Thursday, January 24, 2019

Learning to Drive

My six-foot-two dad, Tom Coffey, knew how to drive. He had no choice. A professional truck driver, he hauled goods all over Nebraska and northern Kansas. He'd delivered corn and cattle from Harlan County, Nebraska, since 1929. He'd never had a wreck.

"Want me to teach you how to drive?" Dad asked in 1952 as I inched toward sixteen. I jumped at the chance. I envisioned him delivering lectures; after all, he had majored in education in college, but this is what he did:

Dad owned a car as big as a truck, his Buick. He took me, my younger sister, mother and aunt to Sunday church services, parking his car at an angle.

After services, I noticed that Dad, oddly, moved ahead of us and skittered down the long church steps. He piled in his car. I heard the motor and watched him back. He moved the Buick to a straight spot on the street, then shut it down and exited. He met me at the bottom of the stairs. 

"Here." He handed me his cluster of keys. "Why don't you drive us home?" 

Me? Who'd only driven my bike and my big red wagon. The thought terrorized but excited me. I grabbed the keys.

"I'm not riding with her!" My sister Margery skirted the car to walk home, two blocks away.

Mom and Aunt Faith slipped in the back, Dad in the passenger seat, and I, of course, prepared to drive. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. What if I caused an accident?

My feet didn't reach the pedals, but Dad showed me how to fix that. Then he selected the ignition key from my fist-full of keys and demonstrated where to put it. I inserted it.

"You'll want to have your foot on the brake," Dad noted, "before you turn that key." 

He explained how to shift the Buick into forward and move up the street. Dad seemed relaxed, but a glance in the rear-view mirror showed Mom and Faith glued in their places, speechless.

I turned the key, heard the familiar Buick roar, touched the accelerator and edged gently forward. I knew I could drive lickety-split by pressing down the accelerator, but with my priceless cargo, I dared not. I barely crept.

Still, it excited me to nose that big old Buick up the street, around the corner, along the block to our house, into the driveway and park it without having offed any of my family.

Margery, waiting for me, thumbed her nose. My backseat passengers clambered out, chattering like chickens.

But I could drive! Few experiences in my life would top that sensation.

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