the intricacies of four speed transmissions against the likelihood of carnage and mayhem. I took a deep breath, hit the gas and dumped the clutch.

Aiiiiiiiahhgh! Freed from restraint, the 350 cubic inch power plant surged forward launching me, the drag bar and by proxy, a couple of guard dogs and employees across the shop. Well, me 'n my drag bar launched, the others just scattered.

As clouds of dust intermingled with laughter and yelps, that big ol' Chevy jackrabbited across the field. In my rear view mirror, Dad and the other guys were extracting themselves from the oleanders. Directly ahead loomed a brand new generator for use on movie sets. To my right sat a line of 50 gnarly Corvairs that were my Dad's pride and joy. Some choice. Nearing panic, I applied the brake.

Upon reflection, I could have used a bit less force. I cramped the wheel and ..ahem.. drifted away from the Corvairs. As the truck screeched to a halt, the I-beam was forced into jackknife and slid beneath the rear axle.

Dad, by now running to my assistance, was compelled to change course or ride the I-beam like a surfer on the Pipeline. Remarkably agile, the man leapt to safety in the arms of his oleanders. Until that moment, I never understood his obsession with those plants. I closed my eyes and willed my heart to start beating.

Clouds of dust began to settle. I was aware of voices. I think they belonged to sightseers on the nearby overpass. Great. An audience.

Opening one eye, I realized the Corvairs were spared! My future, however, felt a bit shaky.

Then, Dad's voice broke through my reverie. 'Let's try that again.'

'Sure, Dad. Tomorrow.'

Unknown said...

Walt- I tell ya, the instructor can make all the difference! :)

Hayseed- So how much did the ol' knees shake as you approached that truck the next day? :) And... how long did the imprint of your dad's body last in those oleanders?

Bobby said...

*grin* Arriving early the next morning, I had one of those 'I AM in charge!' conversations with that truck but forgot to include that feisty Mother Nature. Oops.

Thanks to a rare summer storm and a contrary clutch, I bolted across mud the consistency of vaseline. Chevy and I pirouetted around the field accompanied by the musical stylings of Synchromesh and the Shift Forks.

Thankfully, my audience was limited to Dad's omnipresent and indestructible oleanders. Chalk it up to overactive imagination, but their blooms seemed a bit pale that second morning.

For what it's worth, when it came time to take my driving test at the DMV, Dad told me to take his brand new Cadillac. The instructor failed me only for being too cautious. Little did he know.