Thursday, July 19, 2012


Who taught you to drive a car? How old were you? Do you remember the car?

Why I ask is, some friends of mine are at p[resent enduring the terrors and traumas of adolescent mobility expansion, with its attendant dangers and temptations. And teaching their off-spring to drive.

My dad taught me to drive, on a three-day, cross-country jaunt from Cleveland, Ohio to Santa Fe, NM, in the dead of winter, 1960-61. I was going on 15 (and large for my age).

He needed me to spell him at the wheel. We had a regimen: He drove two hours, I drove an hour, all the way, about 1800 miles, I reckon. It mostly WASN'T divided, limited-access roadway in those days. Though there were turnpikes: Ohio had one and Kansas, too, now that I think about it. On the Kansas Pike, iirc, the speed-limit was 80 or 85.
It was: Eggs, bacon, potatoes, juice and coffee for breakfast; burger and fries for lunch. Someplace where Pop could get a beer, with dinner. We saw "Psycho" the night we were in Lawrence, Ks, on old Route 66. Terrified me. Scary to return to a motel room after that, even with your dad...

But I "learned" to drive: To look around me, and be aware, and pay attention, and keep your eyes moving, from mirror to gauges, to speedo, to left and to right and start over again.

It taught me a lot. I was behind the wheel a lot of highway miles, of course. Passing trucks and other slow-moving traffic on two-lane roads in an under-powered car (the '57 VW convertible had no more than 36 hp) is an acquired skill; but I drove through cities, too--St Louis is one I remember, prominently, and the Chain of Rocks Bridge--if they fell inside my hour...and we stopped pretty much wherever we were to change when the time was up. Dad liked a bit of structure; he'd skippered a destroyer in the war. So he was scrupulous: If it fell on your watch...

What I think now about it was it gave me a chance to really get in touch with the whole car/road/traffic thing in a real context. It was cool: we were in a '57 VW convertible, which would do 65 reliably as long as it was flat, and get 35 mpg...Both of us more or less chain-smoking Camels, swilling coffee and cokes, and constantly spinning the dial trying to find ANY music on an AM radio. The wing-windows blowing cold air in to dispel the smoke, the VW heater inadequately cooking away at our feet.

Not much daunted me after that in terms of automotive navigation. When I was 16, of course, I got my license. When I made rank, in Germany, in '66, I bought a car immediately, and my first jaunt was to Paris. It was crazy, but not really that different cruising the Plaza, nose-to-tail with every OTHER car in Santa Fe on Friday night; just more cars. Oh, and street cars; not many of them in northern New Mexico.

But still, Espanola was like dodge-'em cars in the '60s, with drive-in liquor stores on just about every corner. I was seasoned by the time I landed in Europe...Paris didn't cause me to break a sweat. Neither did Frankfurt, or Munich or Amsterdam, all places I drove to from the Kaserne at Zweibruchen, where I was stationed.

This year, it's been 50 years since I got my first driver's license, and I've worn the treads off scores of sets of tires. And I can still, sometimes, especially on the brink of a long journey, get that feeling like it's just me and Pop, and 1500 miles to Santa Fe.

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