American Culture

Driving cars

by Terry Hargrove

When I turned 16, all my friends assumed I would get a driver’s license. So did The Dad, my brothers and sisters and my girlfriend. The pressure was intense, but I resisted. There was no need for me to drive, since all my friends had cars and they seemed to enjoy driving a lot, so I just went along as the designated passenger. It was great. And since gas cost 27 cents a gallon in 1971, I saved literally dozens of quarters by not driving.

Still, I received lots of concerned stares from my classmates. They didn’t understand, and I couldn’t tell them. I was terrified of driving. I had only driven a car once, in 1972.  David Simpkins and I were in the drive-through lane at the Dairy Delight, when he jumped out of his car to talk to some girls just as the car in front of us moved up. I sat there as the car behind me began to blow its horn. I waved at the driver, but he just honked his horn again. Probably an out-of-towner, I thought.

“Pull the car up,” shouted David. What choice did I have? There were girls present. I broke out in a cold sweat, slid over, threw the car into drive (I think it was drive. There was a D in there, somewhere) and pressed the accelerator. David‘s car jerked forward and plowed right into the side of the building.

“I’m OK,” I wheezed. “I’m not hurt.” 

“What… what… what did you do to my car?” stammered David.

“I think your wheels weren’t straight,” I suggested. “They must have been turned, you know? Inwards?”

David got into his car and I stopped hyperventilating long enough to slide back into my favored position. He sat there gripping the steering wheel, silent and shocked. I felt like I needed to say something.

“Um, We probably should move the front of your car away from that stack of ice cream cones,” I suggested. “And the ice cream lady. The walls of this place aren’t very thick, are they? Oh, look. The manager of the Dairy Delight. We should probably go.”

I think David overreacted, since after he backed out of the building, he floored the gas pedal and took off through the back streets of Lewisburg. I was sure the police would come after us, since we’d been seen by a dozen people. I guess, technically, I was at fault, although I think a good lawyer could have blamed those inward pointing tires and maybe made me a few bucks for the trauma I suffered. I didn’t return to the Dairy Delight for 17 years.

David Simpkins stopped hanging out with me after that incident, but I had other pals with better judgment and we had some great times. But after graduation, The Dad insisted I learn how to drive.

“It ain’t right,” he said. “I spent the last ten years preparing for you to wreck the family car, and you won’t even ask for it. What’s wrong with you, boy? Are you on drugs?”

“I’m not on drugs, Dad,” I countered. “I’m just a little afraid of driving, that’s all. I don’t want to drive. Why should I? I know lots of people who already like to drive, and they’re glad to have me along.”

“I’m teaching you how to drive this weekend,” he said. “And you are gonna be like every other boy in this town. It’s downright embarrassing. You’re going to learn how to drive and you are going to wreck this car. Do you understand?”

“You leave Terry alone,” said Mom. “If he doesn’t want to drive, don’t make him. I get along just fine and I don’t know how to drive.”

“That’s because you make me take you everywhere,” said The Dad.

“That’s a terrible thing to say,“ replied Mom. “Now put your shoes on, we have to go to the grocery store.”

“If you’re taking Mom to the store, can you take me, too?” I asked. “I need some stuff.”

I didn’t learn how to drive that weekend. It was a close call, because The Dad was serious, but I bypassed him and his terrible driving lessons by joining the Navy. I didn’t have to worry about driving for over two years.

But three weeks after my discharge, The Dad walked me downtown to Wiles Motor Company and he and I picked a car just for me. It was beautiful, a 1967 Malibu, silver smooth and glistening with speeding ticket/reckless driving potential. After our purchase, we went to State Farm and insured the car for six months. $94.00 that set me back. Then The Dad drove my car home for me and it sat in the back yard until I was ready to learn how to drive.

Three months later, the car still sat, a chrome plated monument to my fear. My sisters finally forced me to learn how to drive the thing, and we weaved down the back roads of Marshall County and across the parking lot of the high school for three terror filled hours, before I told them I was ready. All that was left was the driving test.

A stern faced, iron-jawed Tennessee State Trooper sat to my right, and I had to fight the urge to ask him to get out of my seat. We eased into traffic, heading slowly down the length of Second Avenue.

“What’s the speed limit here?” he asked.

“30 miles per hour, sir,” I said.

“How fast are you traveling right now?”

“7 miles per hour, sir.”

“Turn left here,” he said. I turned right instead.

“I said left!” he screamed. So I made an illegal U-turn to please him. His face started to glow. What did I have to do to please this guy?

“Find a place to stop,” he directed.

“Heck, I can stop right here,” I replied, and I did. Right in the middle of Foxwood Lane. He stared at me with his fingers over his mouth. I wasn’t falling for that one. I stared straight ahead and waited for further instruction.

“You’re afraid of driving, aren’t you?” he asked. It wasn’t really a question.

“Yes, sir! Can I release the steering wheel now, sir? I‘m losing feeling in my thumbs, sir.”

“Son, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Everybody drives.”

“That’s what scares me the most,” I replied. “I once paid a guy a dollar to eat a crawfish and he did. Then his brother offered to eat one for free. Both those guys are out there driving right now. I don’t think it’s strange for me to be afraid of driving. To me, the strange thing is why everybody isn’t terrified of driving. If I ran head-first into one of those guys on highway 31 when he was flying down the road at 35 miles per hour, how could I expect to survive a crash when our combined speeds would be 42 miles per hour? I don’t do math very well, but even I can see the odds of surviving that crash.”

He reassured me as best he could, then directed me back to the police station. At breathtaking speeds that approached 15 miles an hour, I zipped across the four blocks we had traveled. You can imaging my surprise when he said I passed. I guess someone as terrified of driving as I was, was by definition the most defensive driver imaginable.

I’ve gotten better, but there is still something about driving that I don’t like. All that power, all that speed, and only terrified me in control, driving inches away from thousands of crawfish-eating people who aren’t terrified at all. And every time I think I’m almost over it, I dream I’m back on West Commerce, looking for a ragged patch on the side of the abandoned Dairy Delight.

Terry Hargrove lives with his wife and son in Connecticut. His first volume of columns, Don’t Mind Me, a Tennessean Lost In Connecticut, is available from BarnesandNoble.com, ladderpress.com/Store, and at Amazon.com. He’ll sign it for free. If you own the property that once housed the Dairy Delight, remember that this column is mostly fiction, and the author makes no claim of responsibility for past damages. If you are a lawyer who can help him with his “inward wheel trauma,” you can contact him here at S&R.

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