Sunday, January 25, 2009

Drivin' Me Crazy

Finally I was old enough to drive a legitimate vehicle on a legitimate road. After years of riding tractors, dirt bikes, horses, cows, and dune buggies, this was guaranteed to be a cakewalk. Just the idea of having a seatbelt, a roof, and a real road made it seem so sissy-fied.

Our grandmother, Nana, had a simple automatic two-door sedan. It was a Gremlin, as ugly as a Scotsman’s backside, but an easy car to drive. There were a few other advantages to having Nana as a driving teacher - Nana’s eyesight was fading, so she was oblivious to near misses. If something happened, she’d have to rely on my version of the story. She liked to have a glass or two of wine, which always helps one relax prior to a crash. The best part was that this would get her away from all those bundt cakes she insisted on baking. We were all quite sick of eating her damn bundt cakes.

But I had forgotten something. Having Nana teach me would be the easiest way to learn. However, the easy way was not the Irish way. Oh, nooooo. Instead, we would take a cherished, high-strung sports car, put a nervous rookie behind the wheel, and add a trigger-happy father next to her barking instructions. And just for kicks, we did it all uphill.

Dad had splurged a bit on a mid-life crisis in the form of a horrifically fussy, stick-shift sports car, a Volkswagen Scirocco. I knew about shifting from driving the farm trucks, but Dad’s Scirocco was a whole ‘nuther story. It was literally like going from a plow horse to a race horse.

I’ve met prom queens less temperamental than this car. If you didn’t engage the clutch at exactly the right time, while the moon was in alignment with Mercury, it would not only stall, it would shudder hard enough to slam your face into the steering wheel eight times, then stall.

Dad drove until he got to a big hill. Then he turned off the ignition, set the emergency brake, and got out of his beloved dream car. We switched seats.

On one side was a hay field, on the other a cemetery. He figured I couldn’t kill anyone if I went off the road there.

“Drive,” he said.

I turned the key. “Ca-chunk,” replied the car, slapping me into the steering wheel. Dad always left the car in gear. Oops. I pushed in on the clutch and held it down as I tried the ignition again. The car was now purring. Or growling, depending on your point of view.

I eased carefully off the clutch. RrrrrrrRRRrrr. A rumble, a stutter, then nothing.

“Ca-chunk,” the car sent my head smacking into the steering wheel.

“Emergency brake,” Dad growled through locked teeth. We both needed a beer. The car needed a shot of Jack Daniels. I took the emergency brake off. We rolled backward. I started again, this time from negative 5 miles per hour.

After several clutch-grinding, head-slapping attempts, I eventually got the car into first gear. It leaped and lurched up the hill like a rabid mountain goat on Red Bull.

“Second gear,” Dad held the dash at arms length to keep from smacking into it again. Another gear? Damn!

Wwwwwhiiiiiiiine!” the car sputtered but reluctantly accepted the shift. Trees zoomed past. A squirrel ran for its life.

Thump–bucka-bucka-bucka! Gravel hit the undercarriage as we caromed off the road and across a ditch. I aimed us back toward blacktop, but the car spun on the soft sod. We missed the cemetery fence and the Traver family headstone. Thank goodness Mr. Marquardt had opted for one of those low, flat, grave markers. The rough, textured top helped us regain our traction. We came back from the dead and headed toward pavement.

“Third gear,” Dad was now grinding his teeth. More gears AND keeping all four tires on blacktop - this multi-tasking was becoming a real pain in the ass. We were back on the road but quickly running out of hill.

Wwwwwhiiiiiiiine!” the car fishtailed a bit as I shifted, then roared forward, gobbling up the rest of the hill.

At the crest was St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Established in 1760, to my knowledge it had never been hit by a car. Several huge maple trees held vigil, protecting it from vehicular attack. We threaded the maple tree needle and rapidly approached the church’s red front doors.

“Stop!” said Dad. I hit the brake with my right foot, the clutch with my left, and spun the steering wheel hard to the left. I figured if one of those moves would help, all three just might save us.

The car hooked left, popping a sideways wheelie, the left-side tires heading heavenward for a moment as the church steps loomed perilously close to the passenger-side door. I looked over, or down, at my dad as gravel skittered across the church patio. The car righted itself and rolled forward slowly. I peered into the rear view to see if any witnesses made it out alive.

“Look, Dad, I made a happy face!” There behind us, on the front lawn of St. Paul’s, was a big skiddy grin, complete with two eyes where the left-side tires had come back to earth.

We switched seats.

“Drive,” Nana said.

I put the unsightly Gremlin in gear and motored evenly down our sleepy, level road.

“You know, doing this for you, I won’t have time to bake your favorite bundt cake today,” Nana grumbled. “I hope you appreciate that.”

“Ca-chunk!” I thought to myself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Annie, I love your writing! Laughing right out loud at this one...