Pedal to My Mettle

Can it really be that Teen Boy is old enough to drive?

I NEVER WANTED A HUMVEE BEFORE; I considered it the automotive equivalent of a Hardee’s Monster Thickburger. Then my child started learning to drive. Suddenly, the Humvee seemed a perfectly reasonable mode of transport. In fact, I’m now wondering what a nice, used Sherman tank might be going for these days. Much better than the armored-assault-vehicle option, however, would be the simply-not-driving option. I know this is heresy in Texas. I know that among the inalienable rights and truths that the Texas male holds to be self-evident are life, liberty, and the pursuit of a driver’s license the very instant he is physically able to peer over the dashboard, but hear me out. I am opposed to sixteen-year-olds getting driver’s licenses for a number of very sound reasons.

To wit: (a) Ever priced car insurance for a sixteen-year-old? (b) The latest research shows that the brain of the average sixteen-year-old boy is composed of the same stuff that’s inside Twinkies—a soft, creamy filling that doesn’t start to gel until the age of 35 or when hair appears on the ears, whichever occurs first. For girls, the first thoughts of Botox are, generally, what triggers this brain-gelling process. (c) The horseless carriage is a fad and will never last.

So I recused myself and let El Hubbo, the Hub of My Universe, handle the driving instruction. Okay, I was requested—court ordered—to recuse myself. Mention was made of my unfortunate-though-generally-
entirely-warranted habit of describing all my fellow motorists as “effing maniacs.” There were also sniggering references to a certain motor trip I embarked upon—
decades ago!—to visit my sister, who’d gotten a summer job working at Fort Courage, Arizona, serving Navajo tacos to fans of the deathless TV classic F Troop. Much hilarity and mockery ensued simply because I took one wrong turn in Albuquerque and ended up ninety miles due east, on the outskirts of Santa Rosa, New Mexico.

I trace all my driving “issues” to the hideous mismatch between me and my own driving instructor, my father. My father: born in Detroit, Motor City, Michigan; flew aerial reconnaissance in World War II and Cold War; participated in Corvette road rallies. Me: born in Ann Arbor, Pointy-headed College Town, Michigan; never took the training wheels off my bike; screamed in terror and threw up while spinning around in the tea cups. Lifelong fan and connoisseur of the internal combustion engine, my father had all sorts of Indy 500 tips for me (“Goose the g’s, double clutch, rev your amps, bank into the turn, warp speed, activate tractor beam”). I had all sorts of loser questions (“Which one do you step on to make it go?”).

Though I don’t recall ever actually taking a driving test, the word “K-turn” does make my left eyelid twitch uncontrollably. So I was delighted to let El Hubbo be the passenger-side crash-test dummy while practice hours were logged on the learner’s permit. He was the right man for the job. The proudest moment in his own Texas boyhood was when, long before being issued an actual license, he borrowed his brother’s ’56 Chevy Bel Air to drive his Older Woman date to the prom. Perhaps the snappy coat of royal-blue house paint they’d spiffed the car up with caught the officer’s attention? Or could it have been, hmmm, that he was barely five feet tall! A much bigger question, though, is, Did he get a ticket? Texans, you know the answer. Do other states extend this level of sympathy and encouragement to toddler drivers? I think not.

This, then, is what Hollywood would call the backstory behind the day recently when I drove Teen Boy to the orthodontist to have his braces removed. I was all ready, camera in hand, to record the first smile in two years that wouldn’t set off metal detectors. Would it be as beautiful as a sunset over the Eiffel Tower on that Paris vacation we’ll never be able to afford? As stunning as the glass tile we won’t be buying for the bathroom we won’t be remodeling? I can’t say, because there was no smile. There was only glower—intense teen glower. The braces had not come off. The orthodontist explained, poking his fingers into Teen Boy’s mouth and tapping teeth, “See these guys right here? These guys aren’t doing what I want them to do.” For what we’re paying him, those “guys” should be doing taxes, windows, and quantum physics.

Out in the parking lot, trying to take the edge off of Teen Boy’s disappointment, I toss him the keys. Then I get into the passenger seat and have a small, silent nervous breakdown. The Volvo we bought shortly after he was born, mostly for its armoring of Swedish steel, now feels like an eggshell around my precious chickling. The instant my baby is behind the wheel, I want the roads cleared. And dusted, if that’s not asking too much.

I control the terror. When he starts the car, I don’t clench my “guys” and suck in panicked inhalations like a karate master about to snap a board in two. When he edges into traffic, I don’t shoot my arm out in front of him the way my mom did in pre–seat belt days. When a jerk driving a truck with tires the size of satellite dishes won’t let him change lanes, I don’t go into a Tourette’s-like spewing of epithets. Instead, amazed, I state the obvious. “You’re a good driver. A really good driver.”

The glower disappears, and I get my sunset-over-Paris smile. It reminds me of another smile. Take away the braces and the teeth, add some drool, and it is the same proud smile he beamed at us as he took his first step. Maybe it’s the smile all parents get as their child ventures ever farther out into worlds of danger we cannot protect them from. Because I was a POTA—Parent Older Than Average—I knew from the first contraction that the only part of this expedition that was

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