Car Trouble 

For some parents, there’s nothing more terrifying than a teenager learning to drive

For some parents, there’s nothing more terrifying than a teenager learning to drive

One week from today, daughter Jess will get her learner’s permit. It’s a sure thing, because she’s already passed the tests. All she has to do is walk into a Tennessee Driver’s License Headquarters and prove that she can see something the size of a plow horse out of one eye. Then she’ll be legal to drive, as long as wife Brenda or I ride along in the front seat, right next to her.

Believe me, it’ll be Brenda in the front seat. The last thing Jess needs in her newbie-nervous-driver phase is me sitting to her right, stomping an imaginary brake pedal through the floorboard, bargaining out loud with a higher power and bracing for a crash. I can’t help it. I’m just wired that way. Just last week, a real enough medical doctor told me that my nervous system is way keener than most. I can hear the filaments vibrating in light bulbs. I can smell ants. I can feel the individual threads in my shirts. Add it all up, and you’ve got a man who monitors his environment much too closely and feels a constant, urgent need to fine-tune that environment. For instance, when I fly in a big jet plane, I try to steer that sumbitch from all the way back in coach. I’m a god-awful passenger and an even worse co-pilot.

My daddy, Jabo Jowers, had the same affliction. Like me, he was way too wired to teach a kid how to drive. Unlike me, he had no competent wife to teach his kid—me—how to drive. At the time, he had only Stepmother Number One, Arlene. She drove her Rambler in random spurts—on the gas, off the gas, on the gas, off the gas. Riding with Arlene was like riding in a hellish arrhythmic rocking chair. Arlene had no skills or insights that would be useful to a rookie driver. Jabo, whether he liked it or not, was stuck with teaching me how to drive.

The first step was to get me something I could drive. Jabo took me to Johnson Motor Company, in Augusta, Ga. There, he and his salesman buddy Max Fogo decided that I needed an electric-blue 1966 Corvair convertible. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that Fogo wanted to unload the car because he’d read Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, which detailed the Corvair’s nasty habit of spinning out in a turn. Jabo, who read only the classified ads and the funnies in the local newspaper, knew nothing about Nader’s book. As I drove the car off the lot, Fogo and Jabo were both happy.

That changed on the way home, when I steered the Corvair into what I thought would be a graceful 90-degree turn. Instead, Jabo and I left the roadway and rode out a dizzying 720-degree spin. As we spun, the Corvair wheels threw up a house-high rooster tail of grass and dirt. We circled right under that rooster tail, and the churned turf rained down into the topless cockpit, all over me and Jabo. The next day, Jabo took the Corvair back to a crestfallen Fogo, and we drove off in a 65 Impala Super Sport. As soon as we got home, Jabo acknowledged his limitations and quit the driving-instructor job. “I’m not cut out for this, boy,” he said, all blue-lipped and trembly. “Just drive careful. Try not to wreck. But if you do wreck, call me and I’ll come get you.” Jabo never rode in a car with me again.

Even so, that summer, Jabo decided that I should drive his fishing boat. As a gesture of trust and confidence in me, he left the cabin and climbed out onto the bow. He leaned back against the windshield and extended his arms across the windshield frame, like he was sitting on a sofa. “Throttle her up, boy,” he said. “Try not to hit any other boats or run over any swimmers.”

He didn’t say anything about wakes. I drove around a bend full-throttle and smacked into another boat’s wake, at a 90-degree angle. We went airborne. Jabo bounced hard on the bow, and his ass smashed through the windshield. It stuck there, leaving a perfect assmark in the plastic. Jabo and I both knew that if he hadn’t gotten his ass caught in the windshield, he would’ve bounced off, and I would’ve run over him. Blue-lipped and trembly again, he climbed back into the cabin and took back the controls. Jabo never rode in a boat with me again.

Now that daughter Jess is ready to take the wheel, she’s mighty lucky to have Brenda as her co-pilot. She’s lucky to have air bags, anti-lock brakes and three-point seat belts. She’s lucky to have a mobile phone, so that if, heaven forbid, she does get into a fender-bender, she won’t have to stagger around looking for a pay phone like I did after I smacked the Impala into the rear end of a short-stopping Ford Fairlane. Most of all, Jess is lucky that I won’t be riding with her. I’m afraid I might still have some bad vehicle luck in me, and I don’t want to get any of it on her.

Drive careful, daughter.

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