Thursday, September 20, 2012
“Poppa, I see the stop sign and I will stop”
There is nothing quite like the fear felt by a doting parent in the passenger seat as his young son approaches a busy intersection. If he accidentally hits the gas instead of the brake, everybody’s maimed or dead.
I’m the parent. I still can remember John when he couldn’t tell up from down or left from right. Now I am having to trust my life to the dexterity of his feet. Not just once, but again and again and again. I need a drink.
As it turns out, John is a very cautious and thoughtful young man. John has been a slow bloomer, and for a while I was convinced he would never drive.
When John first turned 15, I asked him if he wanted to learn to drive. He politely declined, citing the danger.
“But John,” I said, “you can learn.” “No Poppa,” he said. “I’m not worried about me. I’m worried about all the ignorant and careless drivers on the road.” Smart kid.
Then all of a sudden over the summer, John announced his intention to learn to drive. The first thing he did was read the 200-page Mississippi drivers’ handbook from cover to cover. Given his photographic memory, he was not the most pleasant person in the passenger seat for the next two months, pointing out numerous driving errors made by his old man. And don’t even think about answering a cell phone with John in the car unless you want it ripped out of your hand.
John is a stickler for the law, so there was no driving around at all until he obtained his state-sanctioned learners’ permit, thanks to the Mississippi Public Ed Driving School on Northside Drive.
The first drive consisted of alternating screams from me and John as we tooled around the neighborhood. Miraculously, the automobile was unscathed, although a few bushes were probably worse off than when we began.
Chastened, outing number two consisted of driving about two miles an hour. It was painstakingly boring, but the boredom was a welcome relief from sheer terror.
After a while, he had mastered the neighborhood. Then he mastered Eastover Drive, Ridgewood Road and Meadowbrook. It was time for the big one - Lakeland Drive.
All went well until the yield turn heading north off Lakeland onto the I-55 frontage road. John dutifully watched out for oncoming south-to-north traffic. It was the east-to-north turning traffic that vexed him. Sure enough, just as he eased onto the frontage road, a car heading east on Lakeland turned north on the frontage road, straight into our path.
“BRAKE! BRAKE!” I screamed. The panic in my voice evoked panic in John and he hit the gas instead. “TURN RIGHT!” I screamed. He immediately swerved left.
Fortunately, the driver of the other car was alert and swerved to avoid us. When we pulled onto the shoulder, we were both breathing hard. A big lesson was learned. No more panicking allowed.
We developed a system to lower Dad’s blood pressure. Now when John approaches a busy intersection, he announces his intentions. “Poppa, I see the stop sign and I will stop.” Much better!
To my amazement, John has become a competent driver in no time at all. I let him drive whenever we go somewhere and most of the time I am completely calm. John’s natural caution and precision will serve him well. I predict he will be an excellent driver.
John’s experience makes my mind wander back to when I was 14. I was still living in Houston, Texas, when my father announced to the family he was buying the newspaper in Greenwood.
At 14, most kids would hate to move. But I was attending a huge suburban public school and was lost in the shuffle. I needed a change of venue. The fact that Mississippians could drive at age 15, instead of 16 in Texas, was all the motivation I needed.
My father told me he would pay for half of a used car if I earned the rest. All spring and summer, I waxed cars, mowed yards, scooped ice cream and sold roses on the street corner. By mid-summer, I had $250. My father, who loved cars, found an eight-year-old used poppy red Mustang for $500. Forty years later, I still drive that car to work every day.
Over the years, I have driven that Mustang 400,000 miles. It has been to every corner of the United States - Maine, Key West, San Jose and Vancouver. I’ve replaced every part on the car at least once and can hear every tick that’s out of place. The car is like an extension of my body.
When I was 15, my crazy parents let me drive back to Texas, pick up my old buddies and spend a month camping on South Padre Island. You won’t find that kind of independence allowed today, but it taught me responsibility at a young age. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Every child is different and my son John is unique. We really never knew if he would ever be capable of driving. The Bible tells you to be patient and let God unfold his plan. In the case of John, this patience has been rewarded. He has emerged from his shell a bright, hard-working, inquisitive, polite, obedient, faithful Christian. Never give up hope.
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