My family doesn't do anything in moderation, and that includes doling out life’s lessons. This was the cornerstone of my fear of driving. I didn't even want to learn how. Swimming lessons consisted of being grabbed by an elbow and a knee, then tossed into the deep end like a human Frisbee. I still think my dad was trying to practice retroactive birth control, but that’s another story. I wasn't one of those 16-year-olds who couldn’t wait to go to the DMV on their birthday - I was physically drug to my mom’s mini-van at the age of 17 for lessons.
After weeks of nerve-racking practice with my grandfather, my mom decided it was time for me to have a driving lesson with my brothers in the car. I've been called an old soul. That’s probably because you have to grow up quickly when the adult in the situation consistently makes decisions that defy common sense.
“Mom, do you really think that’s a good idea?”
“Yeah sure. You've been driving a couple weeks now and we’ll take them on the freeway. It’ll be fun!” She paused to throw soccer balls and baseball gear out of the back seats. “Boys! Get in the car!”
My brothers ran out of the house and into the cramped garage. Colin, the middle child, was fourteen and a natural at anything that involved hand-eye coordination. He would make an excellent driver one day, judging from the video games we played in arcades and at home. Judging by those same video games, I was about to lead them all to an inevitable death after soaring through a median in a ball of twisted metal and fire.
“Get in the van, Cam. We can’t get by you.” My mom pushed me through the passenger door. The driver’s door was against the wall of the garage so minor acrobatics were required any time someone wanted to drive. I did not want to drive.
The van’s side door slid open as I crawled over the passenger side seat and squeezed behind the steering wheel.
“I want to sit in the way back!” Colin's voice had been shrill since birth and wouldn't deepen for at least another year. He was five-foot-two in his pumped up high tops. The girls still fell all over him because of his charismatic personality. Being his older sister, I didn't get it.
“Why?” Keenan asked.
“I think I can get all three seat-belts on. You get the middle. You’ll only have two seat belts.” Colin and Keenan threw elbows and shoved each other as they scrambled to get in the back. Keenan was taller, even at the age of 10, and nearly gave Colin a black eye trying to hurtle over the middle seat.
“Boys! Cool it! Keenan can sit in the back and use three seat belts.“ Mom was buckling her own, testing the latch a couple of times before settling in.
“It was my idea!” Colin nearly squealed.
“Yeah, well you’ve lived longer.” Mom laughed and slapped my shoulder to make sure I’d noticed her hilarious joke. When she saw me glowering at her she rolled her eyes. “Lighten up. Let’s go!”
I started the van and very slowly backed out of our garage. We lived at the bottom of a cinder block “paved” driveway. After a 40-point-turn and endless jokes about how much my driving ability resembled Austin Powers, I finally got us up to the road. My knuckles were stark white.
“Are you going to go?” Mom asked.
“Just give me a minute." There was no one on the roadway. If I had trusted myself, I would have backed down the driveway. The fear of driving off a ledge or into a tree kept with my foot wedged against the brake.
“I’m growing old here!” That was Colin. Of course.
After checking each way three more times, I clenched my teeth and gently eased onto the accelerator. Looking from the speedometer to the road and back again, I got the van up to the speed limit. Colin made a crack about my new nervous tick. Finally, I was left to twitch my eyes between the road and the little orange dial in peace. This made me nervous. The electric whir of windows rolling down sent me over the edge. “What’s happening?” I wasn't willing to take my eyes off the road with a pedestrian jogging up ahead of me.
“Don’t worry about it.” Mom sounded bored.
I took a deep breath.
“SAVE YOURSELF! JUMP IN THE BUSHES!” Colin shrieked at the top of his high capacity lungs. I sat up straight, trying not to swerve and clip the dazed jogger. I glanced in the rear view mirror. Colin leaned towards the other window after spotting a bicyclist. “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!”
Younger brothers worship older brothers until they learn better, and Keenan hadn't. He joined in, and they spent the next several miles screaming at pedestrians like a couple of psychos. Even when there wasn't anyone roadside, they carried on like I was driving off a ravine. Did my mom worry about the distraction and tell them to stop? No. She was too busy trying not to wet her pants from laughter.
I started to get used to the noise by the time I turned onto the freeway, barreling along at a hefty 55 mph. Keenan and Colin alternated between telling me I was too slow and that I was going to crash into something. My eyelid twitched at a steady interval. My death grip on the steering wheel made my hands numb.
“Cami! This is our exit! Get over now!” Mom yelled.
“YES! Now now now now!!!” Mom kept yelling
I swerved into the exit lane and suddenly there was... silence. In any other family, silence was good. I knew nothing good was happening. I chanced a look in the rear view mirror and could see nothing, save the grill of an enormous semi.
“Go Faster! Go Faster!” Mom was screaming.
“You told me to change lanes!” I whined, nearly in tears.
“GO FASTER!” Mom yelled again and jammed her fist into my thigh, forcing me to kick the accelerator.
The van careened down the exit and I pulled off to the side of the road. My head rested on the horn of the steering wheel as I attempted to stop hyperventilating. When I pulled back onto the road, the car was eerily silent.
In a way, I should thank my brothers. The next time we were all in the car, they picked up their screaming and yelling again. My tolerance level built up and I passed my driver’s test with flying colors. Over ten years later, I was the designated driver for a car load of shouting, drunk men. When they screamed at me to turn left, I calmly replied, “That’s an irrigation ditch, you idiots.”
Without my years of training, I might have totaled the car.
Do you have any harrowing survival tales from your youth?