Time to Remember
I have always had an uncomfortable relationship with cars. Their siren call of freedom fell upon deaf ears due to an underlying irrational fear of...well, I was never quite sure of what. I just knew driving could induce anxiety, irritability, not-so-subtle tourettes, road rage, , hysteria, nausea, panic attacks, and general unease. (Yes, it reads like the warning label on the side of prescription labels.) Woe unto you if ever I was put into the position of driving you anywhere as my heightened emotional state would be turned against my passengers.In retrospect I offer my apologies to all who had to endure my mania. You were brave.
Lately I have been trying to piece together a road map to the infancy of my phobia. Memories from my teens are spotty, but I do recall at the age of fifteen attending Driver's Ed class taught by an intimidatingly gruff football coach who was prone to glowering scowls and high waisted yet tiny shorts. In class, he really didn't teach us anything. He relied on the Alabama Drivers' handbook and the films designed specifically to terrify you of the dangers of reckless driving. (the next semester, that very same coach taught the sex-ed class with very similar scary movies designed to terrify you about the dangers of sex before marriage. ) His name escapes me, but I do recall his "teaching" style, which I assumed was very similar to his coaching style. Stern admonitions and barking orders designed to keep us motivated were his fall backs but I found his methods less than inspiring.
All of this culminated in the actual driving in the class car which was equipped with dual steering wheels and foot petals. My journey at the wheel was brief . Coach gave a series of gutteral commands ("Turn here", "Straight ahead", etc., etc.) until his booming voice became increasingly frantic ("Slow down for a complete stop. Slow down. SLOW DOWN!! NOW! NOW!NOW! WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!!!") He finally slammed on his brake and took control of the car while intermittently shooting disapproving looks my way., his thick uni-brow knitted in arched disdain.Our ride back to school was deafeningly silent as I mentally pictured myself anywhere but there, trapped in the stifling confines of the car . It was our only venture out of the classroom.
Amazingly, I passed the class with a B.
It was probably another year before I got in another car to even attempt to drive. My Mother took it upon herself to give me driving lessons. Now my Mother was a fairly soft-spoken and gentle lady, so in theory all should have been hunky dory. She would take me to the high school parking lot or to the local mall lot on Sunday mornings. Even in those vast empty expanses, the coach's voice rang in my ears and my jangly nerves were shot before even sitting behind the wheel. "We're gonna DIE!!" repeated on and endless loop in my brain and I would take my anxiety out on my hapless mother ,yelling at her while pushing myself to the brink of hysteria while she gently tried to soothe me. I won't say she had the patience of a saint, but we did eventually get to a point where I could drive around in circles comfortably. Nothing short of miraculous, if you ask me.
After two attempts,I received my drivers license a year later.
Meanwhile,the mother of one of my Mom's co-workers was selling her car- a 1974 Chevy Bel Aire. This was about 1983 and the car only had around 10,000 miles on it. The owner was a little old lady who only drove it to the grocery store and church. I had recently inherited a thousand bucks from the passing of my Grandmother and my parents both decided this was how I was going to spend it. If you are not familiar with that particular make and model, it was approximately the size of a Sherman Tank (or at least I imagined it to be.). It also was an opalescent shade of pale green, which further colored my perception of it's likeness to a tank.Well, that is if tanks were glittery and shiny and slightly gay, but still. None of this enticed me to wanting to drive it, as for some reason my spatial awareness seemed broken and I had trouble judging where the front of the car ended or how close I was to other cars while driving, or, more crucially when parking the beast next to other vehicles. My first solo journey in that land yacht by myself was to that very same High School my Mother had patiently taught me to drive and park in the empty lot. It bears repeating. In the empty lot. Pulling between two cars- well, let's just say, I misjudged. Sadly for the innocent Toyota whose only crime was being next to an open space, my monstrous vehicle came out unscathed whereas the victim had a seven inch gash across it's door. The expense of repairs turned me off of driving to school (or anywhere for that matter) for a while. The tank sat in our driveway for a good year before I decide to drive again.
At seventeen I finally felt the urge to flee my hermetic existence and explore the world in my land cruiser. Suddenly the prospect of having a choice of where and when I were to venture out in the world dazzled me and my latent fears of driving be damned, I was finally FREE! I traveled to the far reaches of the big city of Birmingham , Alabama (I currently resided in an unincorperated subdivision outside of Trussville about 40 minutes away) . It was a glorious time and I relished every opportunity that arose from being so self sufficient. I thought I finally understood what the fuss was all about. I could do anything I wanted!
Sadly either no one told me or (more realistically) I never paid attention to the fact that one has to do maintenance to one's car (i.e. oil change, anti-freeze, etc.). I drove and drove , blissfully ignorant of the fact that I was killing my grand beast of a vehicle, ignoring the groans and squeals ,until one fateful evening on my way into the city, I smelled smoke. Puzzled, as I was not yet a smoker, I opened my window and thought nothing more of it. I continued forward, radio blasting, singing at the top of my lungs, until I choked out a garbled note- spasmodically coughing, for now smoke was billowing into the front seat. I Glanced in the rearview mirror and let out a small scream -my back seat was on fire!!
I quickly turned onto the nearest road and onto the shoulder, skidding into the gravel, turned off the car, and leapt out. I peered into the back seat and saw the barest hint of flames but noxious smoke was emanating from the spot.. Luckily, I had a big gulp from the gas station in the car and I grabbed it and was able to douse the flames.
I left my car and walked about 5 miles down the road to the nearest gas station. I sent them to tow the beast, and called a friend to come pick me up. Convinced that my car had become possessed and obviously something did not want me to drive (in the retelling of the story, I might have embellished a disembodied voice saying, "Get OUT!! ") . I ended up abandoning the car at the gas station for 6 months.
I eventually went back and grudgingly got the old battle-axe fixed, but our relationship status had been marred. Those few fleeting months of glory before the fire disappeared quickly into the distance- the arranged marriage of circumstantial convenience shattered beyond repair. My failed relationship with this green hulk of an automobile infected every vehicular relationship to come. My uneasy alliance with modes of transportation sullied, the tenuous bonds between my love of getting away stretched to their ends as I inwardly decided that I was a much more suitable passenger than driver. At this point, my love/hate relationship with cars and driving seemed pretty much unbalanced on the hate side.
I wasn't even 19 yet.
End of (possible) part one. Let me know if I should continue in the comments.
Stephen LaDow is an actor, blogger,singer,writer, thinker,dreamer, supporter of the arts and former non-driver. Follow his blog at Unfiltered-ness.com.
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