The Long Ride Home

Cooper's first driving experience, Legoland, San Diego, CA, circa 2008.

Cooper’s first driving experience, Legoland, San Diego, CA, circa 2008.

My son earned his driver’s license yesterday. It’s shiny plastic and highlights in red his underage status. Even his picture looks halfway decent. He worked long and hard to accumulate a variety of experiences over the 18 months he had a learner’s permit. Yes, he grumbled when I made him drive in snow, hard rain, and through those narrow concrete chutes on the highway, but we both feel he’s a better driver having had those challenges. He’s reached another significant milestone on his way to adulthood, and I feel a quiet pride at his accomplishment.

But I’m also scared shitless.

He’s on the road with people who are more — and less — competent than he. People who treat the highway like the Indy 500 and those who pay no attention to the road, preferring to text or read instead. He’ll face a myriad of gauntlets and these he must face alone with only a 3,700-pound metal frame wrapped around him like a shield of armor. I hope and pray that God (or the Universe) cradles him gently if anything goes amiss.

My first set of wheels: a 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle in Kansas Beige (and highlights of rust).

My first set of wheels: a 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle in Kansas Beige (and highlights of rust).

When I think back to receiving my license (paper, no photograph), I’m amazed at the laissez-faire approach both my parents and the legal system took. I never participated in a formal driver’s education course. In fact, I barely drove on the road between the time I took — and passed — my written learner’s permit and my driving tests. Just seven days separated the two exams. One Saturday in early November 1979 while out poking around Bucks County, Pennsylvania with my grandmother, she asked if I felt ready to get my license. I said, sure, and that’s how it happened.

Debby on "little red," circa 1979.

Debby on “little red,” circa 1979.

Of course, I’d been driving a farm tractor since I’d been eleven and could handle a manual transmission like nobody’s business. My parents’ only rule for me obtaining a license was I had to keep our Volkswagen Beetle from rolling down the barn hill using only the brake and the clutch. A piece of cake. I’ve always been a confident driver, enjoying the feel of the road beneath my hands. (For a short stint, I even drove a motorcycle and still have the “M” designation on my license to prove it. To earn that designation, I did first participate in a safety course.)

My son has never driven a manual transmission, although he’s been eyeing up my 1991 Mazda Miata. I’m not sure the aged clutch could handle his youthful exuberance. I’m not sure my patience could either. The irony is the insurance company listed him as the primary driver of my historic car, the one he, at six foot two, barely fits in when the top is up.

As he drove home from the Frederick DMV, he thanked me for teaching him well. “I know I didn’t always appreciate your feedback while it was happening, but you’re a good driver.”

As I wonder what stories he’ll tell his children about learning to drive, I also wonder how my own parents rite of passage. Who taught them to drive and in what vehicles? Did they argue, fuss, and disagree? What did their first licenses look like?

How about you receiving your first license? Who taught you to drive and in what car? Please share your stories below in the comments! Also, ask your parents or grandparents their learning to drive stories.

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