In 1957, my parents crammed their four children into the back seat of an old Chevrolet and drove nonstop from Los Angeles to New York City. We were on our way to Spain.
It took forever to cross America in the days before freeways. Although just a kid, I had to consider the possibility that my father might be crazy. He never stopped driving.
It was the age before seat belts. My siblings and I slept like a pack of wolves in the back seat. I would wake up in another state and the old man was still plowing through the night.
Sometimes I would stand on the drive-line hump and keep him company. We would talk while the rest of the family slept. We had frank discussions about the bugs we hit, cops we passed, ice cream and whether Santa would still be able to find us so far away?
My father, who knew everything, told me not to worry. Santa made a special effort to keep track of where all the really naughty kids lived.
Me: “Kids like me?”
Him: “Any kid who glues his sister’s hair to the carpet.”
I also learned that the vapor or wisps of smoke we passed through were the ghosts of hobos run over by trains, that cats actually liked to take naps in the road and doughnuts had holes because cowboys shot them on the way to the store.
While these particular observations had to be reprocessed later on, the stuff that never changed were the driving tips I got from the old man.
The first driving lesson came somewhere in the Midwest, after a particularly large bug (or a buzzard) smacked the windshield. The goo was impressive. I suggested that he start aiming for the bugs.
My father said, “Son, always let the bugs come to you.”
He explained why it was dangerous to aim for the bugs. We could end up off the road, in a river or bashing into oncoming traffic. So, when I got old enough to drive, I should stick with the bugs on my side of the road.
That doughnut-cowboy thing turned out to be so much crap, but the bug advice is as true today as it was in 1957.
Over the years I learned even more by watching over my father’s shoulder in the middle of the night.
He told me to keep both hands on the steering wheel in case it became necessary to steer around a wiener dog, a stalled tractor or a giant hole in the road. Cows had been known to attack passing cars.
And I should never drive faster than twice the speed limit if a woman was in the car and holding a baby. She might get mad, snatch the key out of ignition and throw it out the window.
I should always be respectful when pulled over by the police in Texas or anywhere else that the first words out of the officer’s mouth were, “Where the hell you going, boy?”
There was lots more, but these were the high points. I took my father’s driving lessons to heart and have managed to hang onto my driver license for more than 40 years.
The old man might not be so lucky. The state recently sent him a “Functional Ability Evaluation Medical Report” form. He has to get a doctor to certify that he can actually see the bugs now.
I hope he passes. There’s no way I want him watching over my shoulder while I drive.
Robert Kirby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.