Driving with Dad

I started learning to drive when I was about 9 or 10.  I know that seems early, but my father would take me out to some farm land he owned about an hour outside of town and let me sit beside him on the front seat of the car — back then, cars had front seats that went all the way across — and help him drive.  I would hold the steering wheel while he worked what he called the “foot-feet”.  As long as we were on the small road that ran through the center of the property, I got to steer, but I had to turn it back over to him when we got to the road that had the lines painted on it.  After about a year of practice, he started letting me steer when we were on the lined road.

The first couple of times, I was pretty nervous.  Many years later, as a country music fan, I heard a song by Ricky van Shelton that summed up how I felt and how my dad helped me calm down.  The first verse goes something like this:

He was sitting beside me in the passenger seat
As I looked through the windshield at the quiet little street
He was smiling so proud as he gave me the key
But inside I knew he was as nervous as me
I said Daddy oh Daddy are you sure I know how
Are you sure that I’m ready to drive this car now
He said I’m right here beside you
And you’re gonna do fine
All you gotta do is keep it between the lines

Keeping it between the lines was not as hard as I thought.  When you are sitting in the middle of the car and looking out over the hood (it was a ‘69 station wagon, so the hood was really long and wide), the line on the right (next to the shoulder of the road) should line up with the right front fender.  Back then, the front fenders of cars were a lot bigger too, so it sort of stuck out over the headlight.  The line down the middle of the two lane road should look like it is coming out of the exact middle of the hood.   There was sort of a peak in the middle of the hood, along with a hood ornament — it was a Chrysler, so it was a pentagon shape with a point on top which gave me a point of reference to use for that too.   In any case, it was really easy to line up the car with the lines on the road.   After a while, when I was driving — or I guess I should say steering, since that is all I was doing — when I was steering from that position, I got pretty good at keeping it between the lines.

I found out soon enough, though, that you have to keep your eyes on the lines at all times.  If you were to notice a pretty Fall tree off to the side, or a billboard that you wanted to read more closely, or a person walking down the side of the road, and you looked at it a tad too long (i.e. more than a millisecond), the car tended to start drifting towards that obstacle.  Fortunately, I never actually hit any of those things, but I also learned that it was very easy to over-correct once I realized I was heading in the wrong direction.  I almost ended up in a ditch one time when I had drifted towards a tree and had to swerve to avoid it.  So the best course of action was for me to just keep my eyes focused on the front edge of the hood, making sure the lines on the road lined up just where they were supposed to.

A couple of years later, when I was about 13, Dad actually let me sit in the driver’s seat.  WOW.  I thought this was the big time.  I was really nervous about having to coordinate the steering with the “foot-feet” and about remembering which was the gas and which was the brake.   Now, I am not known for my coordination, in general, so I had every reason to worry.  It turned out, it also wasn’t as hard as I had anticipated.  I had mastered the steering pretty well, so I didn’t have to think too much about what to do with my hands.  I just had to pay attention to what to do with my right foot.  And we still were on pretty small, low-traffic roads.  All in all, I did pretty well with the coordination thing.  I think the thing is to practice one skill first, and when that is mastered, add the next skill and then the next and the next and eventually, you will be able to drive on a busy interstate, back up without hitting anything, and even parallel park without sideswiping the other cars.
But back to my story…

The hardest part of that next step was not the coordination, but the change in perspective that came with being behind the wheel.  Remember, I was used to lining the car up using the fender and the hood ornament.  When you are sitting in the driver’s seat, the lines look different than they do from the middle of the car.  You have to adjust your thinking when you are the one in charge of the direction you are heading.  I no longer had the precise locations – the front corner and the hood ornament in the middle — to line up with.  In fact, when I tried to use those points of reference the first time, I found myself almost running off the road!  I learned one of the most important lessons in driving — and in life.  To keep it between the lines, you may not have the guidelines you are used to using so you may have to re-focus your attention.  The problem is, where should you focus?  Here is my advice.  You shouldn’t just focus immediately in front of you.  You’ll miss the big picture and might not see what is coming at you.  Since I now had control of the brake and accelerator also, this was an important change!  And you shouldn’t focus too far down the road.  You can easily lose your concentration and drift off course.  There is a middle ground to watch — about 30 feet in front of the car when you are driving —  that will let you see what is going on around you.  Staying focused there will keep you between the lines and get you where you are going.

I got to thinking about all this over Fall break a few years ago when I was driving to DC to visit my father in the hospital.  I had 900 miles to cover each way, and having just turned 40, I realized I had been driving legally for 24 years, but had actually been practicing long before that.  I also realized that the lessons Dad taught me about how to handle a car also helped me handle the medical emergency that precipitated my trip.  I stayed focused, not on myself and the fact that I had a very different trip planned for fall break, and not on the what-ifs that run through your head when you hear a loved one is in ICU, but rather on my father, what his needs were and what I could do to help.  That was my point 30 feet out, and by putting my energy, thoughts and deeds into meeting that goal, I was able to “keep it between the lines” and be there for him when he needed me.  Thankfully, he came home and made a complete recovery.  The best part was I was able to spend time with him, as well as by myself, reminiscing about a fond childhood memory.

I share this story with you so that, as you steer yourself on your life journey, you will hopefully remember the lesson of driving with dad and the words of Alan Jackson  (I told you I was a country music fan, right?) in his song Drive:

It was just an old worn out Jeep
Rusty old floorboard, hot on my feet
A young girl two hands on the wheel
I can’t replace the way it made me feel
And he’d say, “turn it left and steer it right,
Straighten up girl, you’re doing just fine”
Just a little valley by the river where we’d ride
But I was high on a mountain
When daddy let me drive.


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