March 28, 2012

When I was 16 I learned to drive. I took the Driver's Ed course at my high school (which taught me the basics and bookwork) but my dad taught me how to drive. When I took my driver's test I passed everything and then was told by my dad that I never again drive the family car if he ever found out that I drove recklessly. Before he said that I had plans of being the neighborhood speedster. I knew better than to attempt to negotiate some things and this was one of them. I was really disappointed.

Before long I was the designated "go for" driver. Joe, will you go for this. Joe, will you go for that. Joe, will you go for ... Well, you get the idea. One day I went for milk at Wolfey's - a small drive-in store that only sold milk.

As I was leaving the parking lot I gunned dad's car in reverse and ran into the cement base of a light pole. I got out and surveyed the damage. The passenger side rear quarter panel had shifted into the back door which had shifted into the front door which had shifted into the front quarter panel. There was no way I could avoid telling dad what had happened. I went home with the milk determined not to look like a man on death row.

Now, you need to understand my dad. He is not like other dads and after I got past my first two decades I finally realized just how great a guy he really was. When my wife and I moved out of state I spoke with him by phone at least once a month and made certain he knew I loved him. He died several years ago and I know he loved me.

At age 16 I was still convinced that my father could love me dearly and kill me at the same time. He had spanked me often in my short lifetime but he had never hit me. Not disappointing him was not necessarily my strong suit, but I had this nagging feeling that I should not return home. With the change from buying the milk, I could buy some chicken and onion rings on my way out of town.

After dinner that night I approached my dad. He was sitting outside smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer. I sat next to him in one of those folding chairs and bared my soul. When I was 16 I measured 5 feet 9 inches tall in my bare feet. I was no fighter but I was no slouch either. I was close enough to dad to be knocked across the yard and he was strong enough that I would be unconscious before I hit the ground. I am certain I would have easily cleared the fence and landed next door.

I have never been able to confirm it, but I think dad always suspected that I was hiding a lot of my faults from him. He was right. One thing high school teaches young men is how to be very deceptive. When I got into trouble I think a part of dad felt a little pride that I wasn't always that kid who received perfect scores in conduct.

After hearing my tale of woe he asked me if I was hurt. I replied, "No. The only damage is to the car, but the passenger side car doors could not be opened any longer." He smiled. I assumed he was so shocked at my story that he had gone insane with rage. The repair would easily cost $800. No small sum to my dad.

This is what he said to me. "Joe, when I was 12 I stole my dad's Model A. I took it out into a field and ripped the transmission out of the car. When your grandfather came out to rescue me he only asked how I was, assessed the damage to the car and helped me tow it back to the barn. He taught me that any 'thing' can be fixed, but humans sometimes couldn't be."

I had driven a standard transmission vehicle, and I understood that ripping a transmission could mean that you shifted gears wrong and ground the transmission gears. I understood what he was saying, but I had to dig my hole just a little deeper. I replied, "Dad, I see what you are saying but you were 12 and grinding the gears is not the same as what I did to your car."

Then he said between chuckles, "No, son, you don't understand. I ran the Model A into a field and ran over a stump. When I stopped, the car and the transmission were no longer attached to each other."

I could almost see a younger version of my grandfather shaking his head, wondering how my dad pulled that one off.

So, what did my 16 year old mind conclude from this story? What moral did I take from this? Of course, today I realize how many accidents I avoided by listening to what he taught me about driving. But back then I mostly remember that dad could drive at 12-years-old and I had to wait until I was 16!

It wasn't until I was in my mid thirties that I realized what he had really said. He treasured his children more than he treasured his car.