When I would hear my friends talk about what their children were going through to get their driver licenses, I used to cringe. In the good old days, all you really needed was a fifteenth birthday, and you were off and running.
I’m not sure how my friends felt about it, but I considered my fifteenth birthday present to be going down to HPD and applying for my driver’s learning permit. This is exactly what I did.
In order to receive your permit to drive – with a licensed adult in the car – I’d studied my ass off to make sure I knew everything in this Hawai‘i driver’s manual you could buy anywhere in town. There was a written test – and by that I mean a multiple-choice test, no essays involved – and you had to have no more than, I forget, maybe five answers wrong out of maybe 40 questions.
I was late born in the year, so plenty of my friends had already scored their permits, and many had moved on and earned their actual licenses. Many shared memorable questions from the permit exam, and we knew that the popular questions were asked with guaranteed regularity, so it didn’t hurt to know, say, that you never passed a school bus if it stopped and its lights were flashing.
Some of my friends had actually failed the permit exam the first time around, a few the second, and a very unfortunate one or two had not achieved a passing score after three or more attempts.
This would not be me, I swore, as I sat down and proceeded to blitz the test. I may have missed a question or two, but I was not to be denied. My goal was to be able to get out of the house way more often, and this incentive drove me on, no pun intended, like the proverbial carrot before the horse.
I emerged triumphant with my permit, good for, I think it was six months, I’ll guesstimate, but as was the case with many of my friends, I hoped to high heaven that I’d need nowhere near that much time. I think they actually required you to drive for a minimum number of months, may two or three, but even that long a time was something I hoped I would not need.
The gods of driving rode with me, I must say. My parents were all for my driving as soon as possible, for some reason. Perhaps they hoped it would cut down on their need to drive me to various after school or evening activities. Or it could be that they really just wanted me to be happy, driving for me, they could see, being a key component of that happiness.
So completely onboard with this idea was my mom, that she asked me as I emerged, permit in hand, if I’d like to drive. Never having driven, I felt like I’d just been thrown the car keys by my Auntie Mame. I had no fear of the open road, and I gladly took us from the Beretania Street Police Department headquarters to St. Francis hospital in Liliha, where my mom let me drive around the parking lot for a half hour or so. From start to finish, I neither jerked us around by misstepping on the gas, nor did I give us whiplash for hitting the brake too hard. It was like I was born to drive.
Then it was home, Jeeves, so I motored us up Pacific Heights Road, 100% confident in my ability to take us all the way back in one piece. As I rounded the last extreme turn on the way to my house, however, I oversteered my mom’s Malibu convertible right, and placed the nose of the car’s right headlight just inches away from hitting a neighbor’s sewer pipe which descended a high retaining wall across the street from our house.
My proximity to the large pipe meant that I could not simply steer us back to the left. I was about as wedged in as I could be without actually hitting the pipe and/or the wall. A bit of panic set in, as I could not tell if someone were coming up behind me due to us being far enough around the curve that I couldn’t see cars approaching from the rear.
And of course, just as I pictured the possibility of someone rear-ending me, a car came speeding around the corner and, thankfully, jerked to a stop just behind me. Luckily, it was a very kind man. He could see immediately that I needed to reverse in order to get far enough away from the wall to go forward.
The man stood out in the road, just a bit behind his own car, and gestured a few cars to go around us. Carefully, very, I inched us back, and when I had achieved enough clearance, motored forward to our house. The kind man jumped in his car and took off up the hill past us. I did not recognize, nor did I ever see him again, but I have often depended upon the kindness of strangers, and this was no exception.
Once when my little orange Karmann Ghia convertible was snowbound in my apartment parking lot in Madison, I had been rocking the car back and forth for fifteen minutes, per the driver’s bible, trying to get enough momentum and traction to free myself from a growing rut. We were in the middle of a full scale blizzard, and I did not know what to do short of calling for a tow truck.
Just then, a man came out from the apartment complex heading for his own car. He saw me inspecting the underside of my car and asked what was up. I described the problem and he said, optimistically, “Get in and I’ll push you out.”
The best laid plans, yes? I had dug myself in a bit too deep, and try as we might in our tandem level best, we could not get me going.
Exiting the car, I told him I thought I’d better just call a tow truck.
“Nonsense,” said he, “hold on. I’ll be right back.”
A few minutes later he reemerged from the complex with two other figures behind him. Through the driving snow I could barely make them out, but it looked like he had two women tagging along.
He got me back in the car, and with the help of the other two, who turned out to be his wife and his daughter, I was able to get out of that mess.
My dad never gave me a driving lesson, except for that “hilarious” time when he and his childhood friend Peanut had me steering the jeep along the edge of the cliff on Kaua‘i. My mom did all the teaching. I did not have to wait to look back on this fact many years after on order to remark how ironic this was since my mom was maybe the most accident prone driver I’ve ever known.
Regularly my mom would get into fender benders going to and from her teaching job. I don’t know if this were perhaps a result of her drinking, but eventually she and my dad decided that she should no longer drive, so he ended up taking her to and from school for the rest of her teaching career.
But teach me she did. I was her chauffer from the day I earned my learner’s permit, to the day I took and passed my road test. I passed the first time with hardly a point knocked off.
So at fifteen I was ready to roll, and roll I did. We had two cars, and although at that point my mom was still driving to and from school, there was always her car to drive at night and on weekends.
I drove away from home as often as I could, going to the beach on weekends, and to Hamilton Library on the UH Mānoa campus, or to movies, or just up Tantalus to stare at the stars and smoke. Whenever I could get out, I did.
When I went to Madison, I took my Karman Ghia with me. It had been good to me since my sophomore year at UH, and I wanted to have a car when I went to Wisconsin. Accordingly, I shipped her to Oakland, California, where a cousin lived, and after spending a few weeks visiting around the Bat Area, I set out for a driving adventure into the heartland. I would do that drive a few more times, and I would learn that I could go from her door to my door in Madison, and vice versa, in almost exactly 24 hours, if I didn’t stop to sleep.
I do remember a few times where I nodded off, but gravel shoulders luckily woke me up before I killed myself. Back in those days I was stupider than I am now, which is not by much, but there is a difference, I think, thanks to a modicum of that acquired wisdom that accrues with age, if you believe the advertising.
I’ve often wondered whether I could still pull off an Oakland to Madison run in 24 hours. Should the opportunity ever present itself again, I would resist it, I think. I know better than to take those chances anymore. I think.
But on that first trip to Madison, I had absolutely no idea how long the drive would take. I started off early in the morning, and by nightfall I’d reached Wyoming. I figured it was time to stop this first leg of my journey, so I found a tiny two room motel attached to a gas station and a diner. It was a cozy, very clean, modern room, and the best part was that the entire operation was run by a family. The family consisted of a mom and dad, and five daughters, the oldest one maybe 20.
Let me tell you, these women were gorgeous, and if I were Odysseus, I might have lingered there for many years, but I was not he, and graduate school called, so at the crack of dawn, with many wonderful mental pictures that would help me make it through the night for a few years to come, I hit road.
When you are on Interstate 80 headed east, and you’re out in the middle of the country, you’re seeing a lot of flat land. Along with this very flat land, you’re seeing, at six in the morning a whole lot of sun coming up. It’s quite blinding, really, and although I stayed on hyper aware point mentally, I was still going very fast, this island boy finally able to run wild and free over the vast expanse of the U.S. continent.
So I’m kind of shading my eyes, right, the visor down as well, and I’m sort of peeking ahead into the glare as best I can, when WHUMP! Something comes right slam bam into my windshield and then is blown back over the roof. IT seemed like there’d been an explosion of feathers.
I screeched to a halt – there were no other cars on the highway – jumped out, and ran back down the road, looking for whatever it was I hit. Uppermost in my mind were visions of some poor splattered bird, and although I combed the area going back a good four hundred yards, I could find not even a feather.
While I was thus searching the scene like a crazy man, a middle-aged woman came along and pulled over. She asked if anything were wrong. I explained to her what had happened, and quite surprisingly she laughed, throwing her head back for enjoying my plight so much.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said. “It happens all the time along this stretch. Have a nice day.”
And with that she returned to her car and took off. I stood there puzzled. This comment confused me, as I’m sure it confuses you, and to this day I have no idea what she was talking about, or if she were even supposed to make some kind of sense. She certainly did not resemble a Large Marge type character, yet who knows but that she might have been crazy. Perhaps I looked like a potential victim for some horrible deed she wished to perpetrate but, seeing me up close, she decided I was the wrong type to fulfill her vile scheme.
Or maybe that’s just the way folks communicate in Wyoming. Bear breaks into your house, eats all the food in the refrigerator, tears the place apart and departs. “Oh, don’t worry about that. It happens all the time around here.”
What that “it” is still bothers me. That she knew exactly what “it” was, and that I didn’t have even a single clue, oh boy.
Definitely there are a few more cars on the road now. I hop in and get back to driving. I’m uneasy about the non-explanation of what happened to me, but as I get up to speed, higher than the posted speed limit, I’ll admit, the incident fades. Get your motor running, baby. I am out on the highway and free.
And then I see in my rearview mirror, even though I think I’m moving pretty fast, these two cars gaining on me, quickly. One speeds past me. The other immediately moves from behind me to the left lane, and then speeds off after the other car.
I think hey, why not. So I accelerate and see just how fast I can get my Ghia going. Can I possibly catch these guys?
No, they are definitely speeding away from me, and as they disappear under an overpass, and as I follow them, then emerge to see that they’re now just specks in the distance, a noise breaks my concentration.
I look in my rearview mirror, and what do I see? Why it’s a cop, lights blazing and siren blaring. He’s driven from the overpass, swooping down onto the highway, behind me. I’d learn they call those speed traps, and they are everywhere.
Pulling over, I sit and wait for the officer to arrive. he approaches and says, “Going pretty fast there, weren’t you.”
It’s not a question.
He asks for my license and registration.
“You’re a long way from home, Mr. Lee.”
I’m not sure if he’s deduced this from my Hawai‘i license plates, or from my Hawai‘i license.
“You were doing more than seventy miles an hour, Mr. Lee.”
“Well,” I said, “those two guys were going much faster than I was. How did you decide to stop me and not one of them?”
He looks at me. “Who was going faster than you?”
“Those two cars ahead of me. They were going much faster than I was. Didn’t you see them?”
I don’t know what made me so brave. If this had happened today, I’d not have said a word, especially looking the way I do. Especially not out there in the middle of white nowhere USA.
He didn’t say anything, just handed my license and registration back to me. Then he pulled out his ticket book. After writing me up, he tore out the ticket and handed it to me.
“This is a warning ticket, Mr. Lee. I’m letting you off with a warning, and I strongly advise you drive the speed limit from here on.”
With that he wheeled around and returned to his car. I wasn’t rattled by the experience at all. What had me shaking was the fact that those two guys had been going way faster than I was, but had not been touched. Angry as I was, however, that incident changed the way I would drive forever. I drove 55 the rest of the way on I-80, and I followed the various speed limits to the mile per hour once I got off on the side roads and headed north for Madison.
It is a very rare thing that I go over the speed limit these days. Although I must say that my latest car, a Nissan Leaf, has brought a kind of joy back into my driving that I’d not known since the days of my dear Karmann Ghia.
I loved that car so much, that when I moved back home from Wisconsin, I brought it back with me, making the trip from Madison to my cousin’s house in Oakland one last time.
If I were a wealthier man, I’d probably still have my Ghia. I’ll never forget the night I parked her on Hunnewell Street just above Metcalf. I’d been grading my English 100 compositions papers over at UH Mānoa. It was pouring rain. As I made the turn up Hunnewell from Metcalf, I could see that there was something sitting under my car.
Figuring it was a cat hiding from the downpour, or something along those lines, I bent down to shoo it away, not wanting to run it over. But this was no cat.
No, this was my car battery which, in the Ghia, sits on the floor under the back seat – don’t ask, the engine’s in back and the trunk in front too. Turns out the floor had rusted out and needed to be replaced. Salt from the winter roads in Wisconsin had done my baby in.
The restoration was way too expensive for me, so with a heavy heart, I traded my Ghia in for a red Honda CRX. The new car was a lot of fun to drive as well, but nothing will ever replace that Karman Ghia in the cozy little garage of my past cars heart.
I could go on and on about driving stories, including the one I mentioned earlier where my head went through the windshield, but maybe more about that later.
* * * * *
Aloha #WriterWednesday. Today’s #WritingPrompt is
Use it to inspire a piece or writing, and then post that piece on your site and link back to me, or simply leave it as a comment below. I would love to read what you come up with : )