By BOB WIRE
Now that I have a kid in Driver’s Ed, I’m the one who has to start following all the rules.
“Dad, you have a breakfast burrito in one hand and a hot coffee in the other. How are you steering the car?”
“Son, you don’t want to know. Just put the gearshift into third for me, would you?”
But hey, I’m not the only problem here. The Driver’s Ed program puts kid behind the eight ball in a couple of ways. First, they use driving simulators that were designed and built by the people who brought us the amazing Hupmobile in 1928. It’s a bad sign when you have to hand-crank the simulator to fire it up.
Secondly, when the kids actually make the terrifying leap to actual drive time, they do so in a large American mom & pop sedan with automatic transmission. In reality, the only kids who will begin their driving careers in such a car will be the ones who inherit grandpa’s land yacht after he passes away. It’s a good thing those kids won’t have to deal with shifting, because they’ll be distracted by the lingering smell of Old Spice, Sea Bond, Chesterfield cigarettes, and a sour disdain for today’s youth and their hippity hop music.
I tried to bring Rusty up to speed before he ever got behind the wheel of my 4Runner. He’s fifteen, though, and his bullshit detector is pretty well-formed. When we’re tooling around the streets of Missoula and I’m trying to supplement his formal education with the unspoken rules of the road, I can’t get away with hardly anything.
“See this car in front of us?” I say, pointing to an early ’70s Chevy Caprice with the lap belt hanging out the bottom of the driver’s door. “With the Veteran’s plates. When the county attaches one of those plates, it activates a governor on the car’s engine that automatically takes 20 mph off the running speed, and turns the right blinker on permanently.”
Rusty looked at me sidelong like he could sense another Hoop Snake or Sidehill Wompus tale coming on. I continued. “The driver survived a war overseas, where all wars are held. Maybe it was even Dubya-Dubya-Two-The-Big-One, so he’s earned the right to drive around town like he’s constantly looking for an address.”
Rusty makes no attempt to hide his disgust. “Dad, the guy’s just old. Give him a break.”
“Oh, he’s old, all right. He also watched his buddies die face down in the muck so that he could have the right to drive that way on the city streets. I just wish these old timers would decide where they’re going before they leave the house.”
“Dad, as usual, I have no idea what you’re talking about. When do I get to drive?”
He has his learner’s permit, but before I unleashed him on the public roads, I had to give Rusty a chance to learn the intricacies of driving a stick shift. We found a giant parking lot surrounding a church that was deserted except on Sundays. Perfect. I pulled into the parking lot and stopped the car. I noticed something odd about the lot’s configuration.
“Look at that,” I said. “All the parking rows are slightly ramped, like at a drive-in.”
“What’s a drive-in?”
“Never mind. You’ll probably learn about them in your Primitive Cultures class. Anyway, let’s swap seats and light this candle.”
He climbed into the driver’s seat, slid it back to accommodate his gangly frame, and clicked in his seatbelt. Then he turned off the radio.
“Why’d you do that?” I said, turning it back on.
He switched it off again. “The instructor said we shouldn’t have the stereo on when we’re learning. It’s a distraction.”
“Oh, all right.” I looked around the parking lot and started humming a tune.
Rusty adjusted the outside mirrors. “What song is that? It sounds familiar.”
“Highway to Hell.”
“Funny, Dad. Very funny.” He adjusted the rear-view. Then he slid the seat forward a couple notches and changed the angle on the seat back. Then he adjusted the rear-view again. Then he changed the height of the steering wheel. Then he readjusted the outside mirrors. Then he adjusted the head rest on his seat. Then he moved the rear-view again.
“Church starts on Sunday,” I said.
“I know, I know! Our instructor said to take our time and get everything fitted to us, and double check all the mirrors. We also need to check our blind spot.”
He craned his neck hard to the left, eyeballing the area he couldn’t see in the mirror. I poked a finger in his ribs, and only the seat belt kept him from cracking his head on the sunroof.
“Blind spot!” I said, smiling. He just closed his eyes and shook his head. Then he turned the key to start the engine. He checked all the mirrors again. I looked around the four-acre parking lot, utterly empty but for our car parked in the center of it.
“Clear on my side,” I said. Rusty’s look told me he had reached the limit of his patience. I apologized and told him to push the clutch all the way to the floor and put it in first gear. After a few engine-killing false starts and some bronco-busting bucks and jumps, he managed to get the hang of getting underway. I pulled out my cell phone and called my chiropractor to set an appointment for the following morning.
I feel kind of bad for these kids. Having to learn to navigate city streets full of moronic, self-absorbed drivers while also trying to master the workings of a manual transmission is a monumental task. As suggested by his instructors, I don’t go out driving with him if I’m in a bad mood or have been drinking. One usually follows the other, though, so we try to take our opportunities when we can.
Now, of course, when he’s riding shotgun and I’m the one driving, he watches me like a hawk and notices dozens of things I’ve long taken for granted. Coasting. Downshifting. Not running over panhandlers at intersections. But he also notices my bad habits.
“Dad, you’re doing 45, and the speed limit here is 35.”
“That’s right, son. Sometimes you just have to drive the same speed as the rest of traffic so people don’t mistake you for a Veteran.”
“But there’s no other cars around us.”
“I noticed that. Sometimes you have to set the pace.”
“But our instructor told us that speeding tickets will make your insurance go up.”
“Let me worry about that, son. Besides, Jeopardy starts in ten minutes.”
All joking aside, Barb and I are doing our best to put a responsible driver out there, and we do take Rusty’s road education very seriously. I give him lots of praise and encouragement, and in return he’s grateful for the privilege of driving and doesn’t take it lightly.
We’re also learning, through Rusty, to tighten up our own approach to driving. I might take a quick phone call here and there, but none of us text while we’re at the wheel.
When I’m out there coaching Rusty, watching other drivers blowing through stop signs, tailgating, texting, failing to signal, running cyclists off the road, stopping in the middle of crosswalks, and generally endangering the rest of us by failing to acknowledge the presence of other traffic, I wish that all of us would be required to go back and take Driver’s Ed, if just for a week or two to remind us that driving is serious business, and we need to give it our full attention.
I’d write more, but I’m almost to my exit and I have to put the laptop away. Drive safe!
Check out all of Bob Wire’s posts in his blog archive.
Think of it as Gonzo meets Hee Haw: Missoula honky tonker Bob Wire holds forth on a unique life filled with music, parenthood, drinking, sports, working, marriage, drinking, and just navigating the twisted wreckage of American culture. Plus occasional grooming tips. Like the best humor, it’s not for everyone. Sometimes silly, sometimes surreal, sometimes savage, Bob Wire demands that you possess a good sense of humor and an open mind.
Bob Wire has written more than 500 humor columns for a regional website over the last five years, and his writing has appeared in the Missoulian, the Missoula Independent, Montana Magazine, and his own Bob Wire Has a Point Blog. He is a prolific songwriter, and has recorded three CDs of original material with his Montana band, the Magnificent Bastards. His previous band, the Fencemenders, was a popular fixture at area clubs. They were voted Best Local Band twice by the Missoula Independent readers poll. Bob was voted the Trail 103.3/Missoulian Entertainer of the Year in 2007.