Walking to work this morning, I was alerted to the presence of a lone car in the seminary’s massive parking lots. I noted two cones, a car inching forward, and a tall man watching the car’s progress, his arms folded, his lips pursed. Initially puzzled by this scene, I soon realized that it was nothing other than a father teaching his child how to parallel park.
Now, parallel parking is not usually a near-death experience. At least I hope it’s not, for your and my sake. But it is part of a larger process that does lead fathers and their teenage progeny to the very precipice of personal extinction. What is that process? The learning-to-drive process. Walking to work this morning, I was reminded of my sainted father and his efforts to teach me how to drive our Nissan Pathfinder over a decade ago. Eleven years later, I can recall the experience with an uncomfortable level of detail.
If I close my eyes, I can see us. It’s Dad and me, out for a drive. But this is a drive like no other. This is a drive in which I, not my father, am the pilot. So we buckle up, I start the SUV–which was a manual automobile, not an automatic–and away we go. Well, wait a minute. It’s not that easy. Before the “away we go” part, there was a “tires screeching on tar and sand” part. A watching cat nearly lost its fur, and the driveway was never the same. Nevertheless, we were off. I was driving.
We wound our way along the country road, meeting almost no other cars along the way. Things were fine, though I do recall driving, for some inexplicable reason, about ten miles per hour faster than I wanted to. I’m not sure why that happens with young drivers. It’s not like you want to do so. You want to go a nice, comfortable speed. However, you invariably seem to push the gas pedal too hard, and thus your turns are sharper, your senses are heightened, and your palms are sweating. You reassure yourself that you are one of many billions of people who drive, and thus that this has to get better, though such a happy result is not immediately on the horizon.
Things went pretty well on this initial drive until, for some reason, I stalled. I have no idea why. At any rate, I distinctly recall sitting on the side of the road, waving cars by, utterly unable to start the car. It’s safe to say I reached a new level of human embarrassment in that moment. Eventually I got the car started, and we were, once again, sailing down the road, my shifting clumsy, my posture taut, my father quickly giving me instructions about what to do. Things were looking up.
That is, until it came to turn the car around and head back the other way. This involved merging with oncoming traffic, which was going about 50 mph. I steeled myself for the re-entry. “I can do this. Just ease off the clutch, and push in the gas. I’ve done this plenty of times. Here we go.” And with that, seeing an opening, I proceeded to prosecute the maneuver. While everything checked out in my brain, however, my feet failed to execute as planned, and so the following happened: 1) the car shook with a hurricane’s violence, sputtering along, almost dying, 2) my father yelled at me to push the gas, 3) I pushed the gas, 4) we burned rubber for a good 4 seconds, furiously throwing our heads back against the seats, 5) we merged onto the highway. I think my father lost 4% of his life that day. That loss notwithstanding, things got steadily better, and we made it home.
All this flashed back this morning as I walked to work. I watched the father observing his child, and I could see my father, coaching me, helping me, sweating. I knew that though that father was tense, and his child was stressed, they were forging a memory together, one neither would easily forget. Not that my father or I will. You could go to East Machias, Maine today, and there’d be a burnt rubber streak about twenty feet long, a tangible reminder of the sacred, near-death process of learning to drive.