Monday, August 10, 2015

Learning to Drive

Aunt Ruth and the car (an Austin) she drove as an itinerant music teacher in rural Vermont, late 1930s.
Last week I got an email from Mrs. Jane Currier of Randolph, Vermont. Mrs. Currier is the wife of Ken Currier, who taught me how to drive a car. She was writing to thank me for coming home to live with my mother in 2007; in passing, she mentioned that she thought she had ordered my new book online but she wasn’t 100 percent sure because she and Mr. Currier are 86 and the Internet is not in their DNA. My strongest memory of learning to drive involves the drivers-ed car coming to a sudden stop on Main Street, where the cars are parked at an angle to the curb, with their rear ends sticking out into the street. The stop took me by complete surprise, being the result of Mr. Currier’s foot coming down hard on the instructor’s brake as I blithely cruised within inches of somebody’s rear bumper—a bumper that was invisible to me until Mr. Currier calmly pointed it out as the drivers-ed car, now motionless, blocked all northbound Main Street traffic. In our family, we had two cars, a Chevy Malibu and a Volkswagen Beetle. I was terrified of the VW, which had an ill-tempered clutch and which used to stall every single time I tried to make it go up a small hill on Central Street, at the top of which was a stop sign. The Currier house was a few doors down from that intersection, and I used to imagine Mr. Currier standing at his front window and shaking his head as I drove by in the wrong gear, engine roaring, my mother white-knuckled in the passenger seat. My mother was a gifted teacher, but her effort to teach me to “drive stick” ended in failure. I was so traumatized by the whole experience that I moved to New York City and rode the subway for the next 12 years. Then I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, bought a Toyota Corolla with a stick shift, and learned to drive it in city traffic. I even had a stick shift in L.A., which is where I finally learned to parallel park—a skill that I, and the Vermont Motor Vehicles Department, thought I had already mastered. What I learned in L.A. was how to park a Honda Civic in a space the size of a toaster oven. In 2007 I moved back to Vermont, bought a Subaru with a stick shift, and became my mother’s chauffeur. Thanks in large part to Mr. Currier’s lessons in defensive driving, I have, at age 61, a spotless driving record, despite having lived for several years in Tanzania, where I drove on the left and shared the road with cows, lorries, wheelbarrows, and potholes the size of swimming pools.

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