Monday, October 29, 2012

The Driving Lesson

I already was 20 minutes into the 3.7 mile drive from my home to my office, a trip that usually took eight. The reason was a student driver in front of me. I kept back a few car-lengths, and matched her irregular accelerations and decelerations. The placard mounted on the roof of the car read Easy Method, the very company which had run the Drivers Ed program at my old high school 40 years earlier.

An impatient driver in a Mercedes came up behind me. He rode my bumper, honked, passed, and then rode the student’s bumper. His encouragement didn’t increase the student’s speed, so he passed her on a blind curve. I saw the instructor in the right seat gesturing animatedly to his student, no doubt telling her never to imitate the technique demonstrated by the driver of the Mercedes.

My one and only attempt at teaching someone to drive was in the summer of 1978. The experience gave me a lasting respect for Drivers Ed instructors. Most of their students are 16. Mine was 25, but it didn’t help.

Angela was an attractive strawberry blonde who had moved to New York in 1968, though she never lost a north Florida accent. In 1978 she lived in an 18th floor apartment in Manhattan on Third Avenue. I lived in NJ as I still do today. We had met in New York, and nearly all of our dates so far had been in the city.

There is a common side effect to coming of age in New York City. It is one of the few places in America where a private automobile is not merely superfluous, but a serious handicap. A substantial number of residents, in consequence, do not acquire drivers licenses. In New Jersey, a car is essential. Even public transit users drive to the stations. As Garden State resident, I simply didn’t think to ask if Angela had a license.

On a summer day when the weather was particularly sweltering, Angela and I spent a day swimming in a spring-fed pond in back of my parents’ house in Brookside, NJ. She brought her Yorkshire terrier with her. The dog had never seen water deeper than a bathtub, but it was enthusiastically aquatic. She frequently called the dog, “you little bitch” instead of her name Millie. Irony was not Angela’s strong suit, so I never was 100% sure it was intended as a joke.

As we packed up to return to the city, it occurred to me that Angela might like to drive.

“Want to take the wheel?” I asked.

“I don’t have a license,” she answered. “I’ve never been behind the wheel of a car.”

“Would you like to try? I know a place.”


My father was a real estate developer, and his most recent subdivision was called Saddle Hill. There were no houses on the tract yet, but the newly paved road was in place. Saddle Hill Road was a mile long and ended in a cul-de-sac. It was still a private road at the time – the town didn’t take possession until a year later. There was little traffic. Only two or three curious drivers ventured up Saddle Hill Road on a typical day. It struck me as an ideal place for a lesson.

Saddle Hill Road starts at the bottom of a steep hill, arcs sharply to the right at the top of the hill, levels out, and then descends gently to a cul-de-sac at the end. At the cul-de-sac there is a grassy acclivity on the right, a woodsy declivity on the left, and a line of trees straight ahead.

At the beginning of the road, Angela put Millie in the back seat and got behind the wheel. I explained a few of the basics. My Ford Maverick had an automatic transmission, which, I assumed, made everything simple. She put the car in Drive as I instructed, and then stomped on the accelerator. In seconds we were half-way to the top of the hill nearing 50mph.

“Slow down!” I demanded.

“How do I slow down?” she asked.

Obviously, I had omitted one of the basics.

“Take your foot off the gas!”

I reached over, grabbed her jeans above her knee and pulled her foot off the pedal. The car slowed. I helped to steer around the big curve by reaching over to the wheel.

“Gently on the pedal,” I said. “You don’t have to push it all the way to the floor. If you speed up, just ease up on the pedal.”

We sped up and slowed down, sped up and slowed down.

“Come to a stop,” I said.

Angela understood the concept of the brake, but she stepped on it so hard that we strained against the seat belts. We went forward and stopped a few more times. We then proceeded desultorily to the end of the road. As we entered the cul-de-sac, I realized Angela showed no signs of stopping or turning.

“The brake! The brake!” I shouted.

She fumbled on the floor with her foot as we headed straight toward the tree line. I reached over with my left foot and depressed the brake while turning the car to the left. We stopped before hitting the curb. We faced the drop-off and the woods below.

Despite the alarming moments, Angela was happy and we had survived. I should have taken my victory and traded places with her right there. Instead, I succumbed to hubris.

“Back up a little so we can make the turn properly,” I said. “We’ll go back a little ways and then I’ll take over. Step on the brake, put the lever in R for ‘Reverse’, and back up just a bit.”

She put the lever in Reverse and stomped on the gas. The car lurched backwards.


Panicked, she pressed down on the accelerator even harder. Before I had time to intervene, the car leapt over the curb in reverse and climbed up the grassy slope. I managed to get her foot off the pedal. I reached over, put the car in Drive, and got the front wheels over the curb to the asphalt. The Maverick would go no further. We exited and surveyed the damage. The impact had blown two rear tires, bent two wheels, and ripped off the exhaust system.

This was before cell phones, so there was no quick way to call for assistance. We walked back toward the bottom of Saddle Hill Road in order to flag down a passerby. The Yorkshire happily trotted between us. We were halfway there when a Mendham Township police car came around the bend. It stopped alongside us.

“What’s up?” the officer asked.

“I was giving driving lessons. The curb got in the way.”

“Did it?”

“The road is still private,” I added, though I wasn’t sure how much this counted.

“Do you have a permit or license?” he asked Angela.


“Well, that makes it a little difficult to fill out the report,” he said. “I’ll put it down as a disabled vehicle.”

“Thank you officer,” I answered. 

The local police in the 1970s were much less by-the-book than they are today. Still, I attribute his kindness in large part to Angela’s good looks enhanced by the swimming suit bra she was wearing for a top.

“I always wondered if I’d end up in the back seat of a police car with you,” I said as we climbed in the cruiser. She elbowed me in the side.

The officer dropped us off at my home where my truck was parked. Before heading back to New York, I stopped at the local garage where I asked for a tow truck to pick up my car.

“My driving student failed to distinguish between the brake and the accelerator,” I explained to Dennis, the mechanic. He laughed.

Thus ended my first and last driving lesson.

To this day, at the end of Saddle Hill Road, there are two just barely visible indentations a car-width apart stretching up the grassy slope at the cul-de-sac. They escape the notice of anyone who doesn’t know where to look. Bushes grow up between the tracks.

Angela broke up with me in 1979 for reasons unrelated to this event. I owe her many things, among them a tolerance for neophyte drivers and their teachers.

No comments:

Post a Comment