42: Driven

42: Driven

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad


Adolescence is a period of rapid changes.
Between the ages of 12 and 17, for example,
a parent ages as much as 20 years.

~Author Unknown

When I was a junior in high school I was convinced that I would be the last member of my generation to obtain my driver’s license. Even though I turned sixteen the summer before my junior year, I was scheduled to take a driver’s education course at my suburban Chicago high school during the fall semester, which meant that I would not be able to test for my license until a few months before my seventeenth birthday. While I dreamed about having private driving lessons and a car of my own like some of my classmates, my father had other plans in mind.

Dad was a guidance counselor/college consultant at another local high school, and he wasn’t about to spend my future tuition money on private driving lessons, teen driver insurance rates or my own car. As far as he was concerned, he and my mom were working hard enough to save money for a college education for my younger sister and me.

The car I would be training on was the family vehicle — a 1978 white Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale that was at least seven years old by the time I was old enough to drive it. When the Olds was brand new, it was a powerful, gleaming “King of the Road” with spoke hubcaps, a V8 engine, and a crushed red velvet interior. By the time I was driving it, the car was a rusting gas guzzler that maneuvered as easily as a cruise ship. The engine occasionally died at stoplights, or ran on for another fifteen seconds after I turned it off. My parents had the entire vehicle repainted twice, which kept the bottoms of the car doors from rotting off; and a thin layer of rust bonded by new paint would shudder every time I slammed a door shut.

There was no way on earth that I could look remotely cool in my father’s Oldsmobile, not even when I cranked up my favorite Tears for Fears song on the car’s AM radio.

Of course, my father was more than happy to supplement my driver’s education classes with his own behind-the-wheel lessons. He was right next to me when I first started lurching about an empty parking lot in the oversized Oldsmobile that I lovingly nicknamed Coche, which is Spanish for “car.” Since Coche had a bench seat in the front, Dad had to bend his six-foot-three-inch frame to accommodate me every time I adjusted the driver’s seat all the way to the front so I could comfortably reach the gas and brake pedals. For hours at a time, he would calmly advise me on the finer points of left turns and lane changes while his knees were shoved up around his ears.

I can still recall the day I obtained my license — March 3, 1986 — and I remember being grateful to Casimir Pulaski, the Polish-American Revolutionary War hero who was the reason why public schools throughout Illinois were closed, enabling Dad and I to spend an entire weekday morning at the Department of Motor Vehicles. I seemed to be the only person who was happy to be there, as I anxiously awaited my turn.

My study skills served me well on the written exam, and Dad’s careful instruction paid off during my behind-the-wheel test. As the DMV instructor took notes, I carefully maneuvered Dad’s enormous Oldsmobile through parallel parking, a three-point turn and a trip around the block.

By lunchtime I became the proud owner of my first driver’s license. I grinned giddily as a dour DMV employee took my photograph in front of a bright red background. As I showed my father the license, clearly marked “Under 21” in several places, I could see the expression of pride on his face. He handed me the car keys, which dangled from a Bicentennial keychain that was even older than his car.

When I got behind the wheel of Coche I turned to look at Dad, who was already tensing up his leg muscles as I prepared to slide the front seat forward. For the first time in my life, I realized the patience that was required of my father as he waited for this day. I thought about all those hours that he sat with me without complaining, twisted up like a pretzel while I jerked the family car around empty parking lots and navigated busy suburban roadways in hazardous winter weather, striving to gain my own independence.

Suddenly it occurred to me that after all this patient waiting, I had a lifetime of opportunities to drive ahead of me — a lifetime of places to go, passengers to transport, and cars to drive (hopefully with power steering, bucket seats, and an FM stereo).

I lowered my hand from the ignition. “Dad, you’ve been cooped up enough these past few months,” I said. “Why don’t you drive us home?”

Dad was surprised but I could already see his muscles relax. “Are you sure?” he asked.

“I’m sure,” I said, handing him the keys. “It’s my treat.”

~Robyn Kurth

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