The process of getting a driver's license is generally no great trauma for the typical person. All one has to do is spend a few leisurely hours in practice, then take a straightforward test. For me, it was the closest thing to Hell on Earth. It was also one of the few times I ever fully committed myself to anything.
Until late in High School, I never really needed to drive. The bus would take me to most of my destinations, and my parents or friends would give me rides to any of the places at which the bus did not stop. I had not yet begun to date, and therefore, had no pressing desire for more private transportation. With no such incentive, I put off driving until the end of my Junior year. At that time, I thought that I had might as well learn to drive, even if there wasn't an immediate need.
So, that summer, I got a permit and began to take lessons from my parents, and cavalierly continued these lessons on into my Senior year. Being the uncoordinated oaf that I was, I certainly wasn't ready for the road test when the Thanksgiving holiday arrived. Even so, I wanted to try the test, if only to see what it was like. I went down to the police station on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and was assigned number 51. After waiting for over four hours, I finally heard the dispatcher call, "Number 54. Is number 54 here?"
"I'm 51," I replied.
"You should stay awake," he said sternly, "I passed 51 already. Come back on Monday."
I tried to discuss the matter rationally, but it was to no avail. Realizing that I was definitely getting nowhere, I thanked him, and left. Bastard.
And so, I failed -- the first time.
the test on Thanksgiving was more significant than it might appear at first
In actuality, I did wait until Christmas. Even then, I still didn't exactly feel ready for the test. I had been quite busy since Thanksgiving, and had no real drive to practice. In any case, I did attempt the test, and flunked, as expected. At that point, I lost heart in pursuing my license, and didn't practice very frequently at all until Spring arrived.
Ah, Spring! Spring brings life, and a fresh new perspective to the world. And with the freshness of Spring came a fresh (and terribly urgent) new reason to get a license. Her name was Julie.
Having a girlfriend and not driving are not absolutely incompatible. After all, assuming she's nice -- which she was -- you can both hop on the bus together to get where you're going. Yes, it needn't be a problem -- unless, of course, she's happens to be a Junior, and the Junior Prom is coming up, soon. In my superficial 18-year-old world, the alternatives were horrible: take a taxi, ride the bus, or miss the Prom, completely. Intellectually, I knew that Julie would never complain if any of these happened, but that realization put all the more pressure on me.
Spring vacation arrived, and I was ready to take another stab at the road test. I had been practicing, and my technical skill was good. I went down to the station, early this time, and waited once more. While I was waiting, a professional driving instructor gave me a bit of wisdom.
"This test is pretty easy," he began, "As long as you don't get that guy with the dark sunglasses, you're OK. I tell you, impossible, that guy!"
Just then, the guy with the dark sunglasses walked up to me and said, "You're next."
heart sank. I knew that with this man, it would be virtually impossible for me
to get my license. The dire consequences of that outcome flooded my mind. To
me, the logic of the situation was simple and binary:
either I would get the license, or we would not go to the Prom. I knew that I
should have cleared my mind, stopped thinking about Julie for just a moment,
but simply couldn't. They say that certain death instills overwhelming peace
and clarity in a person, but until that moment, I had never faced my own death
-- I was inexperienced at coping. Why was it so cold that afternoon in
On the road, my composure cracked. I ran a stop sign, and flunked that test, also.
I went home sick and disgusted with myself. I flopped down on my bed, exhausted, yet unable to rest. It took a lot of energy just to breathe. Everything seemed pointless, even pulling air into my lungs.
The most awful task was still ahead: I had to tell Julie that I had failed.
She had given me her phone number, but I had lost it somewhere. Through that long week of Spring recess, I tried to track down her number, but kept running into dead ends, each of which drove me deeper into depression. All the while, increasingly terrible scenarios burgeoned in my vivid imagination. What was she thinking because I wasn't calling? What if we had a fight? What if she dumped me for some guy who could drive? Finally, five days into the vacation, when my heart was crying for absolutely any kind of communication with her, one source came through with the magic number.
I stood there staring at the phone for a good half hour, trying to muster the sheer courage to dial. Finally, I just did it. My heart pounded uncontrollably as the phone rang. It took every ounce of discipline I had to control my panic; I fought wildly against the powerful impulse to hang up before it was too late. Someone picked up on the other end. And then, I heard that sound, that sound I desperately needed to hear, the sweet, gentle, understanding tone of Julie's voice. All it took was one word: "Hello?" Right then and there, I knew, that everything was going to be all right.
I explained that I had failed the road test, and that since there was a mandatory two-week wait before retesting, there was no chance of me driving to the Prom. As she wasn't licensed, either, it meant that we wouldn't be driving. Angelic as usual, Julie did not raise even a shadow of complaint about it, and if she was the even least bit disappointed, it surely didn't show. However, she did suggest that I see if a friend could give us a ride. Fortunately, we had a mutual friend, Richard, a Junior, who was more than happy to oblige. In short, I had received a temporary stay of execution.
I say "temporary," for only half the problem had been solved. Several weeks beyond the Junior Prom, the Senior Prom still lay waiting. Determined to get that license by then, I began to practice more regularly. I made a declaration, "My strength less a fraction!" which probably sounds pretty corny, but nevertheless had great significance for me. It meant that I would put everything within reason into getting that license. TV, hobbies, and even most of my homework were sacrificed for daily practice sessions. Once again, I was ready to visit the police station.
By then it was early May, approximately three weeks before the Prom. I had planned my test date that way, so that in the unlikely event that I failed, I would be able to wait the required two weeks and still have one more chance. I walked into the station one hundred percent confident and composed. On account of all the practice, driving was now second nature to me. Only one thing stood between me and that license, and that was the tester. The man I got was named Ho, rumored all over town to be the toughest guy of the whole lot. I had even heard that he had not passed a single person that whole day.
But the rumors didn't bother me. I was ready. Even if he was tough, I could not imagine any possible way that he could flunk me. Amazingly, he did find a way. He put all sorts of ridiculous comments on the evaluation form, such as "too slow around turns," and "made one blinker signal at 50 feet instead of 100 feet." I just wanted to slap his head. (Even my parents were shocked that I didn't get the license that time.) Once again, I returned home, the burden of failure on my shoulders.
However, the world had not ended yet. I still had one more chance before the Prom. While taking a shower that night, I made a declaration that I had never made in my entire life, simply, "All my strength!" This unqualified statement carried a tremendous amount of responsibility. Although I would not kill or even steal, I would forsake all else; all my efforts would be channeled into one single objective: obtaining that license. I had the perfect clarity of purpose that a suicide bomber might have, a clarity that has rarely touched me in this life. I think my parents recognized this; they gave me much more leeway and support than usual.
The whole quest was definitely getting to be an obsession. This time, there was to be no margin for error. Every day, I would go out and drive around town for hours (sometimes as many as eight), in and out of the streets in the vicinity of the police station, over and over, until I knew every turn, every sign, every arrow on the road by heart. I carried a map in the car, and marked off every street, and every possible turn onto every street, making sure I did everything at least twice. My parents took me out in shifts, and I sought out others to drive with, also. Naturally, hobbies, television, or any other form of entertainment no longer existed. Nor was there any time for homework or studying, even though finals were coming up. I didn't even study for the Advanced Placement exam. The only reason I even ate and slept regularly was that I thought they would help me toward my goal.
Finally, it was again time for the road test. Everything had been planned to the tick of a clock. I did attend school that day, but only to take a calculus final. I walked into the class, scribbled a few hasty answers down, and ran out, without even checking my work. My teacher, whom I had had for the last 3 years, understood my quest.
Outside, I met my friend, Jonathan, who had also skipped out of class, and together, we drove downtown. Once inside the car, I turned on the air conditioner so that the car would be nice and cool for the examiner.
I had a brief conversation with my friend on the way over.
"You know, the Prom is in two days," I sighed. "I've already bought the bid, rented a tux, and made dinner reservations. And I know that Julie already spent a lot of time and money making her outfit. I've tried to find an alternate ride, but nobody will give me one. Well, this will be the fifth time I'll be trying the test, and if I don't make it, I might as well just seppuku (suicide, look it up: Japanese) right on the spot, for what honor will I have left?"
Jonathan shook his head, then remained silent all the way down to the police station. When we arrived, we filled out a few forms, and I got in the car with an examiner almost immediately.
I said to the examiner, "Oh boy, if I don't get my license this time, I'm not going to the Senior Prom," looking very pathetic as I said it.
Ordinarily, even hearing this type of manipulation used by someone else would have sickened me, to say nothing of hearing it from my own lips. But honor was suspended; I was a desperate man; I would have drank from a sewer if it improved my chances.
The examiner replied casually, "In that case, just keep thinking of your girlfriend while you're taking the test."
I knew that that was exactly what I should not do. I kept my cool as I pulled away from the curb.
After driving around for about twenty minutes, we returned to the station, where he made me park the car. Then, I waited for what seemed to be an eternity while he scribbled all sorts of things on his clipboard. Scribbling. Scribbling is bad. I was dying to know the results, but was too afraid to ask. Holding my breath, clenching my teeth, my heart racing wildly, I just sat there, rigidly. I was too frightened to even turn my head to see what he was doing.
"OK, you pass," he mumbled emotionlessly.
I was so hysterically overjoyed that I could have kissed him. However, I decided against it, since it might have offended him, and simply gave an enthusiastic "Thank you!" More sincere words had never been spoken.
I opened the car door and shouted to Jonathan, "I got it!" He was as excited about it as I was, and overflowed with congratulations. After I filled out some paperwork and got my picture taken, we went to Jack-in-the-Box to celebrate.
At school the next day, we got the results of the math final. Since the beginning of high school, I had never received a grade so utterly low on a math exam. It didn't disturb me a bit; I had made an equitable trade. No, I had gotten a bargain! All day, I had a silly grin that I couldn't lose. In about a day, I, Roderick, a legally licensed driver, would be headed to the Senior Prom with the most beautiful girl in the world.