50: Riding Shotgun

50: Riding Shotgun

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope & Miracles

Riding Shotgun

Dad, your guiding hand on my shoulder will remain with me forever.

~Author Unknown

I was a miracle child. Well, that is what my parents always told me. My mother’s doctor said that she would likely never have children. But after many prayers for a baby and sixteen years of marriage, I arrived. And how my parents loved me! I was the focus of their lives. My mother was my confidante and counselor. We talked about everything. My father was my teacher and protector. I never felt afraid when he was near. Dad kept me safe.

Excitement and anxiety were high in our home when I hit seventeen and got my learner’s permit. My parents celebrated my burgeoning independence, yet they were also concerned for my wellbeing. I begged my mother to teach me to drive. She reluctantly gathered the keys and glanced around her in the vague hope that someone else would take her place. She started my lesson in the empty gravel parking lot of our community swim club. There, I drove our boat of a Buick around and around a center island of trees. I successfully avoided hitting the maples, so Mom let me drive the few back streets home. At each stop sign and with every oncoming car, she stomped on an imaginary brake and fingered her rosary. “I have survived,” she told my dad when we returned home. “Now, it’s your turn.”

And Dad took over permanently. He had the right stuff for the job. My father was a B-17 pilot during World War II. He flew his bomber, the Lady Lylian, wingtip to wingtip with his squadron. He navigated through thunderstorms using only the plane’s instruments. On one occasion, the airplane’s compass froze, and he used a thirty-cent novelty store compass to find his way back to base. After forty missions, Dad brought his entire crew home safely.

His flying expertise translated to his driving. My father drove our family on vacations across the United States — from North Dakota to Florida and everywhere in between. As a young child, I would stretch out on the back seat and fall asleep, lulled by his steady driving and the warm sun streaming through the window. I felt secure. In his sixty years of driving, Dad never had an accident.

I remember one snowy afternoon when Dad came to pick me up from grammar school. He noticed a group of my friends walking through the blowing snow and offered them a ride. They piled into the back. Dad was nearly to the top of Tank Hill when the car started to slide backwards. He pumped the brakes, but the car continued to slip. The kids screamed. Dad simply turned around, looked out the rear window, and steered the car safely to the bottom of the hill. He would be the perfect driving teacher for me—experienced and unshakable.

On our first time out, Dad tossed me the keys to his prized Mercedes. He settled comfortably in the passenger’s seat. “Where to?” he asked me.

Over the next months, we wended through little towns, braved hair-raising Route 17, and traveled the New Jersey Turnpike—boxed in by eighteen-wheelers. My father kept his cool through it all. Every once in a while, he directed me in even tones. “Remember you can always use the brake,” he told me. “Check your blind spot and ease over.” Dad taught me the trick of accelerating out of a curve to make the driving smoother and that slowing in a downpour improves visibility.

One afternoon, I drove him to his friend Nino’s house. “How is your dad as a driving instructor?” Nino asked me.

“He’s really relaxed,” I said. “Today, he even fell asleep.”

“I wasn’t sleeping. I fainted from fear,” said Dad, laughing.

After many miles of practice, I got my driver’s license. I was a bit nervous about my first solo drive. “You’ll be fine,” my father told me. And I knew I would be.

Years later, I was driving to pick up my fiancé from the United States Military Academy at West Point. I entered onto the Palisades Parkway, which parallels the Hudson River, and my car was engulfed in thick fog. I couldn’t see much in front of me. As soon as possible, I turned around and went home. The trip had left me rattled, but my dad offered to sit beside me if I wanted to try again.

We traveled slowly through the fog. “Don’t use the bright lights because they reflect off the fog,” he said. “Now, use the white line to your right as a guide.” We made it to West Point and back intact.

My cadet and I married. After our third child was born, I decided to enroll in graduate school. I was worried about the lengthy drive to campus. “It’s a long commute,” I told my father.

“What an adventure!” he encouraged.

I lost my beloved father to liver cancer a week before my first semester. Late one autumn night, I was driving home from class on a lonely stretch of dark highway. Suddenly, my father’s baritone voice filled the car. “Look out for deer,” he said. I wasn’t startled or frightened to hear his voice. It was like old times with him riding shotgun and keeping me safe. A few miles later, a massive buck was standing, unmoving, in the middle of my lane. I was ready. I hit the brakes and eased into the next lane, just as Dad had taught me.

~Marie-Therese Miller

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