Taming the Beast

Doris in a rumble seatAt the time I began to learn how to drive, I must admit, I knew nothing about cars. All I knew was what I had learned in the portable classroom at Petaluma High School.

The thin newsprint pages of the California Department of Motor Vehicles Handbook offered plenty of theoretical information, what-ifs and wherefores, but nothing in the way of practical how-tos. In that classroom, awash with fluorescent light, crowded with graffiti-emblazoned student desks, I took my turn at the faux driving console to test my reflexes. When the light changed from green to red, “Hit the brakes,” we were told. I did, though how fast my reflexes were, I can’t say; still, I was certainly acquiring a valuable skill.

I was learning how to drive, how to get from A to B in a new kind of vehicle. At home on the backroads of Sonoma County, in 12 acres of empty fields and fallen-down chicken barns, I had learned to ride a horse and drive a pony cart. I could rollerskate and ride a bicycle; I could even ice skate backwards.

But I knew nothing of cars. In my mind, they were like wayward horses that had to be held to a tight rein, else they’d veer from the trail. As with a pony cart, one would have to be careful not to turn too quickly or the whole thing would tip over. A sense of balance surely helped. On roller skates or a bicycle, one didn’t go far without a little effort, and I knew I would have to push hard on a gas or brake pedal to make the car respond. On the other hand, like ice-skating backwards, the whole thing looked deceptively easy, but with a little practice I could soon show off my graces.

After months of waiting, I got my chance. Mr. Donovan, the Driver’s Ed teacher, finally said it was my turn to drive. Raymond T., another student, was my driving partner. We showed up at the abandoned high school at 9 a.m. on an overcast Saturday, ready to take a spin behind the wheel. My boyfriend, Devin, had found great humor at the thought of me driving. He found it so funny that he’d invited a group of his friends to come and watch. The teenaged boys, members of the cross-country running team, stood around in running shorts and ratty tee shirts, all elbows and long legs and acne, waiting to laugh at the dumb blonde.

When Mr. Donovan came out of the building and unlocked the car, he nodded at me, “You first.”  I exchanged glances with Raymond, who, cool and self-assured, shrugged and got into the back seat. I got into the front seat and closed the door, the vinyl chilly against the back of my legs. Devin and his friends jostled together and waited for the fun to begin.

Mr. Donovan handed me the key and I pushed it into the ignition. I had never done this thing before. I didn’t even know which way to turn it. Guessing, I got it the first time, and the engine started with a satisfying roar. I waited for Mr. Donovan to tell me what to do next, to teach me how to drive.

“Well?” he urged. “Drive it out of the lot.”

I took the wheel tightly in my hands, knowing that if I didn’t hold on, it would jerk away and we’d all die a grisly death. Gingerly, I eased one hand down to the automatic gearshift on the steering column. Gotta shift it into Drive, I thought. I knew that much. I pushed my foot down onto the gas as hard as I could, determined to control the beast, and shifted.

The stick popped into Reverse and we shot backward a good 10 feet before Donovan’s foot stomped the teacher’s emergency brake. All of us lurched forward as we stopped, my forehead bouncing off the steering wheel. Devin and his friends howled with laughter outside, some of them actually falling and rolling on the lawn. Cool Raymond adjusted his sunglasses and looked out the side window, doubtless imagining himself elsewhere. Mr. Donovan reached over and pushed the stick back into Park, keeping his foot hard on the teacher’s brake.

“I can see,” he said, “that we’re going to have to start at the beginning.”

This story was previously published in Tattoo Highway. Need driving lessons? Go ask your Pop.