Sunday, June 3, 2007

Dad's Driving

Among the most tedious scenarios imaginable is going to dinner with a married couple as a single person. They argue about a wide range of the most trivial points, often without even realizing they do it. This is all the worse when that couple is my dad and stepmom.

Roughly once a year, they stop by to take me to dinner, and having then discharged their parently duties, move along on their travels through retirement. While I checked the menu, my stepmom insisted, “No, you were speeding,” with the hint of a smirk. Dad looked unhappy, noting “They just lie in wait for out of state license plates,” looking to me for support. “Actually, Dad—I’m a bit afraid to ride with you.”

He looked at me, 1/3 miffed and 2/3 genuinely curious. “Why?” he asked.

Dad has always sped. He used to build mini-racers with his best friends—long friends right through when both of their wives passed away in retirement. He raced the back roads of rural western New York, leaving air beneath the car as he crested hills, disdaining yellow speed warnings as he rounded curves, counting on his self-assessed superior driving skills. This perception continues, as he tailgates cars at high speed, drives without heed even in dangerous weather, and regrets only that he’s forced to share the road with drivers so inferior to himself—the ones for whom traffic laws are written.

One, in a snowstorm that should have prevented travel, Dad insisted on driving me to my music lesson (as I finished shoveling two feet of snow from the driveway, and much to the astonishment of my music teacher). “We can make it,” he insisted. We did. Another time, he hit a kid on a bicycle. Things like this aren’t discussed in my family, so I know only what little I could gather—that the parents sued, that a settlement was reached, and to my dad, clearly the problem was the kid pulling out on his bicycle. Yet another time, while Dad was giving me a ride to school, I warned him that a certain curve, almost a U-turn, was certainly a 20 m.p.h. zone as posted. “Really?’ Dad asked, as he pulled around it at twice the speed. Thrown to the other side of the road, all he offered was, “I guess so. That IS a sharp curve.” I was just glad no cars were coming down the hill in the other direction.

I’m not unappreciative. I got to every music lesson. I got to every rehearsal. I got to every Scout meeting, every swim lesson, every campout. That 20 m.p.h. curve was on the way to a professional meeting—my dad got up at four to drive an hour to my home, pick me up, and drive me an hour to a 7 a.m. meeting when my car was in the shop. He then drove me home at the end of the day and took me to pick up my car. And let's not forget those four hour trips to and from college.

Once, my teenage fight with my mom boiled over into all out war—horrible things were said, mom resorted to throwing things, and I left. I had no prospects and nowhere to go, of course, so when I calmed down a bit, I had to call. Dad picked up the phone, and calmly, quietly asked, “Are you ready to come home?” I was. “Where are you?” he said simply. He picked me up. No lecture, no scowl—just a ride home. End of the matter.

Ironically, my daredevil dad taught me to drive (when my mom gave up in frustration over our battles). These lessons became habits I practice to this day. Always signal, even at 3 a.m. when no one’s around to see. Always check all around the car when merging. Not to mention change the oil, change the oil, change the oil—and rotate the tires. I drove my last car 199,974 miles before it threw a rod. Safety, safety, safety.

I’m no saint. When I broke my collarbone in karate, for example, my sister listened to the account, then observed, “You were showing off, weren’t you?” Don’t you hate it when someone knows you that well?

I AM a careful driver—cautious, looking ahead, defensive, keeping my ego in check as other drivers act recklessly. Except in the morning when I’m in a hurry and running late. And that I often drive when I’m tired. And distracted. Kinda mitigates all that safety, doesn’t it?

To lower my insurance, I took a six hour driving course. Now that I’ve taken a few, I recommend them (although this depends greatly on the instructor)—I learned far more than I’d have thought. My dad approved, noting that my stepmom takes one every year through AARP. No mention of Dad needing or taking one.

A key difference between Dad and me is that I drive to get places. It just needs doing. Dad drives because he loves to drive. He doesn’t need a reason. The morning of my mother’s funeral, he had to run errands. I went with him. We needed salt for the water softener. We needed tomatoes—roma tomatoes, since they’re best in salads, and we had a lot of people coming to the house. We had to stop for a lottery ticket—hey, you never know. The essentials. Dad needed to drive.

Long retired, Dad drives. He drives to Florida for half the year from central New York, relishing the trip I would dread. He travels all over the U.S. and Canada, just as he did on vacations before retirement—he and my mom drove to Alaska twice. I got a postcard this week from Arizona—as far west as I have ever been—Dad’s on his way to visit California. Doesn’t know for sure when he’ll be back.

One day, age will betray me. I worry about this. I live far out in the country, and I cherish my home. We don’t have busses or taxies, and I can’t simply walk to the grocery store or the pharmacy. When I can no longer drive, I don’t know what I will do.

When not traveling, my dad and stepmom live much closer to civilization. My dad is in excellent health, but one day, when he can no longer drive, I don’t know what he’ll do.


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