By American standards I was somewhat tardy in learning to drive a car. Officially. Unofficially, during my mid-teens my sometimes tennis-partner, Trina, a 30-something mother of two, would let me drive when I went with her to the grocery store. The campus where I lived had two old VW vans which could be signed out for personal use. Trina would drive out the campus gates to the back road and after a few hundred meters would pull over to let me get in the driver’s seat. Then in a great spasm of clutch, accelerator and brakes, we would inch our way up the long hill to the grocery store; an hour later we’d go back down again.
My official driving lessons began in earnest when I moved from Brazil to Portland, Oregon at the age of 17. For $11 my dad bought me an enormous 1966 Oldsmobile Dynamic 88. My brother David, an industrial electro-static painter, gave it a fresh coat of white paint to spruce it up a bit. I have vivid memories of a Sunday afternoon drive across the Columbia River up to Washington, a newly-minted learner’s permit in my pocket and my mom riding shotgun. Somewhere along the line (Longview?) I managed to get in the wrong lane heading into one-way traffic over a bridge. Indelible memories.
David drove logging trucks for awhile. These trucks, weighed down with tons of freshly felled logs, are truly awe-inspiring – not to mention outright deadly for anything that happens to get in their way. David’s rule for safe driving: “Look ahead; keep your distance.” He says if drivers would follow this simple rule, most traffic accidents would be avoided.
When I finally went to get my real license I borrowed another one of my dad’s clunkers, this one slightly smaller than my expansive car. After about a quarter of a mile the officer giving the exam made me pull over to the side. “Young man, am I correct in believing that the speedometer on this vehicle is not functioning?” I kept myself from replying, “Sir, I perceive you are a prophet,” but I did let him know, yes, you are absolutely right. “Well, in that case,” he continued, “if at any time during this test I determine that you are in excess of the speed limit then you will have failed the test.” Needless to say the test took a long time to complete. By the time we got to the freeway section he simply told me to pass on it – he had already been in one accident that day.
I once managed to get an entire football team, 11 guys, into my Oldsmobile. We didn’t have to go far, luckily. Just from the playing fields by the public swimming pool in Corvallis, Oregon, back up to our apartments at Walnut Place. A couple of miles. And we didn’t even need to put anyone in the trunk.
Two years ago my daughters started reading up on driving, in preparation for the theory exam for their British Columbia driver licenses. I picked up the book and learned a few things myself. For instance, did you know that if you are about to hit a large animal – deer, moose, etc. – you should actually let up on the brakes at the last moment? Reason: if you keep the brakes on all the way, the nose of your vehicle will be lower and this will increase the likelihood of the animal going through the windshield. The things Canadians have to worry about!
I also learned that when a traffic light switches from green to yellow it means “one should stop, if it can be done safely, before the light turns red”. So yellow means stop, if you can do it safely? I had never heard this before. I had always just assumed the correctness of the maxim, “Green means Go; Yellow means Go Faster”. But employing the Canadian wisdom really has changed my approach to intersections. I think it has changed my way of dealing with all life’s cautions, in general.
I sold my Oldsmobile in Santa Rosa, California, to someone I’m sure was going to turn it into a really cool low-rider. I got $500 for it. Obviously I missed my calling in life.