Thursday, January 30, 2014

Memories of Driving

My mother in the Austin Healey
I started driving in 1966 when I was seventeen years old.  That is almost fifty years ago.  My first experiences were grim.  My father owned a 1964 Austin Healey 3000.  It was a  2-door roadster – a classic English sports car.  The engine was powerful.  The car could cruise at 100 mph.  It had little mirrors on the front fenders, a shiny chrome grill and black leather seats.  All my friends, especially the boys, were in awe of the car.  My family had picked it up in England.  We went there for a summer vacation when we moved from Eastern Canada to Philadelphia.  My father had the car custom made with a left hand drive.  Years later, my brother found the original bill of sale signed by Donald Healey.  

The next spring, before I turned sixteen, I was in a terrible car accident.  The car I was riding in missed a sharp left turn and crashed at high speed as the road veered left and we didn’t.  The car flipped onto its roof and hurtled down a steep embankment.  It landed, completely wrecked, on its roof.  It was a foggy night in the winter.  We were on an icy country road in southern Ontario.  I was asleep in the back seat beside my boyfriend when the car crashed.  The driver was a young man, likely less than 20 years old.  I didn’t know him; he was a college friend of my boyfriend.  His girlfriend was in the seat beside him.  We were on the way to a homecoming dance.  We never got to the dance.  We went to the hospital instead.

Miraculously, three of us just had bad bruises and minor cuts.  My boyfriend broke several ribs and had a concussion.  He had to stay in the hospital.  The other couple’s family lived in the town.  They drove me to a motel.  I went to bed at 2 am and slept fitfully.  The next day I went back to the hospital.  I talked to my boyfriend.  He was all bandaged up.  I called my parents long distance from a pay phone.  I told them what had happened.  I told them I was all right.  Just in a state of shock.  Over the telephone their voices sounded supportive and soothing.  I wanted to be at home but in those days the concept of changing a flight barely existed.  I stayed in the small town all weekend and flew home on Sunday evening.  I didn’t go to school the next day.  I was in 10th grade.

That summer when I turned 16 I told my mother I wasn’t ready to learn how to drive.  I kept remembering the feeling of waking up when the car crashed and started skidding down the steep embankment.  I remembered someone pulling me out of the broken window.  I could still feel the crushed roof of the car pressing on me in the dark fog.  Every time I thought about driving I thought of the accident.  It took more than a year to get it out of my mind.  I kept remembering the hospital intake people asking me how many people died.  No one I said again and again.  That is lucky they kept saying.  The car was totaled.

But after another year passed I was ready to learn how to drive.  All my girlfriends were already driving.  Several of them even had their own cars and drove to school every day.  My father told me he would teach me in the Austin Healey.  On my first lesson, he took me to a stop sign at the top of a steep hill.  He told me to stop, wait until the traffic cleared and then cross the intersection.  I stalled the car at the top of the hill so many times I started to cry.  My father yelled at me every time I stalled.  Eventually he told me to get out of the driver’s seat and he would drive home.  I didn’t know how to balance the clutch and the accelerator.  The hill was so steep I kept slipping backwards.  The emergency brake was stiff.  I couldn’t hold it and release it and work the foot pedals.  He was so angry but I didn’t know how to drive.

When we arrived home my mother was in the kitchen cooking dinner.  I was in tears.  I told her I never wanted to drive the Austin Healey again and that I wasn’t willing to have my father teach me how to drive.  She looked at me.  She told me she would find a driving school to teach me.  I went upstairs and lay down on my bed and wondered if I would ever learn, let alone enjoy driving.

Later that spring the instructor from the driving school taught me how to drive.  He had an American sedan – a Chevrolet.  It had an automatic shift with the shifting handle on the steering column.  You just had to put it into drive and it didn’t stall out on a hill.  He took me to Fairmont Park in the afternoon when no one was there.  He was very calm.  We drove around the large parking lot for hours, stopping and starting, making left hand turns, making right hand turns, practicing U-turns.  After a few lessons he told me I was ready to take the test.

In those days you didn’t even drive on the road to get a driver’s license.  You went to the licensing office and drove around a big parking lot.  It looked like the one at the park.  You made a left hand turn.  You had to do a U-turn with no more than three back-ups.  I had practiced this so many times I thought I could do it in my sleep.  I got my license easily.  Later I learned how to drive my family’s Ford station wagon and even later I learned how to drive the Austin Healey.  My mother taught me how to balance the clutch and the accelerator.  She didn’t yell at me when I stalled the car.  She took me on the freeway and calmly explained how to change lanes and merge into the traffic.

It was lucky I learned these skills.  I enjoy driving.  I love the feel of shifting gears smoothly and hearing the engine accelerate.  I taught my two kids how to drive when they were teenagers.  I started in a parking lot.  Using a car with a standard shift.  I took them on the freeway on Sunday morning when it was completely empty.  We practiced left hand turns and stop signs on hills in a small town near Seattle after soccer games.  There wasn’t any yelling or crying.  We just spent the time together learning how to parallel park and back around a corner.  I have fond memories of the whole experience.  How very different.  Neither of my children has ever been in an accident.  I have never been in another accident.  Just the one in 1965.  That was enough.

Both my mother and father are dead now but my family still owns the Austin Healey.  My husband and I still own a standard shift car.  It isn’t an English sports car but it is pretty sporty.  Yesterday I was out running errands in our car.  It was raining, just after 5 o’clock in the afternoon and already quite dark.  I had finished my grocery shopping and I merged from the parking lot onto a busy street.  I let the clutch out smoothly and pressed the accelerator.  The motion seems so easy.  It is hard to remember not knowing how to do this.  But every time I am at a stop sign at the top of a hill I remember that first time.  Some memories just stick with you.

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