July 2014

My grandson once remarked to his father, “She won’t let anyone else drive her car, not ever.”  “He’s right”, I thought, and wondered about it, but not for long, because it’s so clear.  I don’t admit to many people that even now I get exactly the same brain rush every time I get in the car that I did when I was sixteen.  I should tell him why. 

It’s this way, Phineas.  In Dayton, Ohio where we were living when I was twelve, my father taught me to drive in our dark green Chevy.  It was immediately comfortable and familiar since I had driven it the full length of the new Pennsylvania Turnpike on the way to Dayton while my mother slept.  On the theory that she needed to be in position in case I did something wrong, she stayed in the driver’s seat, sleeping deeply, while I worked the gas pedal and the steering wheel from a twisted position next to her.  I knew I had grown up.

The toll was one penny per mile, total $1.60.  That first limited access American road had opened three years earlier in 1940 after providing jobs to thousands of workers during the depression.  It snaked through the ridges and valleys of the Allegheny Mountains where the old route 30 had followed the path of the wagon train routes.  Seven tunnels were blasted through the rock, just one lane going east, one west.  That’s the part that would one day doom the road.  It would go the way of the wagon train and two lane tunnels.  And in 1943, I drove it in a state of anxious seriousness that I can still feel.

When we moved back east after the war, the thought of waiting until I became New Jersey’s required seventeen was out of the question.  This was my pitch:  let’s drive to Connecticut, visit my grandparents, and take my test in a state that has the sense to grant licenses at sixteen.  Success.  Then, in a maneuver I still don’t understand, I convinced my mother to take the train back to New Jersey and I, in Mabel, the wonderfully perfect Model T of my driving test, would drive alone to Maine to visit my college roommate.  I was sixteen with zero experience – except for that turnpike trip that had given me absolute confidence that I was born for the road.

I was quite pleased when I faced my first flat tire.  My father had taught me meticulously.  Brake on, gearshift engaged, loosen the lug nuts before jacking the tire off the ground, take them off, install the spare, replace the lug nuts, lower the car, tighten the nuts…..and get the spare fixed quickly because you’re sure to have at least one flat on every trip.  I did it and it felt good, and in that era, there were many more.

Not long after that, my parents gave me a second hand eight-year-old red Ford convertible that carried a college friend and me to California and back.  My father suggested I ask Bill Fix if he would lend me his Billy Club for protection.  Mr. Fix was head of the Middletown police department and was happy to lend me his club with the recommendation that if we ever drove at night we might wear men’s fedoras.  My father’s parting shot:  “don’t call collect; it’s too expensive.”  That had been a familiar refrain for a while.

Over the years there were four cross country trips, each a month of sustained, peaceful fun.  Why, I always wondered, do people want to fly across this extraordinary landscape when a car lets them soak up the flavor of each state?  Abandoned gold mines in Nevada, the Rockies in Colorado, the unimaginable scope of the flatness of Wyoming, the expanse of Nebraska and Kansas, the ruins in New Mexico, the Indian heritage throughout the southwest.  And the annual family trip when we tried each summer to devise a new route through the Great Lakes to a small rock island in Desbarats, Ontario.

For many years after that, driving meant school carpools, errands, vacations, family driving – all good.  It was after our children had grown up and left home that time began to loosen its hand.  An insight rolled over me one day:  leaving an extra ten minutes whenever I drove would bring peace rather than the tension of navigating the traffic game in order to be on time.  When I get in my car, float to the Garden State Parkway and head north for several hours into New England with doo wop music filling the car and a good book on tape at hand, anything difficult in my life just drops away and I feel freedom as I feel it nowhere else.  Why?  Even trying to answer that might tarnish the magic.

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